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She Has No Head! – Superheroines On Film Are Killing It

I’ve spent most of my life aching for great superheroine portrayals on film. To see some of my comic book heroines reflected back to me on 40-foot screens. With a few awesome exceptions (X-Men, X2) I have been disappointed again and again (Catwoman, Elektra, Sue Storm in Fantastic Four, Batgirl in Batman & Robin, Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, Supergirl, Mary Jane in Spiderman, okay not a superheroine, but still) the list of bad performances, bad writing, bad directing, and just bad ideas is painfully long.

SHNH Superheroines on Film

Clockwise From Top Left: Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson in Dredd, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow in The Avengers.

However 2012’s portrayals of Black Widow in The Avengers, Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and Judge Anderson in Dredd seemed to signal that changes were a coming.  Given what we got this weekend in the form of Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, dare I hope that 2012 was the superheroine year that changed everything FOR GOOD?

Let’s just talk briefly about each of these performances and why they mean so very much. Potential spoilers for each film, read with caution!

Widow 1

BLACK WIDOW in THE AVENGERS

The first to show us the way last year was Joss Whedon’s Black Widow in his mind-blowingly good superhero fiesta The Avengers. With Scarlett Johansson picking up with Natasha post Iron Man 2, Whedon has her practically leading off the badass-ness as she casually kicks a bunch of bad guy butt while strapped to a chair. A key scene later in which Loki tries to manipulate Natasha’s “weak womanly emotions” is turned on its head by Natasha faking him out and then walking out of the room with his master plan. For the bulk of the film Natasha is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Smart and savvy, skilled and crazy deadly she’s strong in a way all us ladies that dream Technicolor superhero dreams would like to be. Later in the film Natasha shows some vulnerability when she is completely overwhelmed in a chase scene by the sheer power of The Hulk. She holds her own (in more of an escape to live another day way) but the fear and shock she exhibits in the presence of The Hulk shows the kind of layers and complexity you rarely get to see in an action movie, let alone a massive ensemble cast action movie.

Catwoman 1

CATWOMAN in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Anne Hathaway isn’t my favorite actress. She probably never will be, I don’t really know why, as she’s clearly talented with a ton of range. However, what she did with the character of Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises was sublime. Between Hathaway’s performance, Nolan’s directing, and the Nolan squared script, DKR captured a perfect Catwoman, something few have managed (though I am still incredibly fond of Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1992 rendition as well). The complexity that DKR’s managed with Catwoman from her sexy smarts and uber cool fighting skills to her philosophies and political statements was simply dead on. She commanded attention in every scene she was in and they found that perfect blend of absolutely moral, so long as it’s her very specific brand of morals.

Anderson 1

JUDGE ANDERSON in DREDD

Easily missed among these other more successful action films, Dredd was a shockingly good comic book movie, and one deserving of far more praise and attention than it received. One of the many reasons this R-Rated super violent, gory, dark, and smart film deserved praise was its writing of Judge Anderson, and her portrayal by the wonderfully talented Olivia Thirlby.  With directing by Pete Travis and a great screenplay by Alex Garland it’s not that surprising that Thirlby had excellent material to work with. In Dredd, Anderson is a naïve rookie Judge, one under intense performance pressure if she wants to make the cut, but she never lets that get in the way of doing what’s right. Trapped in Peach Trees – a massive residential apartment complex run by a drug lord – with Judge Dredd, Anderson uses all her skills – those she was taught as a Judge in training and the one she was born with – psychic powers – not fancy superhero-y ones but more a more subtle version. As the soft moral center of Dredd, Anderson has a tender spot for the people of Peach Trees, having grown up (and been spit out) by a similar situation. But rather than becoming bitter or despising the people and system that basically tried to kill her at every opportunity growing up, she tries to help them, no matter what it costs her. Though a vastly different character than the devastatingly tough Judge Dredd, Anderson has her own kind of steel and Thirlby taps into with astonishing power.

Dredd also deserves a special shout out for a fantastic villainess role – with Lena Headey (Cersei represent!) playing Ma-Ma. As a former prostitute turned powerful drug lord that runs Peach Trees, she is despicably brilliant.

