Eventually, DC (WB), Marvel (Disney), or someone else is going to be brave enough to actually put out a movie about a female superhero. This is a debate which is very old, but appears to have taken on a new life ever since Hunger Games stunned everyone by becoming the 3rd highest domestic grossing film of 2012, 9th highest worldwide. While not a superhero nor based on a comic book, this was a film starring a mostly unknown female lead (Jennifer Lawrence) who fulfilled the function of the action star of the movie.
If audiences were able to embrace watching Katniss play savior to her mansel in distress (poor, poor Peeta) surely they could stomach Wonder Woman saving Steve Trevor in a comic book movie?
However, the counter-arguments still remain that audiences will not go see an action film based around a female lead, a contention based in part on the staggering failure of recent female-led comic book movies Catwoman and Elektra. Sure, you can have your female-led action movies which go straight to video, like Cynthia Rothrock’s martial arts movies back in the 90s. And Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, and Sigourney Weaver all have multiple action film hits to their names. However, even when the movie is great and the actress amazing in the lead role the chances are that audiences will not turn out, as was the case last year for Gina Carano-beats-up-the-boys action flick Haywire which only managed $33 million worldwide on a $23 million budget.
The venue of choice for the female action star might instead be TV, where Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Garner made their careers kicking butt in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias respectively. This tradition lives on in Canadian shows like Lost Girl and Continuum which air on SyFy in the United States. Marvel is on board with this as well, rumored to be developing a TV show about Haley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter from Captain America and definitely moving forward with a show at Netflix about the comic book hero Jessica Jones.
Are the studios leaving money on the table by not trying harder to give us a (for example) Wonder Woman movie or a maybe a female superhero team-up like Birds of Prey? Maybe. Looking at Pajiba’s recent list of the 20 highest grossing films featuring female action heroines in a lead role (adjusted for inflation) it’s startling how it’s pretty much just Hunger Games and a collection of Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie and Sigourney Weaver movies (all numbers domestic):
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($420 million estimated by the end of its run)
2. Hunger Games — $409 million
3. Terminator 2 — $390 million (as brilliant as Linda Hamilton’s performance was, the business is more due to Arnold Schwarzenegger than her)
4. Gravity — $270 million (estimated)
5. Alien — $255 million
6. Mr. and Mrs. Smith — $234 million
7. Charlie’s Angels — $186.9 million
8. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — $186.5 million
9. Aliens — $184 million
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — $182 million
11. The Heat – $159 million
12. Miss Congeniality — $153 million
13. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — $134 million
14. Salt — $119 million
15. The Fifth Element — $111 million
16. Alien 3 — $107.6 million
17. Courage Under Fire — $107.5 million
18. Kill Bill Vol. 1 — $93 million
19. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life — $87 million
20. Thelma and Louise — $86 million
To be fair, I am knowingly mixing my categories here because action films and comic book/superhero movies are technically two different categories. However, there simply haven’t been that many female-led superhero movies (Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman), with the most notable females in superhero movies coming in supporting roles (like Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and Black Widow in The Avengers). However, when the studios have run with females as action stars they’ve hit big with 4 Angelina Jolie movies, 3 Sandra Bullock ones, and the individual Alien, Hunger Games, and Charlie’s Angels franchises. I’d like to point to a bunch of failures as a counter-balance, but this list more reveals just how infrequently the studios have attempted female-led action films.
At this point, to a large degree the action film as we knew it has died, as indicated by the fading returns for legacy stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and modern star like Jason Statham. Outside of your random Fast & Furious franchise, the comic book movie is the new action movie. When will the studios run with a female-led comic book movie? I’m going to go with “not anytime soon but look out for Jessica Jones on Netflix.”
So, that’s the history. What will be the future?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section.