From Captain Marvel to Catwoman: 35 Years of Female Superheroes

Captain Marvel Female Supeheroes

With Captain Marvel raising questions about the legacy of female-led superhero films, Gena Radcliffe and Chris Ludovici explore the spotty and all-too-short history of the genre.

CHRIS: So Captain Marvel is out, and people seem to like it, and it’s poised to make another mint for Marvel Studios, which is good (unless you’re one of those weirdos on the Internet who’s actively rooting for it to fail for reasons that definitely don’t have anything to do with misogyny and have you considered you might be the real misogynist for even thinking that?). Hollywood has been dipping its toes into the superheroine waters for almost as long as they’ve been making movies about their male counterparts, but with less frequency and less successful results. Mostly they’re written off as pale xeroxes of better movies (1984’s Supergirl), or bizarre miscalculations (1995’s Tank Girl and 2004’s Catwoman). Whatever the case, they weren’t popular with critics or audiences, until Wonder Woman blew the doors off theaters in 2017. While it immediately became the de facto gold standard for superheroine movies, that’s not to say that its predecessors are totally without value. If nothing else, they demonstrate just how much must go right for these movies to work, and how easily it can go off the rails.

For what it’s worth, I like Wonder Woman a lot, and have a sneaky fondness for the 90’s punk weirdness of Tank Girl and its kickass soundtrack. Supergirl feels like a missed opportunity to me, where the filmmakers thought they could just follow the formula of Superman without any insight as to what made it special, and Catwoman is a disaster that tried to go its own way so much that it ended up in the middle of nowhere.      

But I’m not really the target audience for this, right? The world needs another middle-aged, doughy, white, Internet writer talking about this stuff like it needs a hole in the head. So, Gena, what do you think about these movies? What works for you and what doesn’t? Did you grow up watching Supergirl obsessively or was it just another lousy movie, easily discarded? What do you want to see from this kind of movie? What’s it all about, anyway?

Helen Slater as 1984’s Supergirl.

GENA: Supergirl was…well, calling it a great disappointment of my childhood is overstating it a bit. I don’t remember ever feeling like this was a movie really made for me, and describing it as a pale copy of Superman is accurate. It’s the ultimate elevator pitch movie–”It’s Superman, but she’s a girl!”–written and directed by people who had a passing acquaintance with the comic book. All the same beats are there, even down to hiring an unknown actor for the title role – in this case Helen Slater, who’s been perfectly charming in other movies but here doesn’t get to do much more than smile and look puzzled. Doing the heavy lifting is Peter O’Toole as Supergirl’s Kryptonian mentor, and Faye Dunaway as Selena, her nemesis, who must have been peeled off the ceiling at the end of every shooting day.

Whenever Dunaway isn’t on screen the movie is a dull, charmless slog, where we meet Lois Lane’s teenage sister Lucy (a pretty cool character in the DCU reduced to an irritating sidekick role), and get an appearance from Jimmy Olsen, who shows up in town to just…hang out with high school students, I guess? It’s not clear, and probably shouldn’t be pondered. There’s a sense of obligation to Supergirl, a checking off of potential moneymaking properties, and a wasted opportunity to make this an “event” film marketed directly towards a young female audience. If it hadn’t tanked at the box office, Alexander and Ilya Salkind probably would have moved onto Superdog next. Instead, they sold the rights to Cannon Films, and we ended up with Superman IV: the Quest for Peace, which accomplished the impressive feat of killing the Superman franchise dead for almost twenty years.

Lori Petty and Naomi Watts in Tank Girl.

If Supergirl’s problem was a lead character with not enough charisma, then 1995’s Tank Girl had too much charisma. Lori Petty as Rebecca “Tank Girl” Buck is like a punk rock puppy, absolutely demanding that you love her while not caring if you do at the same time. The best way to describe Tank Girl, based on a comic book series relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time, is “a lot.” Just reading the plot description on Wikipedia is exhausting, and the frenetic pacing of the film itself feels like director Rachel Talalay and screenwriter Tedi Sarafian knew they were going to get one shot at this, so they crammed it to bursting with musical numbers and animated sequences and explosions and sex gags and humanoid-kangaroo creatures and holograms, to the point where it’s like you’re being pelted with candy necklaces by an aggressively friendly club kid.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Tank Girl. It’s a movie I admire more than I like. It looks great, somehow both futuristic and of the minute at the same time, and yeah, Chris, I agree that the soundtrack, featuring Bjork, Devo, and L7, is aces. It’s a bit of a cliché to use the phrase “ahead of its time” as an excuse for a movie that didn’t land with audiences, but it’s one that can be fairly applied to Tank Girl, with its distinctly feminist themes and unconventional female leads, with Petty’s lean, boyish figure and co-star Naomi Watts having the audacity to wear glasses. Given some time to pace itself and develop the characters, it would be a perfect fit today as a series, in the same “I don’t know what’s happening but I’m just going to go with it” vein as shows like Legion and The Umbrella Academy, and, honestly, I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.