Potts 1

PEPPER POTS in IRON MAN 3

Most recently, Pepper Potts got her badass on in Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s Iron Man 3 thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow.  The previous Iron Man films did a good job of creating a smart and savvy Pepper Potts – anyone that can keep pace with Tony Stark (or Robert Downey Jr.) is holding her own, but Iron Man 3 ups the stakes by enlarging her role throughout. Sure, she does have to play the damsel in distress at some point, but ultimately she not only rescues herself but also defeats the final “big bad.”  This is a huge mega deal on multiple levels. It’s practically unheard of to let the “powerless damsel” do much, but to have her defeat the primary villain on her own is bold beyond belief.  It shows such a confidence in the audience, and perhaps more importantly, in Iron Man himself. Iron Man is more than enough man and hero to not be threatened by Potts saving herself, saving him, and in a way, the world. That’s my kind of hero, people. One happy to have his ass saved because we all need saving sometimes. It was awesome.

So here’s my question – to both the comics industry and Hollywood, I suppose – why do we think that these awesome superheroines can’t carry their own films? In an age of Jennifer Lawrence anchoring an action franchise (The Hunger Games) and the ladies above just owning the screen whenever they’re on it, it seems like one plus one should just equal two, right. Combine that with the fact that we’re constantly told in comics that dudes love to read about sexy superheroines (which is why they must *always* be sexy with revealing clothes)…so why do we continue to think that they don’t want to go to a badass superhero film with sexy actresses kicking that ass? Seems silly.

I did a post a while back about some superheroines I’d love to see on film, but we should start with these talented ladies first with their awesome build in audience…someone get on this, willya?

 

38 Comments

The Widow’s supposed to be in the new Captain America, right? I have a feeling that between that and the next Avengers, she’s in line for a phase 3 film. Maybe the new Fantastic Four film will have a Sue Storm we can get behind? This is my optimism face.

The_Livewire

May 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

While not one to complain about Pepper’s ‘costume’ (or Tony’s snarking on it) I was hoping to see her in one of the armors fighting, ala Rescue.

I would like to see a Widow movie. I think the balance will be to have a strong movie with a strong name actress. Right now, Marvel has the best hope, with the Mouse backing them and with the apparent ‘long term’ plans. (Phase 2, Phase 3). I’d love to see a Wasp movie with her being like her EMH counterpart in temperment.

(Aside, plus it would be a hoot to see a mu- erm augmented human Wasp, grabbing Coulson’s energy rifle or using bio stings to power Tony’s repulsor gauntlets. “I got bigger stingers” indeed. :-))

If anyone has not seen Dredd, please rectify that. Intense, urgent, exciting, with a concise story and diamond-sharp vision. It should be more popular. And Kelly’s absolutely right: Thirlby is marvelous in her role as Anderson, never overshadowed by Karl Urban’s grim, imposing Dredd.

Everyone wants to rant and rave about symptoms. Want a good super heroine without having to sacrifice storytelling like most of the plebeian suggestions here?

Get more female directors and writers working. Having a talented female director telling it from her point of view in an HONEST way will always yield better results.

Or just whine about how unfair everything is and never make a difference.

Even though she is not talked about, I still like to think that Marc Webb did something more with Gwen Stacy in TASM thatn Riami did with MJ in his trilogy.

Sure we dont see Gwen have web shooters and kick ass like Potts did, but her key focus in that film was not to be saved by Spider-Man, but was to HELP Spider-Man defeat The Lizard. Almost akin to Potts’ role in the first Iron Man.

Sure its not the same as Black Widow, but I would like to think we are moving on not just as a society with this whole women can’t kick ass shtick, but also in the film/comics showing that there is more to be seen than just male dominated franchises.

Plus can I mention how much i love Pearce/Black for writing it in that Tony wasn’t scared/sad/angry with Potts saving his life, he was grateful and happy to see her kick ass too.

