Big Damn Heroines

Big Damn Heroines

Mar 12


When Iron Man came out last year, I overheard this exchange between two women:

“The Gwyneth Paltrow part was particularly…blah.”
“Yeah, but that part always is. In those movies.”

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be. There’s a reason why so many people were thrilled about Karen Allen returning to the Indiana Jones franchise: she’s the only co-star who presented Indy with an equal, a fully fleshed-out partner in crime. There’s something to be said for taking “that part” — and let’s be real, we mean “the girl part” — and making it whole and interesting and something more than a collection of sighs and looks and pretty hair. There’s something to be said for making it matter.

But really, this is but a small piece of a more hulking issue in geek moviedom that’s been frustrating the hell out of me for a while now. Simply put, I thought we’d be beyond “the girl part” at this point. I thought that, you know, by the year 2009 we’d be seeing some legit superhero/big-time genre movies with female headliners.

Or, hey…scratch “some.” How about one.

There was a lot of geekgasming earlier today when Marvel announced their upcoming movie roll-out. Iron Man 2 in 2010. Thor, Spider-Man 4 and Captain America in 2011. And then, holy balls, The Avengers in 2012!

Yes, I think it’s cool that there’s a strategic build-up to The Avengers. Yes, I think it’s cool that they’re attempting something as ambitious as The Avengers at all. But couldn’t we attempt to build one of those movies around a superheroine?

Here’s where the standard arguments come in. “There are no recognizable/bankable superheroines.” I suppose you could say the mainstream public only knows, like, Wonder Woman, but did that same mainstream public have a clue about who Iron Man was before last year? It’s up to the filmmakers/studios/powers-that-be to make that superhero recognizable. Maybe start with, you know, making a good movie. Cause here’s where standard argument #2 comes in: “People don’t want to see superhero movies with women in the lead. Just look at how those flicks have tanked in the past!” Right, because the examples we have to point to are Catwoman and Elektra. You know what people really don’t want to see? Bad movies. What about the mighty blast of lady cooties pulsating through the X-Men films? Those did more than okay and I think girls might have even gone to see them! What about something like Underworld, which didn’t have recognizable characters or well-known stars (Kate Beckinsale was mostly known as a delicate British indie chick at the time) and still managed to spawn two sequels?

It’s not even just superhero movies — it’s big-ass geek event movies in general. Look: I’m as excited as anyone for the new Star Trek. I was raised on TOS and I adore the classic characters, but I have to admit: part of me is weirded out that J.J. Abrams chose to reimagine that particular cast, because right now, in the future that is 2009, it looks dated. There is one woman. One of the exciting things about watching the evolution of Trek — for me, anyway — is that every cast breakdown (well, at least through Voyager) inched a little closer to something truly diverse, to an actual representation of IDIC. I realize Abrams and Co. are probably sort of stuck here — you can’t exactly add in a Poochie character just for the sake of amping up the lady count because that would look even worse — but it’s still frustrating.

And here’s what makes it even more frustrating: there’s been actual progress in other genre mediums and in movies past. Ass-kicking leading ladies have abounded on geek television for the past decade or so — Buffy, Sydney Bristow, Starbuck and Athena and Co. And they were in vogue on the big screen at some point in time, back when Ellen Ripley played extremo-basketball and Sarah Connor made goggle-shades instantly cool. In terms of moviedom, we’ve actually regressed.

This is depressing, people. Much as the fanboy stereotype persists, I don’t think it’s even possible to deny that fangirls are a huge part of geekdom at this point. Look at the internet, look at the convention crowds…hell, my audience at Watchmen was probably 50-50. Am I insane to think that those fangirls — and oh, hey, maybe even the guys — would flock to well-made, female-fronted geek event movies if only there were more of them?

Because I’m tired of sidekicks and love interests. I’m tired of tokens. I’m tired of “that part.”

Give us a movie with a big damn heroine — a woman who gets to play the part.


  1. There’s not much hope for a female lead worth going to see when Joss Whedon jumps ship from Wonder Woman because of the direction the studio wants to go in (though Dollhouse is making this look like less of a tragedy). You can only imagine what that direction was- make her sexier for the lads? Make it a romance cause that’s all women are interested in?
    While Marion Ravenwood was made to look inferior to him, she was the closest thing to a female equivalent of Indy- these days all we get is a Tomb Raider with unnaturally large tits and short shorts! A credible female lead is long overdue…

  2. Well put! And you’re right–it shouldn’t be this way. Marvel could’ve gone awesome and beaten DC to the Chick Superhero Movie by doing Ms. Marvel and the fact that they didn’t feels almost deliberate. Not implying it was, but they really looked over an awesome opportunity. How is THOR more awesome? Cripes.

