Forty years ago the big holiday hit was Superman, Hollywood’s very first superhero blockbuster. Warner Bros marketed the movie by promising the sky to moviegoers: “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
Now, four decades later, that promise should be rewritten to reflect a new era of superhero blockbusters: “You better believe a woman can fly, too.”
Deadline broke the news this week that Sony is ramping up a Spider-Women film that will feature three female iterations of Marvel’s wall-crawling Spider-Man and a script by Bek Smith. The project joins a growing wave of female superhero projects in the works that will test the conventional assumption that the mask-and-cape genre is a “boys only” sector.
Skeptics would point to the all-female revamp of Ghostbusters as a reminder that gender stunts with genre properties can fall flat. But the success of Wonder Woman has been a lighting-rod moment for a female “super-empowerment” craze. It’s been energized further by the #MeToo movement and representational politics of the moment as well as the changing demographics of the Comic-Con fan world.
The result: More than a dozen female superhero film projects are in the pipeline from Sony, Fox, Disney’s Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. The wave of female heroes extends to television and Hollywood’s new high-profile streaming site launches as well.
On December 9, Orange is the New Black actress Ruby Rose will introduce the character Batwoman on the CW series The Flash with an eye toward a stand-alone series of her own. If all goes as expected, next year Batwoman will be the first openly gay or lesbian title character in any DC or Marvel screen adaptation.
A new live-action series called Stargirl with Brec Bassinger in the title role will premiere next fall on DC Universe, the subscription streaming site from Warner Bros Digital Networks. DC Universe is also ramping up a new animated series called Harley Quinn that will star Kaley Cuoco (Big Bang Theory) and premiere late next year.
The Harley Quinn character is a major fan-favorite and she’s headed back to the big screen in a live-action film, too. In January, filming begins on the Warner Bros film Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which is planned as an R-rated vehicle for Margot Robbie to reprise the Harley Quinn role she introduced in Suicide Squad. Cathy Yan is directing. Mary Elizabeth Winstead co-stars as Huntress and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary.
DC’s most famous female hero, Wonder Woman, is on the way back as well. Filming began last summer on Wonder Woman 1984, which reunites director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot for a sequel to the acclaimed 2017 hit. The movie’s release has been pushed to June 5, 2020. There’s also been talk of films for Supergirl, Zatanna and Batgirl, while male-hero movies like the long-promised Flash solo film or a new Superman installment have seemingly lost momentum.
Disney’s Marvel Studios usually leads the way on superhero films but the brand is playing catch-up on the female superhero front. Marvel Studios released 19 films over the past decade but none had a female title character. That changed this year with the 20th release, Ant-Man and the Wasp.
In March, Marvel Studios will release Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson as “the most powerful character” in the studio’s cinematic universe, as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has described her. Next summer, Larson joins the action in the fourth Avengers film. Also joining the fray: Pepper Potts (portrayed by Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow), who was introduced as a civilian in Iron Man a decade ago but is now getting armor of her own
Also getting an upgrade spotlight: Marvel Studios star Elizabeth Olsen has played Scarlet Witch as a supporting character in four films to date. The character will be a title character for the first time with the upcoming series on the Disney+, the high-profile streaming site that launches in 2019.
Filming began this past summer on the third season of Jessica Jones, the acclaimed Netflix series that many fans and critics consider the best super-hero adaptation in television. The show’s title star, Krysten Ritter, will make her directorial debut with one of the new episodes.
“The entire crew and cast has become family to me, and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to work with our incredible team in this new way,” Ritter said in a statement. “I am so grateful that Melissa Rosenberg, Jeph Loeb, Marvel, and Netflix entrusted me to take the reins.”
Shooting starts next year on Marvel’s Black Widow feature film, which had been a back-burner priority before the success of rival DC’s Wonder Woman movie. Scarlett Johansson has portrayed the super-spy in six Marvel films and was part of the exhaustive seven-month search for the right director. More than five dozen filmmakers (all of them women) were interviewed before Cate Shortland (Lore) was hired. The film is aimed at a 2020 release.
Earlier this year, Johansson framed the film with the language of liberation. “I think there is definitely an opportunity to explore the Widow as a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself, probably for once in her life,” the actress told Entertainment Tonight. “You know, she hasn’t always had that possibility.”
