It’s absurd that this should be a startling turn of events in 2017, when superhero tentpoles and their multiple offshoots have a corporate stranglehold on mainstream film culture. Among this year’s premier multiplex attractions are the second complete reboot of the Spider-Man franchise in five years, a third solo outing for Thor, and the DC Comics convention that is Justice League; we’ve already had the third Wolverine film, itself the 10th title in the X-Men cinematic universe, another Guardians of the Galaxy romp, and even the playful brand-name merger of Batman and Lego. Superheroes, extraordinary beings in their respective narrative worlds, are in disenchantingly excessive supply in ours; another man in a cape is no cause for head-turning. But a woman? In the foreground of the picture? Named in the very title of the movie? What is this brave new world?
Look around the cinema at any average screening of a Batman or an X-Men film, and you’re sure to notice that the audience isn’t entirely, gruntingly male. Do the same at any blockbuster with a female hero – The Hunger Games, for one – and you’ll notice more than a few men in the mix. Certainly, enough red-blooded misogynists profess to care sufficiently about Wonder Woman to stamp their hairy feet over a proposed female-only screening. “Superheroes for all!” these men cry – and in that respect, if no other, we can agree. Superhero movies aren’t gender-exclusive in reach or appeal, so why the overwhelming representational bias on screen?
Because, by the same logic that greenlights any number of sequels, remakes and franchise extensions, Hollywood is an industry built on precedent, and over 30 years of sporadic attempts have, until now, failed to provide a working model of success for the female-fronted superhero film. We’re not talking about audiences staying away due to misunderstanding or mismarketing: in a genre of wildly yo-yoing quality, female superhero films have somehow been botched most consistently, scuppered by a collision of the wrong conception and the wrong talent.
Let’s rewind to 1983, when Superman III had been one the summer’s worst commercial under-performers, grossing a little over half its predecessor’s total in the US. The executive producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided the way to reanimate the franchise was to set the Man of Steel aside and focus on his young cousin Kara Zor-El – first introduced by DC Comics in 1959. Supergirl was never the most liberally conceived of characters: her very outfit cemented the idea that she was “Superman in a skirt”, and her powers and responsibilities scarcely distinguished her from her brawnier relative.
And the calamitous 1984 film that followed barely gave her a chance. The Superman III director, Richard Lester, had been sought, but refused; Jeannot Szwarc of France, then best known for the dubious Jaws 2, was secured. The producers wanted red-hot Brooke Shields for the lead; Szwarc preferred the blank-slate newcomer Helen Slater. Christopher Reeve opted out of an initially mooted cameo; Superman’s absence was hastily explained in a narrative heavy on sketchy shortcuts and logical leaps. Connoisseurs of camp relished the hamming of Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway in the roles of grizzled mentor and villain, respectively – though not, perhaps, half as much as they would have done had Dolly Parton taken Dunaway’s role as initially proposed. Either way, the camp crowd cannot mint a blockbuster. Baffled by the ropey script and chintzy production, audiences stayed away to the tune of $14m – less than a quarter of Superman III’s gross.
That was enough to put the female hero experiment on ice: in the wake of the film’s failure, the Salkinds sold on the franchise, and Christopher Reeve stepped back into the blue Spandex for 1987’s dismal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Despite the success of Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky, modernised take on Catwoman as a supporting figure in Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns, studios weren’t tempted to try out another female superhero vehicle until the mid-1990s – by which time the growing cult following for Supergirl had perhaps convinced producers that the best way to sell audiences on a female hero was with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. Released in 1995 and 1996 respectively, Tank Girl and Barb Wire had very different ideas of camp. The former, based on a punk-inspired British cult comic from the late 1980s, was deliberately fashioned as anarchic, independent-spirited pop-trash; the latter, taken from a then new Dark Horse Comics series, was outright leatherette junk, lacking enough irony to pull off the barely masked Casablanca rip-off of its plot.
Directed by a woman, the promising horror upstart Rachel Talalay, with Lori Petty bringing spiky riot-grrrl energy to the title role – a rebellious antihero fighting corporations in drought-ravaged, dystopian Australia – Tank Girl had a quasi-feminist spirit designed to bring young women to the cinema. If the anonymously male-directed Barb Wire appealed to anyone, meanwhile, it was the teenage boys with posters of Pamela Anderson on their walls. A buxom bounty hunter also managing a nightclub in the midst of the “second American civil war” of 2017 – so there’s still time for Donald Trump to prove it an improbably prescient film – the eponymous Barb punishes men for sexualising her, though the film-makers and Anderson’s blank, breathy performance did little but. Whatever the integrity of each film’s girl power, neither connected with audiences, grossing less than $10m between them.
And there largely ended the idea of the offbeat, independently originated female superhero on screen. A decade later, big studios went back to the idea of spinoffs from male-led franchises. By 2004 – a year before Christopher Nolan sternly reinvigorated the Dark Knight – the Batman well had run sufficiently dry that Warner Bros took a punt on a solo Catwoman feature. Sadly, Halle Berry was fashioned into a declawed version of the character, a far cry from Pfeiffer’s complex femme fatale. Directed by the mononymous French effects whiz Pitof and almost entirely divorced from the Batman universe, it was a turgid, half-heartedly jape-y affair, torn between Catwoman’s feline kink and newly earnest solo crime-fighting agenda. No one bought it, and the film failed to recoup its $100m budget.
Six months later, Fox tried its luck with Elektra, having already test-run Jennifer Garner as the martial arts-trained assassin in 2003’s profitable Daredevil adaptation. (She had died at the end of it, but you can’t keep a good – or even a strictly average – superheroine down.) Without the anchoring attraction of Ben Affleck shrink-wrapped in red leather, however, audiences just weren’t interested: released in the infamous commercial dead zone of January, Elektra suffered a swift power cut.
By then, the present age of comic-book movie monoliths was well under way: Spider-Man had become a pop culture colossus again, with Batman (and, with slightly less golden results, Superman) shortly to follow. Studios were pouring millions into glossily redesigning well-known quantities, and getting mega-millions back in return. Their motivation to experiment with new or unproven superhero franchises – like, say, anything starring a woman – couldn’t have been lower.
And so, superheroines were instead successfully slotted into ensembles. Jessica Alba played Invisible Woman (the irony!) in The Fantastic Four. Anne Hathaway clawed back some of Catwoman’s cred in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. The Avengers and its Marvel Cinematic Universe associates have provided auspicious showcases for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), while the X-Men series keeps throwing bones to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Halle Berry (Storm) and Anna Paquin (Rogue).
Yet as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to mushroom across solo vehicles for superheroes such as Thor and Captain America, Black Widow is kept waiting – with Johansson turning instead to the manga of Ghost in the Shell for a comic-book lead. Lawrence has grown into one of Hollywood’s most bankable names, yet a Mystique movie hasn’t materialised while Fox makes a solo cash cow out of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.
Now Wonder Woman – directed by the long-languishing Patty Jenkins, once booted from Thor: The Dark World and now only the second female film-maker to be given a $100m-plus budget — arrives with a lot riding on her strong, bronzed shoulders. If it lands, could studios be inspired to give the spotlight to a few more ladies in the comic-book canon? Two are already taking a punt, with the Avengers architect Joss Whedon recruited by Warner Bros to give Batgirl (last spotted in the chaotic mix of 1997’s Batman & Robin) an ass-kicking vehicle of her own and Brie Larson joining the MCU to play Captain Marvel. Could Supergirl be far behind, to get her own shot at big-screen redemption? It’s certainly time. For as much as Hollywood would have us believe otherwise, saving the world – and wearing lycra while doing so – is an equal-opportunity skill.