    Who gives a crap if people don’t know who she is–who won’t flock to a movie about a chick kicking some serious ass? The assumption that someone in the ‘mainstream’ somewhere must first know who someone is to see a movie about them is ludicrous. I find the more companies underestimate their audience, the worse the product. Katie Holmes, anyone? Aaaaand now we have Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and no real female leads in sight.

    It’s not just the actresses, though, like you said–the parts are bit and flat and purely there to service whatever her male counterpart on screen is. And the hurhurhuring audience members.

    So, which female character’s movie would you really, really want to see made? I’d loveloveLOVE a Birds of Prey. None of that TV show nonsense. With eye candy cameos of Dick and Roy.

    Dude, I totally miss Ripley. I need to go rewatch that tonight.

  3. I keep hoping they’ll sneak Number One into the Trek movie. Or Carol Marcus. But it doesn’t look like it. The top billed female seems to be Winona Ryder as Spock’s mom, which I assume is in a flashback. (God, I hope Nona’s not old enough to play Quinto’s mom).

    Good points all around, especially about today’s big screen women being a step backwards from Ripley and Sarah. I mean, I do love movie-Pepper, but she’s not in there to be an asskicker. (Though she just got ARMOR in the comic and Matt Fraction is consulting on the movie, so. . .)

    In my fantasy Iron Man 2, Famke Janssen plays Black Widow and gets hot and heavy with Tony. But it looks like ScarJo and I *hope* she’s not going to be the love interest, considering the age difference. At least Gwyneth’s a grownup.

  4. Matt

    First off, great post Sarah. As usual.

    Second off, and this is SO tangential to the discussion at hand, but I’m sorry Kristina–Thor is simply SO MUCH MORE awesome than Ms. Marvel. 🙂 This has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the almost immeasurable awesomeness of Thor. The shakespeak, the hammer, the Asgardian back-up cast–so awesome!

    Finally, YES. I think the point that resonated most with me was the whole “If no one knew Iron Man before the movie and that was huge, why not a woman superhero?” Absolutely.

    I love Marvel and I think they do swell comics and have lots of great stuff going on but I do think there’s a bit of a “boy’s club” mentality over there sometimes. I wonder if this is part of that too, and so, I wonder if we almost don’t need to see them choose a female director at some point–Catherine Hardwick sure seemed to pull off the FX-heavy Twilight okay–to launch a female superhero who’s just as cool as Iron Man.

  5. Sarah

    Thanks, everyone!

    Dizzy: Whedon or no Whedon, I’d love to see a Wonder Woman movie at some point.

    Kristina: YES, Birds of Prey. That would be amazing. Also: She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Manhunter. I think some of the X-Ladies could carry their own flicks. And Black Widow could have had an awesome stand-alone thing if they hadn’t made her part of Iron Man 2.

    Caroline: I was also hoping Number One would pop up! Or Saavik. I also enjoy movie-Pepper…I suppose it’s not so much that movie-Pepper needs to be an asskicker, it’s that there needs to be some female equivalent of the Iron Man movie with an actress as wonderful and well-cast as RDJ (though I certainly would not object to ARMOR :D). And Famke should definitely play another supe at some point.

    Matt: I’m with Kristina on this one. I have NEVER cared about Thor. The only way I will be excited for that movie is if they cast Journeyman. 😉

  6. Rich

    Great post Sarah!

    This: “If no one knew Iron Man before the movie and that was huge, why not a woman superhero?” is a little flawed; Iron Man’s had presence in video games and in cartoons since the 60s (well, in cartoons since then and in games since the 80s/90s, but you get the idea). So there was probably at least a vague knowledge of the character.

    I’d say that there’s room for a woman-led superhero movie aside from the development hell that Wonder Woman’s in, but I think the problem may not be recognizability of heroines but the fact that almost all are derivative of male characters.

    For the general public, Catwoman is inextricably linked with Batman. For the geeks in us, She-Hulk? Hulk. Ms Marvel? Captain Marvel. Manhunter? Manhunter(s). Oracle, Huntress, Batgirl? Batman.

    If you want a superheroine led film, you need to take either a lower tier character, a completely new character or rewrite the origin of an existing higher profile one. I’m not sure which is preferable.

    Me, I’d go to see a Wasp, Tigra, Manhunter, She-Hulk, any movie if it’s good.

    But if it gets the kind of word of mouth that Catwoman and My Super Ex-Girlfriend got, I’ll steer clear.

  7. Sarah

    Thanks, Rich!

    I think geeks and comic kids knew about Iron Man; I don’t think the mainstream public — the folks who helped make it a monster, monster hit — had much of a clue. I’d say the same level of vague knowledge exists for certain lady heroes.

    That’s a good point, about recognizable female heroes being linked to guys in the eyes of the general public — I was thinking about how much I’d love to see a She-Hulk movie, but then I wondered if they’d even do one since they already did dude-Hulk.

    Tigra is another great choice!