Bring The Wasp onto the Avengers and the big screen already!!! Wasn’t she the person who actually christened the team? How unfair is it that Janet van Dyne hasn’t made it onto the silver screen especially after that brilliant showing in EMH cartoon.

Don’t forget about the Ant-Man picture coming up. The Wasp will likely be all over that.

My thoughts on leaving DKR were basically: “That was awesome. Now let’s get Hathaway in a Catwoman solo film taking place in between TDK and DKR.” And as I’ve said before in comments on your column, I would love a Black Widow solo film, but feel that a Black Widow/Hawkeye team-up would be better because I love their relationship and feel that we would get a stronger film out of both of them than doing two separate movies.
As for other female heroes, I’d love an X-23 film, especially if they closely follow Innocence Lost with her “Mother” as the lead. Captain Marvel would also make for a fantastic solo film.

Between Hathaway’s performance, Nolan’s directing, and the Nolan squared script, DKR captured a perfect Catwoman, something few have managed (though I am still incredibly fond of Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1992 rendition as well). The complexity that DKR’s managed with Catwoman from her sexy smarts and uber cool fighting skills to her philosophies and political statements was simply dead on. She commanded attention in every scene she was in and they found that perfect blend of absolutely moral, so long as it’s her very specific brand of morals.

I kept hearing about how Hathaway killed it in the Dark Knght Rises but when I finally saw them movie for myself a few months later, I really have to wonder what everyone was talking about. She did a good job with what she was given, and she definitely didnt suck, but it wasn’t as great as people were making it out to be either in my opinion. I guess technically you can say she was a scene stealer but in a movie as devoid of charisma and fun as this one was is that saying much? I think it’s more that everyone else was so boring joyless and angsty that Hathaway just seemed far more lively and engaging by comparison.

I also disagree that few people have captured a good Catwoman on film. Besides Halle Berry, i thought all the Catwoman actresses did good jobs. Hathaway’s Catwoman was among the most surly and unlikable interpretations of the character I’d seen.

Another thing, is it possible that all the miscastig talk really lowered expectation for her performance, thus causing people to wildly overrate it?

Pepper’s part was the best thing about a pretty ho-hum Iron Man 3

Get more female directors and writers working. Having a talented female director telling it from her point of view in an HONEST way will always yield better results.

Or just whine about how unfair everything is and never make a difference.

Ask any WORKING female writers and directors why they don’t just ‘do more.’ Your idea seems to be that they’re swamped with offers but are too busy complaining to notice. I assure you that’s not the case.

I recommend anyone who can to listen to the “Punisher: War Zone” episode of the podcast ‘How Did This Get Made’, where Lexi Alexander is there to talk about how she was given the role of director of the film, what she wanted to do with the film, what notes she got, etc…

Besides Halle Berry, i thought all the Catwoman actresses did good jobs.

Quoted for truth. And of course it wasn’t Berry’s fault that that particular movie was so bad. Though I have to tell ya, I watched it on a Netflix double bill with Elektra, which made Catwoman look brilliant by comparison.

Quoted for truth. And of course it wasn’t Berry’s fault that that particular movie was so bad. Though I have to tell ya, I watched it on a Netflix double bill with Elektra, which made Catwoman look brilliant by comparison.

I actually think Elektra is a very unfairly maligned movie. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but I found it entertaining. It was better than Daredevil at least, because I found her action scenes far more credible than Affleck’s. When I finally saw it, I was shocked by how bad it wasn’t. The plot wasn’t high concept in the least and was cliche-filled, but the movie entertained me and had great, very clearly shot action. I guess it depends on what you want from a superhero movie. For me, I don’t care if a superhero movie aspires to be “deep” or realistic or Art with a capital A. I just want the actors to be convincing as superheroes, a convincing script, and most of all, great action scenes. For example, I don’t care how much illusion of depth and realism Nolan brought to the Batman franchise, the action scenes were a muddled mess of quick cuts and it ruined the whole movie for me. I actually prefer movies like Elektra that have little aspirations to be high art but can deliver well done superhero fight scenes over someone trying to deliver Crime and Punishment with superheroes, yet the action is poorly shot.

