Superman. Spider-Man. Batman. Iron Man. You can understand why the superhero genre is often mistaken as a “boys' club,” with the comic-book features skewing toward a traditionally male demographic as they make their way to multiplexes.
That was certainly the case early on, as Hollywood studios figured out how to make and market these films to mainstream audiences. But the tide began to turn in recent years, with studios wisely banking on female characters — and seeing great returns for the investments.
What is the history of female superhero movies? Which movies helped to shift the attention to female-led superheroes? And what does the future look like? Let’s discuss.
Female Heroes on Screen
There have been a plethora of male-driven superhero films. The biggest superhero movies at the box office prior to the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were Sony’s SPIDER-MAN franchise (with Tobey Maguire) and Tim Burton’s take on BATMAN.
But that doesn’t mean that Hollywood completely ignored female superheroes. For the most part, famous female superhero characters were introduced on the big screen as part of a team. Halle Berry, Famke Janssen and Anna Paquin were founding members of the X-MEN franchise, while Fantastic Four member Sue Storm was portrayed over the years by both Jessica Alba and Kate Mara for superhero adventures from 20th Century Fox.
Halle Berry also tried her hand at bringing Catwoman to life in a standalone DC villain movie. And Helen Slater broke serious ground when she played Supergirl in 1984, capitalizing on the success of the SUPERMAN franchise from Christopher Reeve.
Additionally, Fox also spun off a popular Marvel Comics character from its Daredevil origin story, the one that cast Ben Affleck in the title role. Audiences responded so strongly to Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, the trained assassin, that she was given her own movie in 2005.
There are two major motion pictures that shifted the focus squarely onto female-driven superhero movies, and there’s real symmetry that one came from DC and the other came from Marvel. Credit goes to Warner Bros. for being the first to bet big on a female hero when they spun Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman off of the BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE film and gave her a solo adventure in 2017.
Exploring the home world of Diana Prince (Gadot) while also unleashing her onto the battlefields of World War I, WONDER WOMAN told a prequel story that illustrated Wonder Woman’s immense powers, pitting her against two classic DC foes.
Yes, Diana had a love interest in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). But the movie is remembered for the iconic No Man’s Land sequence, where Wonder Woman bravely marched against impossible odds to conquer enemy forces and score a major win for her allies. At a time when DC’s on-screen Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) are likely retired, Wonder Woman is gearing up for her anticipated sequel, WONDER WOMAN 1984.
Not one to be outdone by their rivals at DC, Marvel Studios also introduced a major female superhero this year, opening up the MCU to a massive cosmic corner that will be explored for years to come.
Brie Larson played Carol Danvers in CAPTAIN MARVEL, the first MCU movie to be led by a female superhero. Captain Marvel wasn’t the first female superhero in the MCU. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and more helped to blaze a trail for Carol Danvers to finally shine in her own film.
But audiences also responded in kind to CAPTAIN MARVEL, in part because people were curious about how she would factor into AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Released in March 2019, CAPTAIN MARVEL went on to cross the $1.1 billion mark at the box office, a staggering number for a character not considered a household name. And it opened up the MCU to stories that can be told off our planet, which seems to be where the studio is taking things. Future movies include ETERNALS and a third GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY film, as well as an inevitable CAPTAIN MARVEL 2.
Upcoming Female Superhero Movies
The success of WONDER WOMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL at the box office seems to have empowered studios to roll the dice on even more female-driven superhero and comic book features.
On the Marvel side, Scarlett Johansson is getting the opportunity to carry a BLACK WIDOW movie after years of being part of the Avengers ensemble. BLACK WIDOW will be a prequel story that follows Natasha’s actions following CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, where she risked everything to help Steve Rogers escape Tony Stark's grip. Where does she go, and what happens to her? We will find out on May 1, 2020.
DC, meanwhile, will catch up with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman character in a totally different era as Patty Jenkins directs WONDER WOMAN 1984. After tackling Ares the God of War in her debut film, Diana will face off with Cheetah, who will be played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Kristen Wiig. Chris Pine will be back, but the focus will fall squarely on Wonder Woman’s battle against Cheetah, and we can’t wait to see those fireworks.
But DC also realized that they had a powerful and popular character in their SUICIDE SQUAD movie from 2016. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was a crowd-pleasing lunatic who stole practically every scene from David Ayer’s movie. So, Warner Bros. and DC wisely built a new movie around her.
Harley (Robbie) will be used to introduce mainstream audiences to a crime-fighting team known as the Birds of Prey. Consisting of Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the Birds frequent Batman’s comics and will work together in this upcoming film to take down the crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor.
The evolution of the superhero genre was long overdue, with Hollywood studios now realizing that there are numerous female characters in the comic book world that deserve their own features.
It’s possible that the industry would not have learned how to bet on these productions if not for the success of WONDER WOMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL. But with the pending release of anticipated movies like BIRDS OF PREY, BLACK WIDOW and WONDER WOMAN 1984, we can only see this trend continuing for years to come.