CHRIS: I agree that Tank Girl is a lot, and I can see why it would seem exhausting, or obnoxious, or just too strange for someone. I’m sure part of my affection for the film is rooted in right place, right time.” I was sixteen, and I loved half the bands on the soundtrack already, and I dug comics and post-apocalyptic futures and girls who spoke their minds. I saw it twice in the theater, which is impressive when you consider it bombed so hard I think some theater managers physically ripped the film out of the projectors halfway through its opening weekend and replaced it with Outbreak.

The other thing that struck me is that it never felt like it was condescending to its characters, or audience, the way so many movies about and for young women seemed to do. I have a little sister who I’ve always been close to, and we watched a lot of movies together growing up, and I noticed how so many of the movies directed at girls seemed to view them as vapid and simple. Often the plots seemed to directly involve femininity and girl stuff in direct and, frankly, stupid ways. In one of the many cuts of Supergirl, there’s a moment where she flies through a herd of running horses, and while it’s an arresting image it also has that stink of some guy brainstorming what to put in this movie to get it to feature length, and just spitballing ideas based on what he remembers about his daughter from his first marriage. Girls like horses, put some horses in there somewhere.

And the villain in is a woman, fine, not every movie has to be about smashing the patriarchy. But she’s not just a woman, she’s a witch, who uses her magic to try to make a cute boy fall in love with her, but instead the boy falls in love with Supergirl! Lex Luthor wants to kill millions in order to corner the real estate market, the Joker wants to be the most powerful criminal in the biggest city in the world, and to make people as twisted and grotesque as he is. In Supergirl, Selina wants power mostly to get out of an unfulfilling relationship with Peter Cook and hook up with superhunk Hart Bochner.

GENA: Love triangles are my least favorite plot contrivance, and my aging brain is unable to come up with a single movie or TV show that was improved with one. Even played for goofs, as it somewhat is in Supergirl, it gives everything a weird soap opera feel, made weirder here by the fact that Selena is old enough to be Supergirl’s mother, and Hart Bochner’s character is both too young for Selena and too old for Supergirl. It exists because screenwriter David Odell either didn’t think there was enough happening already to keep audiences interested, or that women are motivated by anything other than male approval. Even into the 2010s, films such as Sam Raimi’s appallingly disappointing Oz the Great and Powerful were reluctant to portray women as wanting to be bad and fuck shit up for no reason at all. There always has to be a man at least tangentially connected to it.

Halle Berry in Catwoman.

CHRIS: Catwoman makes the same insulting calculus that women don’t just want to see a superhero movie with a female lead, it also has to be a movie that’s about, you know, lady stuff. Like makeup, that’s a thing women care about right? Make-up and looking young, that’s a big thing with the broads. So maybe with Catwoman the plot can involve a cosmetics company! The villain can be a middle-aged woman who’s so obsessed with looking young that it drives her insane, and she has special makeup that makes her skin impenetrable, like some kind of monster!

GENA: There’s a phrase to describe movies like Catwoman, and that phrase is “airplane movie.” That’s not to say that it’s a disaster movie (although it kind of is), or that it involves anyone sniffing glue, but it’s a movie one would watch on an airplane, when you’re trapped for three hours and already read the in-flight magazine three times. Maybe you’re lucky and you’ve stockpiled a bunch of Xanax just for this trip, or you’re not and you end up watching Catwoman. Like Daredevil and Elektra, all released within a year or two of each other, it’s a dreary, faux-gritty chore that does away with such frivolities as character development and plot coherence, and features female heroines wearing costumes that expose way more flesh than you really want when engaging in hand to hand fighting.

Catwoman suffers largely from not knowing what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s serious, and yet the distaste the filmmakers have for comic books comes through in every frame. It’s campy, yet still somehow humorless at the same time. The audience doesn’t even know how it’s supposed to feel about the villain. Women are encouraged to hide or eliminate any signs of natural aging with all due speed, so her pathological obsession inadvertently comes off as tragic. That she chooses death over allowing herself to be seen as she actually looks is also a little gross, especially considering that the screenplay was written by three male screenwriters. The best you can say for Catwoman overall is that, unlike Supergirl, it had no lofty ambitions of being a superhero movie “for girls,” or at least one with girls in mind. This one was strictly for the boys, eye candy that they could point to and say “See, I watch movies with female leads too!”

CHRIS: In Supergirl and Catwoman the conflict of the movie centers on how attractive the opposing women are to the men in the world. Yeah, Supergirl is on Earth because she’s looking for a magic doohicky that can save her home city, but that’s not what the movie is really about, it’s merely the inciting incident that starts the plot moving. Catwoman initially positions itself as a critique of our obsession with youth, but in the end it’s still a bitter past-her-prime-early-90’s-it-girl Sharon Stone fighting an almost naked 2004 Halle Berry. In Tank Girl and the characters are motivated by the desire to help other people and make the world a better place. They want to end war and exploitation. You know, like superheroes do.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman.

