The journey to Captain Marvel: How women became the future of superhero films


Marvel Studios is about to drop its first female-led superhero film. The journey to Captain Marvel has been a long one, and up ahead, the future of superhero films is very much female.

Superman was the very first superhero blockbuster. It’s tagline? “You’ll believe a man can fly.”

I guess no one really thought to wonder about whether a woman could too. But we’re finally asking now – throughout the world of genre entertainment.

For the first time in 55 years, a woman (Jodie Whittaker) is portraying the Doctor on Doctor Who. A female character is at the center of the latest Star Wars trilogy. There are a half-dozen superhero programs spread across the CW network, each of which features multiple complex female characters. Even comics themselves are becoming increasingly diverse, with more books led by women and characters of color.

Marvel Studios is finally getting in on the act, releasing its first female-led solo film. Captain Marvel hits theaters on March 8, 2019 — which, not incidentally, happens to be International Women’s Day. Clearly, Marvel has finally realized the truth that so many fans spent so many years trying to get across. The future (of genre, at least) is female. And Captain Marvel, while a lovely achievement in and of itself, is just the tip of the iceberg.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Photo: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2019

In fact, there was a time — in the not too distant past, in truth — when the idea of a female superhero movie was seen as laughable. Female characters in superhero films were usually there to serve one of a few very specific purposes: Love interest, damsel in distress, or bad girl/temptress. None of them had much in the way of agency or their own stories outside of whatever man the movie was focused on.

These films weren’t afraid to include women, per se, but they balked at giving them starring roles. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is, of course, iconic, but Batman Returns is entirely about Bruce Wayne.

Things seemed poised to change in 2004, when an actual Catwoman film was released. Of course, Selina has always been something of an antiheroine with her own agenda, and a film about her life on society’s grey edges isn’t exactly the same as one that positions her firmly as a hero that’s meant to be both admired and emulated. (I suppose we weren’t ready to go quite that far.)

See, back then, even when women got films like this, they had to fit into certain boxes. Elektra, a Daredevil spinoff involving Matt Murdock’s assassin sometime-girlfriend, was built around a similarly grey figure. Don’t get me wrong, Elektra is a great character, but she isn’t exactly what you would call aspirational. Little girls around the world aren’t likely to run out and start learning how to wield sais in the name of vengeance.

Apparently, the conventional wisdom back then was that audiences would only be interested in these women if they were femme fatale types, who didn’t try to usurp the traditional roles and stories given to male heroes.

Unfortunately, both Elektra and Catwoman were critically panned flops. And, because we live in a trash world that will give men endless chances no matter how many massive and/or public failures they have to their names but will blacklist women after one mistake, we haven’t had a female-led superhero film since. What we have had, instead, is a new Batman trilogy, not one but two Superman reboots, and a slew of interconnected films based on Marvel comics and built almost solely around men.

Never let it be said that studio executives aren’t painfully skittish.

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Photo: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2018

As a result, it’s taken 10 years and 20 films for Marvel to finally introduce a female-led superhero film into its Marvel Cinematic Universe. When we write it out that bluntly, the fact feels shocking. Particularly when we consider that means that someone pretty high up in the Marvel machine thought it was more important for fans to get films about third-tier heroes like Peter Quill and Scott Lang than it was to tell a story that featured a woman in a lead role. Sure, Black Widow was a regular feature in the MCU, popping up in multiple Iron Man and Captain America films, as well as all three Avengers installments. But, as we all know, that’s not the same thing as getting to tell her own story.

So, what happened?

Well, Wonder Woman did. Despite the fact that Warner Bros’ extended D.C. Comics universe was much, much younger than its Marvel counterpart, the DCEU was the first to release a movie focused on a female superhero. And it was a big, big hit.

The money bit is important; because we’ve already seen what would have happened had the film failed. We’d be waiting another 15 years to try again. If we were lucky.

But Wonder Woman didn’t fail. Instead, it made over $821 million dollars at the box office, globally, in 2017. It didn’t hurt that the movie was actually really good, either.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in

Wonder Woman

(2017). Screenshot via YouTube/Warner Bros. Pictures.

Wonder Woman garnered largely rave reviews and made an instant star out of its lead Gal Gadot. It has already spawned a sequel (Wonder Woman 1984) and sparked the commission of another film lead by a quartet of popular DC comics women (Birds of Prey). There have been rumors of both a Batgirl film and a Supergirl adaptation headed to the big screen too. Most of these projects were in the works before Wonder Woman opened, but the WB film’s record-breaking success will likely be a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Taking all that into account, it’s really not a great look that Marvel doesn’t have a female leading lady of its own, yet. But finally – finally – that’s all about to change, too.

It’s difficult to overstate what a big deal the arrival Captain Marvel is for this studio, and the Marvel film universe in general. Carol Danvers isn’t just carrying her own movie on her back here, but rather a big piece of the future of this genre. She’s opening a door that’s been closed for far too long.

Yet, as exciting as Captain Marvel’s impending debut is, it’s important to remember that we’re still a long ways from equality in film representation.

While it’s great that Marvel’s finally reached this point — and that Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige insists, now that they have, many more female-led films are coming. But for every female superhero film we get now, there are still half a dozen films about men. For every Birds of Prey that WB is working on, there’s also Shazam, The Flash, Black Adam, The Green Lantern Corps and however many spinoffs they’ll manage to get out of Aquaman that aren’t about Mera. For every Captain Marvel, there’s another Doctor Strange, another Spider-Man, another Guardians of the Galaxy in the pipeline.

We’ve surely still got a long way to go until films about female superheroes are as common as those about men… and until we stop seeing the arrival of a Captain Marvel or a Wonder Woman as a groundbreaking event, and instead just another story that sounds interesting.

We’re not there yet. But we’re a little closer than we were yesterday. And that’s got to count for something.

Learn the history of Captain Marvel here: