With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron we saw an old argument heat back up: the argument over whether a female lead can successfully carry an action movie. While many might not be aware of the existence of this controversy, it’s far from a new one. Although it’s often a quiet or even silent debate, it’s been around in Hollywood since the start of the superhero movie trend, but I’m not going to try to tackle the entire topic here. Instead, I want to take a look at how it relates to the flood of superhero movies we are currently experiencing, spearheaded by Marvel’s recent spate of mega-successes.
The controversy got a fresh set of legs after remarks wherein Jeremy Renner, the MCU’s Hawkeye, referred to Black Widow as a slut. The lack of Black Widow merchandise in connection with the new Avengers movie and speculations over Joss Whedon’s reasons for leaving Twitter only added fuel to the fire. But, at least to the clear-headed, the central question is easy to isolate from the mire of drama and controversy that has come to surround it: Can a female lead carry a superhero movie?
Between the time I’m writing this article, and the summer of 2020 (just five years away, remember), major studios have a total of twenty-nine superhero movies slated to be released. While many have female co-leads, of these movies, only two, Wonder Woman, in 2017 and Captain Marvel in 2018 will have solo female leads. Now, this might seem like a disproportionately low number of films representing the female demographic, but there is a reason for this, and it’s a simple, not quite sinister reason. Unfortunately, simple reasons do not sell advertising–juicy, gossip-driven stories do that. The real reason there is such a small number of superhero movies with female leads is simply because there are a lot more male superheroes. Let’s take a look at Marvel: of their seventy-three books to hit shelves in April 2015, only ten had solo female leads. Of course, in that mix are twenty-six team books, most of which have strong female representation (worthy of special notice is the all-female A-Force), but that still means that of the forty-seven non-team titles released by Marvel, well over three-quarters had male leads. That math leads to a very simple explanation for such cinematic inequality: there are just more male superheroes available for big-screen adaptations. I took a closer look at this topic in my article on diversity in comics, but for the moment we’re talking about movies. Before you bring up the fact that there is more to the story than that, please keep reading, because I won’t disappoint those who like a little controversy with their straightforward answers.
I would be a special kind of idiot, if I was to think that this was the only answer, because it’s not. Wonder Woman has a huge fan base, and not just in comics. Go ahead, ask around, stop random strangers of any demographic, and ask them if they know who Wonder Woman is. I would feel safe in guessing that 99 out of 100 will say they do. So why did it take so long to get the dang thing onto Warner’s official slate? Well, out of the mountain of hacked Sony Pictures emails released on the web, we have this gem.
To: “Lynton, Michael”
Subject: Female Movies
Date: Thu, 7 Aug 2014 05:32:50 -0400
As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.
1. Electra [sic] (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm
2. Catwoman (WB/DC) – Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise [sic]. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm
3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.
So, what can we learn from this email exchange? Well, for one, it clearly shows that they can point out the fact that each of these movies had crap creators behind lame stories, which in turn gave us a lame movie. In their defense, this is not in full context, and can be read in any number of different ways, but the simple fact that they say Elektra is a bad idea shows they have the narrow sight that most people at the top have when it comes to putting together a good movie. Sure, some of the formulas in movies work sometimes, at least to make money, and you will generate a movie that is in the same mold of so many before them, but with the superhero genre this is a relatively new phenomena. Prior to the year 2000, there are barely any worth mentioning besides the first two Superman movies, and arguably the Burton Batman films. So what’s the problem here? Well, simply put, It’s Hollywood.
There is a reason that you get more cutting edge, thought-provoking, innovative films outside the traditional studio structure than inside it. The major studios are big business, and when it comes to big business, the popular stereotype of a bunch of rich dudes who think they know it all when it comes to what works and what doesn’t is popular for a very simple reason: it’s accurate. It has been a long-standing belief in Hollywood that female-driven movies don’t perform as well as male driven ones. If you don’t believe me, Google it, and read any of the thousands of articles on the topic. So why is this such a deeply ingrained belief?
The answer, once again, is simple. Just take a look at who runs the studios that give us our movies. You will find an alarming similarity there: they are all older, rich white males; they think they know what America wants to see, and why is that? Because it’s human nature to be drawn towards subjects that you feel comfortable with, and have some way of relating to. It’s a proven fact that many men have a hard time relating to the opposite sex (the same is true of females as well), so they subconsciously are already primed to think this way. This is not an occurrence that is isolated to just superhero movies. It’s the same all over the place. It’s the reason the phrase “glass ceiling” is still around.
The good news is this: nothing changes the minds of those in charge quicker than profits. If Wonder Woman kicks Amazon-caliber butt at the box office, then it will show that, yes, a female-lead superhero movie can be profitable.