    I think “any movie if it’s good” is really the key. If a studio/filmmaker can make a flick as good as Iron Man, who cares if it’s a dude or a chick in the lead? People will (hopefully) see it.

  8. Matt: We’ll be Thunderdoming about Thor later. 😉 Great idea about the female director–that’s something I’d love to see and now that you brought it up, definitely necessary. I see it as a matter of sex increasing strength, if that makes sense.

    Sarah: Manhunter! Tigra! She-Hulk. Oh, how great would that be?? Okay, let’s start working on a script and do it ourselves. We’ll have to eventually run into someone with money.

    Rich: Good idea–I think pushing lower profile characters into higher profiles is something they actually could tie into the comic book franchise in a somewhat long-term fashion. Enticing geeks to buy another book isn’t as difficult as enticing people to start buying comic books.

    One funny note about Iron Man and doing ‘well-known’ characters–when the movie started gaining buzz, the biggest question I got in the store from newbies was, ‘Hey, isn’t that the metal guy that got Captain America killed?’

  9. Matt

    Kristina: For me, it’s mostly a Kirby and Simonson thing re: Thor. But man, when they nail it–I can’t even imagine an equivalent in terms of Ms. Marvel, honestly.

    Re: Star Trek–I’m honestly surprised they just didn’t go ahead and make one of the main characters a woman, like BSG did with Starbuck. From one perspective, it’s kinda stunty; from another perspective, I think it made Starbuck an infinitely more interesting character over the long haul, to basically start with the Dirk Benedict character, make it female, and then see where it goes.

  10. Jeff

    If Marvel Studios really want to establish some ‘we don’t need to bow to the pressures of big studios’ cred, they would greenlight a Ms. Marvel movie, get a known actress to play her and make it kick ass. Run with Reed’s “I’m going to establish myself as an A-lister” rebirth of the character. Get it out the door before WB can move on Wonder Woman. Bring her into the Avengers movie (or sequel).

    Because other big studios are just going to point at Elektra and Catwoman and Super Ex-Girlfriend and tell you no.

  11. Rich

    Jeff, I’d forgotten all about Elektra.

    Possibly on purpose.

    I thought it failed completely as an adaptation of anything remotely to do with Elektra, but worked on some level as a vaguely entertaining female led action flick.

    As long as you watch it with alcohol.

  12. Sarah

    Kristina: Ha! That’s what Tony gets for being such a prick during Civil War.

    Rich and Co.: Let’s get drunk and watch Elektra together on Twitter.

  13. Chris

    Why, in this long and vibrant discussion, has nobody mentioned Alias? It is THE perfect shot at creating a female superhero movie that has ZERO baggage attached to it.

    Wonder Woman will always have to contend with too-many-cook syndrome, as it’s one of the big three DC properties.

    The Marvel characters, as was pointed out, have to contend with their male name-sakes.

    But Alias has everything you could ask to take a no-risk shot at making an amazing movie. The character is new enough that everyone has to be introduced to her to some degree, mainstream and in-the-know-nerds, yet she’s squarely built into the Marvel universe now.

    She has the best of all hero journey stories – she doesn’t want to be a hero, tries her best to do right without her powers, and then in the thick of things steps up to the plate.

    And to a certain degree, you’re not selling people on the idea of a superhero movie, but a thriller where the hero just happens to be able to, later in the movie, fly and toss cars around.

    And, cameo, Power Man.

    Also, Thor = awesome. It has to be remembered Thor was the great equalizer. For some (women readers apparently) the realistic human storylines were enough, but for some (male readers apparently) there was always one small problem with the Marvel Universe… it didn’t have Superman. But damn if it didn’t have Thor (first person to say “Sentry” gets disowned.)

  14. Sarah

    Chris: good call, I would LOVE an Alias movie. Jessica Jones is one of my favorite Marvel creations. I suppose I didn’t mention her before because there are elements of her story that are awfully dark — the Purple Man stuff is definitely “R” material. I guess the ultimate performance of Watchmen will probably determine how willing studios are to back R-rated superhero flicks.

    I’m totally digging out my Alias issues this weekend.

    Equalizer or no, I still don’t care about Thor! I’m sorry!! 😉

  15. I love ‘Alias’ but I’m not sure it works outside the context of an established Marvel Universe. It gets a lot of its meaning from the way she’s related to characters we already know.

    I like the Ms. Marvel idea but I feel like they’d really have to rebuild the character from the ground up. Pull in the air force backstory and the Captain Marvel legend but make her the POV character. Spider-Woman is another one that might work. But honestly, I’d just be happy to see them do a good job with the women in the team movies. I got interested in X-Men because of the movies and two big reasons were Rogue as the POV-character, and Jean as a competent grown-up non-bimbo-looking female Neither one of them is characterized much like they are in the comics, but they worked to help me feel like I had a stake in the story rather than just having Wolverine and Cyclops to look at (which didn’t suck either). I don’t know that I’d get that from any of the current Marvel movies — though Pepper is the closest.