Black Widow isn’t the only spider-named woman finding on-screen reinvention. On December 14, Sony’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hits theaters with Hailee Steinfeld voicing the role of Gwen Stacy, a character that has been traditionally portrayed as a damsel-in-distress. (Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone have played the role in Sony’s live-action films.) This time, however, she’s Spider-Gwen and has super powers of her own and a chance to rewrite her destiny.
“It’s one of those characters that a couple of years ago no one thought would ever be seen in a movie,” said Bob Persichetti, one of the animated film’s three directors. “The excitement from fans and their response to the idea at conventions and online has been amazing and wonderful. I was worried frankly about how far we could push the envelope on all of it. The answer has been: Keep pushing.”
Sony is doing just that with the animated Spider-Women film. The studio has also discussed stand-alone live-action films for a trio of female heroes from Spider-Man comics: Black Cat, the Marvel Comics equivalent of Catwoman; Silver Sable, a mercenary-turned-monarch raised by a Nazi-hunting father; and Silk, a Korean-American with spider powers of her own.
Next June, Fox will release Dark Phoenix, the 12th film in its X-Men franchise. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) plays the title character, aka Jean Grey, who (like her Marvel Studios counterpart Captain Marvel) is the most powerful hero in her screen mythology.
The studio has been releasing X-Men films for 18 years and they have prominently included three Oscar-winning actresses (Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Jennifer Lawrence) but Dark Phoenix is the brand’s first movie with a female title character.
Fox also has a new female title hero (played by Rosa Salazar) arriving on screen in February with Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the namesake manga series from producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez. Both filmmakers have a history of strong female protagonists in genre films even when it was not as fashionable as it now.
In past decades, a superhero movie with a female title character was considered box-office kryptonite in most Hollywood circles. That view was only reinforced by radioactive failures like Supergirl (1984), Tank Girl (1994), Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005).
That changed with Wonder Woman and its $822 million in global box office. Sci-fi franchises like The Hunger Games, Alien, The Terminator and Resident Evil had already shown that genre fans were ready for heroic women to save the day in special-effects action.
The audience for superhero fare is no longer as male-dominated as it was when Superman flew into film history in 1978. For instance, at San Diego’s Comic Con International, the largest pop-culture convention in the world, ticket sales in recent years have been split fairly evenly between genders.
It’s no coincidence that the new Doctor Who is a woman, the next Star Wars film has a female Jedi knight returning as its central hero and a new Star Trek series is on the way with a woman in command on the bridge.
Hollywood assumed for years that girls were apathetic about superhero fare while boys might be alienated by female leads. A recent study conducted by Women’s Media Center and BBC America found that those assumptions are no longer the case. The study found an avid interest among girls with 85% expressing interest in seeing more female superheroes and science fiction protagonists. The study also showed a sizable majority of boys (69%) were also interested in seeing more women in those roles. Parents surveyed were fully on board as well with 80% wanting more women in hero roles.
That potential audience is getting what they want with the huge wave of female superheroes. Will the supply exceed the demand? Not likely, says Heather Einhorn, CEO of Einhorn Epic Productions, which is developing a television series and graphic novel called The Curie Society that will introduce “an international secret society of young female scientists.”
“There’s always this idea that any kind of representation will cause an oversaturation and market fatigue,” Einhorn said. “However, we are just getting started in creating different representations of dynamic women. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to create new ideas and complex characters that challenge the industry to move away from stale concepts.”
Einhorn added: “Audiences are tired of female characters that were created as weaker versions of established male-driven franchises. They are looking for new fresh female characters that are representative of the world around them.”
Representation is a watchword of the moment. A recent episode of Supergirl included an in-house commercial promoting SeeHer, a gender equality initiative. It included footage from the group’s summit meeting on the Warner Bros lot that included female creators and cast members from DC superhero shows.
Among them was Caity Lotz, who has portrayed Sara Lance, aka White Canary, on the Warner Bros shows on the CW since 2012. Her character was the first openly bisexual character in the screen history of DC and Marvel adaptations. She said the responsibility and honor that goes with that milestone has created a special rapport with fans and is a sign of the times.
“There’s so much change going on right now and it’s happening so fast, it’s amazing to see it all,” Lots told Deadline. “It feels like there’s a real energy of making things better and using these shows and these stories to show fans of all kinds heroes that they haven’t seen before and heroes that look like them. When I was young I went to the movies and it was Star Wars and the princess wearing a bikini was waiting to be rescued. That’s not a woman I wanted to be. Now young girls can see all kinds of characters and a lot of them aren’t for anybody to come rescue them.”