@P. Boz: Indeed she is in the next Capt America. I’d love to see it happen for her. Honestly, no reason it shouldn’t but still…fingers crossed.

@Tae: I’m honestly not sure who you’re talking to here…? Is anyone ranting and raving? Who exactly are we/you (?) accusing of whining and never making a difference?

@Peter: I agree with you. I really like Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy (and I genuinely liked The Amazing Spider-Man, while I disliked nearly everything about the previous Spider-Man films). I almost put Gwen on this list. They do a good job in that film of giving her a fully fleshed out and complex character and one that is realistically heroic in the ways she can be (i.e. by using her brain, even though she has no superpowers).

@Delarsco: While I would certainly see an X-23 movie, she’s not high on my list as I’d prefer to get away from the “wolverine” stuff. And while I do like Laura in the right creative hands (Liu and Noto) there are things about her characterization that bother me – namely the outfit/design has generally sucked, the fact that she’s a “hot female version of Wolverine” as an idea, and the fact that she’s never adopted a new code name but with stuck with what her masters/creators named her – and basically a glorified clone number. Seems weird.

Ross: Other than IM3 being too long (could have lost half an hour easily) and some confusion for me as I thought about it about who it was for (my theater was PACKED with kids) and yet I have trouble imagining they understood much of the film – I was pretty happy with it.

@Greg Hatcher: Yeah, I can’t even figure out what Tae is talking about.

@Peter Policastro: Thanks for the recommend – I will absolutely check that out – sounds fascinating.

@Buttler: Woo. I can’t believe you survived that double bill…that is BRUTAL.

@T: I can’t believe T and I SORTA agree on something but I couldn’t even get THROUGH Catwoman in one sitting, so Elektra (terrible though it is) is superior to me and certainly if I had to watch both next to one another (oh god, the horror) I think I would feel that even more so.

The costumes from those two films alone…what on earth were they thinking???

They gave Elektra a spunky teen sidekick and the weirdly useless psychic power to see the present–that is, what’s going on somewhere else at the same time. I thought it was pretty darned bad. But your mileage may vary, and obviously does, and that’s fine.

That’s a pretty low bar if we’re congratulating Hollywood for their depiction of female superheroes based on the above examples. Only Judge Anderson seemed to me a more positive depiction.

Yes, Jennifer Lawrence looks to be successful with the Hunger Games, but so was Kristen Stewart with Twilight. So, what’s that saying? I’ve never seen Catwoman and Elektra, but it can’t be worse than Twilight can it?
But from the fact that audiences didn’t go see either of those comic movies with female leads says something. Hollywood wants to make money and female comic book characters don’t seem to get people out. The four you highlighted above are all in support to the guys. The X-Girls are all part of a team with guys.
I’m not saying they don’t have strong characterization, but there is something in the appeal that doesn’t get people out…

Astrozac: When you conduct an experiment with more than one variable, you have to treat the results as ones dependent on more than one variable, you know? So if, for example, you make a movie that is 1) absolutely godawful-terrible-eye-wateringly-bad, and 2) has a female lead, and that movie bombs, you must take into consideration these two possible assumptions: 1) the movie bombed because it was bad by every imaginable standard, even by lowest-common-denominator ones, and 2) the movie bombed because the lead had boobies.

Which one do you think is more likely?

I’d be totally in for a Black Widow movie. Lots of great stories featuring the Widow over the years.

One MORE interesting layer to the Black Widow character in “Avengers” that wasn’t mentioned, that totally informs the Hulk scene wasn’t just that she was fighting for her life. The Widow/Hulk parallels are interwoven throughout the film in terms of them both having become “monsters.” When she tells Bruce, “WE’RE going to be ok.” she’s not just trying to calm him down, she’s staring at a reflection of what she was turned into by her former masters before she met Hawkeye. That give her scenes with Bruce and the Hulk much more depth and also why she was so shaken by seeing him in full monster mode.

