Joss Whedon is in the news for stating the very obvious: There are no movies about female superheroes, and he’s mad as hell about it. “Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done,” he said. “It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off.”
He’s not wrong. Marvel claims to be developing movies about Ms. Marvel and Black Widow, two of their female heroes, but a look at their track record shows only dudes up and down since 2005, when Jennifer Garner starred in the terrible Elektra. That was just a year after Halle Berry’s Catwoman, which is somehow even worse—and, if Whedon is right, apparently the reason why no female superhero movies have been released since. Over at DC, we’ve gotten three Batmans and two Supermans with barely a whisper of a Wonder Woman project outside of an aborted TV show. A few days ago, USA Today published an article in which they tried to figure out why. “Not trying to sound like a jerk,” said some random goober they talked to, “but typically women in leading action roles don’t sell the way strong male figures do.”
I disrespectfully disagree with that goober. There’s a rich history of action movies starring women that’ve certainly succeeded, among them: the Alien movies; the first two Terminators; Kill Bill; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; even Resident Evil and Underworld, though they aren’t even that great. As Whedon mentioned, there’s also The Hunger Games. The problem would seem to be bad creative—Elektra and Catwoman were abysmal, but dude-starring superhero movies have been allowed their shittiness without casting a pallor across the genre. A new Daredevil is in development, for example; a second Hulk was made after Ang Lee’s version bombed; they even made a second Punisher that no one saw.
If we’re going to attribute the drought to demographics, let’s break it down. Though USA Today rightfully notes that the vast majority of the comic-buying audience is dudes, the same isn’t true for movies: Women made up 40% of The Avengers‘ opening audience, and 39% of Iron Man 3. Tellingly, both of those movies feature women in roles where they’re given actual agency. (Gwyneth Paltrow spends part of Iron Man 3 as a damsel in distress, but she ends up beating the shit out of the final villain. Whoops, SPOILERS.) Sure, you can’t simply point to those numbers as evidence of audience for a Wonder Woman movie, but it’s enough to negate the cliche that women just aren’t that into superheroes or action movies. In 2013, these big tent blockbusters appeal to everyone.
The more probable reason is that these superhero movies also rely on grass roots buzz from the comics community, and strong female agency hasn’t typically been a great generator of interest with that crowd. (Trust me, I worked in a comic book store.) I can already imagine the message boards churning with sexist froth if and when a Wonder Woman is cast and, God forbid, she isn’t inhumanly busty enough—just look at this bullshit about Mary Jane’s recasting in the new Spider-Man movie.
But these movies make too much money for the retrograde opinions of a vocal minority to get in the way of the next step, where a female superhero is front and center instead of just being part of the ensemble. If we must watch another Wolverine and Thor and Captain America—all of which are coming out this year or next—let’s see a Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel and Black Widow. Not recognizable enough? Neither was Iron Man, but a sterling creative plan later and he’s one of the most marketable heroes there is. There’s just no excuse for the status quo in 2013.