    In DC, I think you could do a Huntress solo movie; after Wonder Woman, she’d be my next choice and honestly it might create a better movie.

  16. Chris

    Her story is richer when it’s in the context of the Marvel universe, but by design, she is without context – she was created to skirt the edges of the Marvel universe, meaning any story about her can be as much in or out as the writers want for a film adaptation.

    You can’t tell all her stories in a movie anyhow, but there a couple of good ones that can be told where Marvel references are tangential, like Val Kilmer making oblique references to Superman.

    With three Xmen movies out in the world, and The Avengers to come, references to mutants and her early, failed attempt to be an Avenger are non-jarring to the average moviegoer and bonus material to the comic reading moviegoer. The story with the small town girl who’s a mutant is a perfect story to tell – and suits Sarah’s point, as it’s not an R.

    Also, from now on, all arguments AGAINST Thor, will be met with the cartoon theme;

    Cross the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard,
    Where the booming heavens roar,
    You’ll behold in breathless wonder
    The God Of Thunder, Mighty Thor!

  17. Matt

    and Chris, each time you type that theme out, I am somewhere in the world, singing it at the top of my lungs.

  18. Chris, I get that, but I feel like if you were going to do that you might as well start from scratch with an original character. I mean, just for practical purposes, I’d feel for Bendis if they screwed it up — and being a project he did for Marvel, I assume he’d only get whatever money they decided to give him. I’m too busy crossing my fingers for the ‘Powers’ tv show.

  19. Chris

    Sure, original is great – I stuck to Marvel, as we were talking mostly about existing comic characters. Plus, Marvel = money. Original = having to sell someone on why it’ll do as good as, and won’t be overshadowed by, Marvel.

    And yes, Powers TV. Must. Have. Though it will never get a fair shake in a post-Heroes world. To the mainstream TV audience, that ship be sailed.

    Matt –

    When Captain America throws his mighty shield,
    All those who chose oppose his shield must yield!

    If he’s lead to a fight and a duel is due,
    Then the red and white and the blue’ll come through!

    When Captain America throws his mighty shield!

  20. Sarah

    Chris: How can I argue with the words “rainbow bridge of Asgard”? It’s almost akin to saying “it’s my Scott and Jean.”

    Caroline: Re: team movies — one of the reasons I wish just ONE of those upcoming Marvel movies was a lady movie is that they’re building towards a huge team movie (Avengers) and it’d be nice to see some gender balance, a la the X-flicks (I agree — those did a really lovely job of showcasing the women as well as the men). A superhero movie consisting mostly of dudes — even if those dudes are RDJ and Edward Norton and Journeyman — isn’t all that appealing to me. And looks super-dated. Of course, maybe I’m jumping the gun on that one and there will be some great women showcased in Avengers. I just feel like…if you’re getting all these famous guys who headlined their own flicks together, is there gonna be any screen time left?

  21. I get it, but honestly, Marvel can barely sustain a solo *comic* with a female character as the lead, and that’s a lot smaller investment of resources. Granted, you’ve got a broader audience for movies, but maybe that’s the point. You could do a good ‘Black Widow’ or ‘Ms. Marvel’ or ‘Spider-Woman’ movie, to tie into the Avengers, but I’m not sure the characters are really crying out for that treatment, either.

    Now, a Kitty Pryde-centric X-Men spinoff, starring Ellen Page? *That* I think you could sell, and bring in traditional fans and a new/young/hip/female audience alike.

  22. (Not meaning to hate on heroines, btw. I just think it’s more of a systemic problem in Marvel’s worldview, and I’m really more interested in seeing it fixed in the comics than on the screen. I want my ‘Phoenix Corps’ book!)

  23. Sarah

    I suppose I’d like to see it fixed *everywhere!* 😉 And because it’s not just comics/Marvel movies, but geek movies in general…ugh. It just frustrates me on every level! I can’t get over how olde thymey it seems.

    A Kitty Pryde movie is a terrific idea, and does seem like it would have a really wide-ranging appeal. I’m not sure if Ellen Page would do it at this point, but if she would…sign me up! I’ll be first in line (well, maybe second, right after Dan Faust).

  24. Chris

    Doc Bruce Banner!
    Belted by gamma rays!
    Turned into the Hulk!
    Ain’t he unglamorase!
    Wreckin’ the town,
    with the power of a bull!
    Ain’t no monster clown,
    who is that lovable?
    It’s ever lovin’ Hulk!

  25. Oh, I’d love to see female-fronted geek movies. I’m just not sure Marvel adaptations are the best vehicle for it.

  26. Rob

    No Lara Croft – Tomb Raider?


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