Love seeing the heroines get some good attention. Super pumped to see Sif in the Dark World! That trailer shows her out in the field in the heat of the battle. Also good to get some Halloween costumes for girls that aren’t just skanky. Sure no one knew who Judge Anderson was, but I loved making that costume. I loved seeing Pepper fight in IM3, but it didn’t really fit well enough into the story. Thirty minutes in, she could hardly walk in the armor, five minutes before the fight she can’t lift debris off her legs, then all of a sudden she’s whipping some ass with one arm of a suit… definitely needed a stronger build up.

Mila Jovovich has been the lead in many action movies, they all sucked. Theron did Eon Flux, and that sucked. its really hit or miss. it depends on the writers and directors more than the female lead.

im all for better female action characters. judge anderson was awesome.

Derek Metaltron

May 7, 2013 at 9:10 am

Great look at these four exceptional ladies of comics, Kelly. I was a slight bit disappointed we didn’t get Pepper in full on Rescue mode for more than a minute or two but she still kicked a lot of ass. I’ll add my vote for a Black Widow/Hawkeye film, I think those two had some good work in Avengers and a prequel or a sequel with them would do me fine. I’ll also send a throw out to Sif as well, because like Pepper, Black Widow and Catwoman I think she’s been handled very well.

As a Marvel fan of many an attractive (as opposed to full-on ‘sexy) super heroine, it’s my hope that some more of the Avenger Girls – Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, Wasp and the like – will be apt to not only join Natasha and Scarlet Witch in Avenger films but get the solo flicks they deserve themselves. Same goes for Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Zatana and the rest. Get to it, Marvel and DC.

I think the main problem comes from the fact that all the women listed on this list (and the up coming Sif one) is that they all have a connection to someone or some group that if they do try to a solo film for them, it comes across lacking the core elements that they have as the secondary characters in the core films. Do think if they do some sort of female team up film (Sif, Rescue, Black widow, (and hopefully one of the green skinned females (i.e. she-hulk or Gamora) to get the core avengers four (Thor (Sif), Iron man (Rescue), Captain America (Black Widow), and Hulk (She-Hulk/Gamora))

Spidermaniac

May 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm

I have to disagree with the assesment of Hathaway in DKR– I found her extremely bland and forgettable. I though Tom Hardy’s Bane stole that movie just like Aaron Eckhart was the real star of TDK. But, it may be a symptom of an overall difference in taste (genrational perhaps) as i found Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man to be tepid, shallow, and lifeless compared to the intimacy of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.

I am disappointed in the lack of gender (and ethnic) diversity in the big superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t exactly doing much to fix that trend. That being said, the X-Men franchise is offering up some significant opportunities for heroines: Mystique was the stand-out from First Class and Ellen Page’s turn as Kitty Pryde in X3 is being revisited for the next X-Men film so there’s hope.

Unfortunately, it is all but impossible to find a fmeale lead who is not romantically linked to the male lead. Once we can have a female heroine who isn’t defined by a relationship to a man, we’ll have seen something really special. (Although the need for every male hero to have a “one true love” sort of suggests this is a genderless requirement. But maybe a super powered heroine could date a mortal man for a change?)

Boys won’t go see a girl superhero. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s how it is.

Spidermaniac: Wonder Woman dates regular human pilot Steve Trevor. Hopefully, if we ever get a WW movie, they explore that.

On another topic, I have to admit that I have had a hard time trying to think of a female hero (besides Wondy) who I 1) can see have a film built around on her own, and 2) has no male counterpart (She-Hulk, Hawkgirl, etc.)… but Derek threw out a name up there that made my eyes go wide: Zatanna.

I know she’s somewhat obscure (compared to your Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman types) as far as DC characters go, but I would LOVE to see a well-done Zatanna movie. I love Zatanna, and doing a mystic hero on film would be a cool change of pace.

Technically, Captain Marvel doesn’t fit that criteria, @TJCoolguy, but she has long since eclipsed the male character she’s a counterpart to.

I’m more of a Marvel guy, so your Zatanna suggestion gave me an idea: what about a female Dr. Strange? There’s nothing in particular about his character that would preclude a gender swap, and it would add another female solo hero to the Marvel roster.