GENA: You watch a movie like Wonder Woman and you can almost hear the clicks as every good decision falls into place. Despite it being part of the current grimdark iteration of the DCU, it’s a joyful film that looks like it was lit with gold in some scenes. It takes its time developing the characters beyond the stock “Hero,” “Sidekick,” and “Love Interest” (if anything, David Thewlis as the villain suffers in comparison). Diana Prince is a character driven by honor and duty, and while there’s definitely Something between her and handsome flyboy Steve Trevor, it’s not the sole focus of the plot. She grieves at his eventual death, but refuses to allow it to become something toxic and destructive, choosing to think of him as an example of the goodness of humanity. It’s a tremendous amount of depth for a character that could have done little more than smile and punch things very hard. Real effort was made to create something new in an already overcrowded to the point of exhaustion genre (odd considering it takes place during World War I), without condescending or pandering to the audience.

It’s not a perfect movie (again, Thewlis ends up being a surprisingly bloodless villain, despite him being the literal Greek god of war), but as of right now it’s the platonic ideal of an action movie featuring a strong, multi-dimensional heroine. You can’t hate Wonder Woman without making a concerted, insidious effort to do so.

CHRIS: Diana starts out fascinated by, but not really understanding, “the world of man,” and having a simplistic view of how it works. She, a goddess, genuinely believes that, if she can find and defeat Ares, people will stop killing one another. She thinks that people are fundamentally good, and their instinct to do harm is driven by a force outside of themselves. Steve knows that mankind’s self-destructive impulses are innate, however, and can’t be banished by eliminating some outside stimulus. That philosophical tension is the heart of the story, and why it’s so compelling. The divine but naïve Diana learns that people are more complicated than she previously believed, and the heroic but deeply cynical Steve is able to recapture some of the optimism and faith that makes standing up for a cause worthwhile. It’s a relationship that’s much more complex than most of the other “Superhero-And-The-Civilian” romances that these movies are saddled with. That they had to make the love interest a man for it to be so satisfying is another issue entirely.

What I also find truly fascinating about Wonder Woman is how it successfully it works (the limp finale aside, but that’s a problem much broader than just superheroine movies), while also synthesizing so many of the elements offrom the previous, unsuccessful movies we just discussed. Like Supergirl, the spine of Wonder Woman is essentially the same as another superhero origin movie, this time Captain America. It has a same wartime setting, the same present day bookends, the lovable platoon of multicultural knuckleheads, the same tragic love story that ends with the guy going up in a plane never to return and the same pie-eyed-innocent-gets-more-than-they-bargained-for-but-grows-into-it character arc.

Like Tank Girl, the stakes are broad and social, and the main character’s growth doesn’t have a damn thing to do with whether boys think she’s cute. It can’t be a coincidence that the two movies that seem to take their protagonists the most seriously were directed by women. And like Catwoman they put some fucking money into the production, and got a prime summer release, with some actual talent involved. Patty Jenkins didn’t have a world beating resume of blockbusters when she took Wonder Woman on, but she directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar with Monster. While Gal Gadot filled the same unknown capacity as Christopher Reeve, Chris Pine was a big get as Steve Trevor, allegedly turning down the lead role in The Green Lantern to take a supporting role here (thereby increasing the value of his Chris-Stock immeasurably).

I am a fundamentally optimistic person, and believe that nobody sets out to make a bad movie and that you can learn just as much from failure as you can from success. Sometimes you can learn more because demonstrations of what don’t work require more active thinking to understand than passively enjoying something. When something is working we have a tendency to get wrapped up in what we’re seeing and not pay attention to how and why we’re seeing it. When something doesn’t work, the seams show, and examining those seems gives you insight into its construction. I like the idea that the legacy of a bad movie is that it leads to a better one. Now that they’ve finally seemed to crack the superheroine nut, here’s hoping they keep it up and it leads to bigger and better things.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.

GENA: Honestly, now that they’ve figured out the formula, I don’t just want superheroine movies to be good, I want them to be occasionally mediocre. I’d even one want to be Suicide Squad-level bad from time to time. I want that to be okay, and not have every comic book movie with a woman lead held to some impossible standard where it must be influential to little girls everywhere while still making sure that white men, still the core comic book audience, will want to see it. When they finally get around to making a Black Widow movie, or inevitably try to reboot Catwoman, I don’t want there to be complaints that they’re “ruining” comics by bringing politics into it, or calls to boycott it because it’s not catering enough to a specific audience. I just want them to be like any other superhero movie: you either enjoy them or you don’t, and the decision whether to watch them isn’t some pushback against supposed “PC culture.” That’s how I’ll know they’ve truly made it.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *