How Not to Do a Female-Led Superhero Film

Friday, August 8 by
 

Sony reportedly has a Marvel-based female superhero movie on deck for 2017.

Have reasons to fear.

It’s high time for a movie of its type, especially considering the increased demands for one in the face of the myriad ultra-successful, male-driven comic book films we’ve seen in the past decade or so. While there hasn’t been a female lead in a comic book film since the genre got a massive injection via the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which became the highest-grossing franchise in U.S. history —  there’s absolutely a precedent for female-led superhero films, despite what many headlines would have you believe in order to earn your click. The problem is, none of them have been especially memorable. (Raise your hand if you can describe the plot of 2005′s Elektra without consulting Wikipedia.)

If Sony makes a female-fronted Marvel superhero movie, it would have to be in the Spider-Man universe, which really leaves room for only one of three characters: Spider-Woman, the mercenary Silver Sable, or the shameless Catwoman rip-off Black Cat, who was already introduced in this year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, albeit only as her alter ego Felicia Hardy. Since Sony doesn’t own the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, forget about seeing Scarlett Johansson head up her own Black Widow film anytime soon.

Any ideas about Sony’s plans for the movie are mere speculation at this juncture, so we have to sit on our thumbs for a while. But there are certainly ways that Sony or any other studio, for that matter — could blow a successful female-led superhero film. Here are a few:

 

Overly sexualize the hero: The very second thought I had the first time I saw a picture of Halle Berry’s Catwoman (right after “Hmm, where’d I put the Jergens?”) was, “This movie is gonna be a massive failstick.” Lo and behold, it was totally execrable. Tim Burton got away with camping up Batman and Catwoman in 1992, but in 2004 — during a period when superhero films were moving away from silliness — Halle’s take on the character was the essence of eye-rolling. Any contemporary female superhero in film needs to be sexy by default, but her sexuality needs to be matched by a heaping helping of smarts and savvy for her to be taken seriously.

Crappy casting: I wrote a little about this already, but the importance of good casting to the success of a female-driven superhero movie can’t be understated. It’s arguably even more important than a male character-driven film, because nerdboys have very specific ideas in their minds about the women they see in comic books and the actresses they see playing them – it’s like a spank bank for which Bob Kane is the proprietor. I was surprised Elektra even got made considering the spectacular awfulness of its predecessor, 2003’s Daredevil, but Jennifer Garner never belonged in this role to begin with. Elektra needed to be a played by a kick-ass, dark-haired, olive-skinned Latina or Greek goddess (think Maria Menounos with a dye job and some acting skills), not the chick who relegates herself to bad Matthew McConaughey rom-coms.

Making a movie around a throwaway character(s): Perhaps the most obvious challenge of a female-driven comic superhero flick is the disproportionately small number of lady characters that matter to the public at large. Sure, you have folks coming out in droves to see The Hunger GamesKatniss Everdeen and Divergent’s Beatrice Prior (a.k.a. Family Dollar’s Katniss Everdeen) on the big screen, but the YA set has way more cred among money-dropping moviegoers than buxom comic characters. Even Wonder Woman arguably the most popular female comic book character of all time — has been plagued by failure in attempts to adapt her for the big and small screens. There’s no way any of the female X-Men could carry their own film with their current actresses (except maybe Ellen Page’s Shadowcat), and I’ve seen nothing about a She-Hulk film. Vampirella has been done so poorly in the movies that I can’t see anyone turning around that bus. DC’s Birds of Prey is a cool group, but Christopher Nolan set the bar so high for films in the Batman world that I don’t know if anyone can tackle it again without face-planting…though we’ll find out soon enough.

A new film without introduction from a previous film: Again, Wonder Woman is probably the safest bet for her own movie in 2014, but even she’s getting ushered in via Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Marvel Studios could absolutely make a movie where Johansson carries the mantle as the lead in a Black Widow film, but she’s been in three films already. Sony releasing a Black Cat flick makes the most since the studio is boning up to create a “cinematic universe” around Spider-Man, and she’s already been introduced. But not enough people appreciated ASM2, and if Sony can sh*t out three or four more movies in that universe that moviegoers will care about, I’d be surprised. Under the right author, Jessica Drew’s Spider-Woman is a fantastic, compelling character, so hopefully Sony can incorporate her in future Spider-Man sequels so she can get her own film.

Think inside the box: As an avid comic reader, I realize that the world of comic book adaptations shouldn’t begin and end with Marvel and DC. My favorite female comic book lead in recent years is the titular character in Garth Ennis’ excellent Jennifer Blood. She’s a complicated anti-hero in every way, and a well-done, hard-R-rated movie around her could truly resonate with people. Hack/Slash, an indie title that sends up the slasher film genre – complete with ample blood and boobs – is reportedly being worked into a film. However, the lead character, Cassie Hack, has to be carefully cast: she’s smoking hot and frequently scantily clad, but she’s not a bimbo, and methinks whomever will be at the helm of that film will have difficulty navigating those waters. While not technically a super power, I’d love to see S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill get her own vehicle, as she’s one of the most ass-kicking female characters who also has a personality. Finally, Greg Rucka’s Batwoman, an open lesbian forced out of the military for “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” is ripe for a film that the big studios probably aren’t progressive enough to tackle just yet.

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