Which reminds me, I’d there isn’t going to be a Jessica Jones TV show, they should make a Jessica Jones movie.

“When you conduct an experiment with more than one variable, you have to treat the results as ones dependent on more than one variable, you know? So if, for example, you make a movie that is 1) absolutely godawful-terrible-eye-wateringly-bad, and 2) has a female lead, and that movie bombs, you must take into consideration these two possible assumptions: 1) the movie bombed because it was bad by every imaginable standard, even by lowest-common-denominator ones, and 2) the movie bombed because the lead had boobies.

Which one do you think is more likely?”

#1 is definitely the stronger of the two, but it is a combination of both. As TJCoolGuy pointed out, Wonder Woman is really the only major solo female lead out there and the one most likely to be successful in her own film. If someone hits the right character, actress and script, they might be able to take another female character into a successful movie. But I’d be surprised if Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy do well…

The Long Kiss Goodnight was a great action movie with a female lead!

I don’t see what would be so complicated about doing a solo Black Widow movie.
She’s a former Russian spy who now works for SHIELD.
She’s basically a female Jason Bourne. Or Haywire, that was a good one!

But then, Hawkeye got a solo movie and in the process ruined the Bourne franchise, so who knows.

If Thor can work then so can Wonder Woman given that their backstory has similar basic elements – not of this world, godly, magical etc. Fix the costume for film, get the casting right and make it cool and it will work.

I’m not a Black Widow fan but I agree, she’s a character who could helm a film. Maybe a studio would feel the need to peg her to a male star and if that’s the next step towards her own film, so be it.

I’d love to see a Batwoman film but Huntress would also work. Zatanna never crossed my mind but now that it’s been mentioned I love the idea (JL Dark even).

But what do I really want more than anything? Cinderella from Fables. Shoe store owner and globe trotting spy/fix-it woman. It. Would. Rock.

Black Widow was great in her intro scene in Avengers but then fizzled out for me. Really wish she’d had more of a reaction to the “mewling quim” remark than just open mouth pouting, like unloading a clip of ammo or two into Loki’s face, just for the fun of it. Too posey in the battle scenes, too.

I think Black Orchid would be a great superheroine for a solo film. Could easily be done as a straight up superhero with the different identities or more in line with the Vertigo treatment, or combine both.

How have we not had a Batgirl movie yet with all the Batman attention? Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl that hard to forget?

Skinny Gwynny is just too….flimsy for my tastes, as an action heroine. Insubstantial. Lucky she had armour, she’s just not believable as a physical person.

Really wish there was an actual Dazzler The Movie movie!

A Ghost film (Dark Horse) could easily rock.

One guaranteed way to get boys/straight guys to watch a superheroine film? POWERGIRL.

Great article Kelly. Why Hollywood doesn’t go with proven entities like Hathaway’s Catwoman or Johansson’s Widow for a solo film is frustrating. But then this is town that can’t get a Wonder Woman movie made.

Good news is that Marvel has a Ms. Marvel script written so maybe we’ll see her on film.

Re: Dredd (mild SPOILERS warning)
-in the movie Dredd was ready to fail Anderson before the assessment began and she she had her gun taken from her which was one of the conditions Dredd had stated would cause an instant failure.
yet he passed her
(and Dredd does not explain his reasons (he’s not into explaining himself)).
My take on it is that after Anderson was captured -when she believed she had already failed and had nothing to gain..
she escaped by herself without assistance
she provided needed back-up to a Judge (in the process eliminating 2 rogue/corrupt judges).
she saw the mission to the end dispensing justice without slipping from that for revenge or out of anger
and that is a pass

When I saw all the trailers for The Avengers back when it came out I was expecting Black Widow to be over-sexualised and generally ruined as a character… but when I saw the film I was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s portrayed, both in the writing and acting, as a well-developed, complex character… though that scene in the fight sequence where she’s just standing there with Hawkeye and they’re shooting ordinary guns and arrows at aliens on rocket-bikes is still kind of stupid, but that’s an entirely different matter.

Hopefully we’ll see more female Avengers in the next movie, maybe Miss Marvel? We can only hope.

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