Although Women’s History Month has just ended, the rest of 2020 still holds much in the way of female-led superhero movies. In February, Birds of Prey featured an entire team of female characters, led by popular antihero Harley Quinn. Later this year, Black Widow will finally tell the titular Avenger’s own story, while Wonder Woman 1984 will continue the journey of DC Comics’ Amazon princess. Certainly, three comic-book-based movies headlined by female characters in a single year signals a positive change in the industry, which as recently as five years ago would’ve deemed such movies unprofitable. But is this progress enough?
Before the recent successes of Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019), the notion of superhero movies headlined by female leads seemed like a long shot. This is because the few such movies that existed at the time were critical and commercial flops, such as Supergirl (1984), Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005). These movies’ main selling point seemed to be their connection to pre-existing male superheroes: Supergirl was a spin-off of the original Christopher Reeve Superman movies; Catwoman is a character commonly associated with Batman; and Elektra’s lead previously appeared as the love interest in Daredevil (2003). Such movies seemed to promise to deliver the same kind of movies as their male counterparts, except with a female flavor. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to attract the attention of audiences and the respect of critics.
How, then, did the industry go from the likes of Catwoman to big hits such as Wonder Woman? Certainly, a change in society as a whole must have helped. The recent push for more diverse representation in Hollywood has caused an increase in the demand for such movies, making their profitability in the eyes of studios more palatable, too. But higher demand does not necessarily equate to higher quality. So, aside from the external factor of audience demand, there must be another key factor that separates the new hits from the old flops — and that difference lies behind the scenes.
Something that Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra all have in common are male directors and male writers. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was directed by Patty Jenkins, a woman. Captain Marvel was co-directed by a woman, Anna Boden, and also had a number of female writers. The end results showed stark improvements over their predecessors.
Aside from skimpy impractical costumes obviously catered toward the male gaze, Supergirl and Elektra both feature the protagonists fighting the villains after falling in love with certain men, and Catwoman had antagonists that weaponized cosmetics and skincare products. There seemed to be a misguided understanding of what kind of stories would be interesting, as well as respectable, to women. On the other hand, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel featured much more rounded main characters, more nuanced plotlines (both, incidentally, emphasize the horrors of war), more respect for the source material, and overall a higher standard of filmmaking. While the former three seemed like low-budget made-for-TV movies, the latter two offered more cinematic experiences on par with, or better than, other superhero blockbusters. In addition, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel still showcased the characters’ struggles as women, whether as a woman warrior in male-dominated World War I, or a female air force pilot training among mostly male counterparts.
Clearly, the more recent examples show a better understanding of the kind of movies women want to be represented in. Female-led superhero movies need not have hyper-feminine affinities or faux feministic themes; they simply needed female voices. As a sign that the industry acknowledges this, all three female-led superhero movies this year have female directors and writers.
Does this mean that male filmmakers should never make movies with female leads? Not exactly. After all, female filmmakers shouldn’t be deprived of making movies with male stars either. But the much-needed shift towards fair representation entails a willingness to listen to what women want to see in their movies and in their characters. Right now, hiring female filmmakers, and more diversity behind the scenes in general, would encourage all filmmakers to gain a deeper understanding of what fair representation is for everyone.
As Director Lulu Wang once said, “We don’t have to encourage women [to make films]. Really what women need is the job.” More than female superhero movies, Hollywood needs female filmmakers, too — and the proof is in the puddin’.