It’s no secret that female-led superhero movies have struggled to even get made for decades. After all, it took Wonder Woman over 70 years to finally get her first feature film, with obscure characters like Jonah Hex and Constantine getting their own film adaptations before the DC Comics icon. Similarly, it took over a decade for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to realize that women were capable of headlining feature films. This speaks to the broader systemic issues in Hollywood that hold back women-oriented narratives from gaining much traction, with some of these issues manifesting pretty blatantly, as seen by leaked emails from Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter.
However, there was one brief period in the 2000s where female-led superhero movies weren’t an uncommon presence in movie theaters. From 2004 to 2005, the likes of Catwoman, Aeon Flux, and Elektra all made their way to the big screen. The latter title was an especially noteworthy project, as it was the first film adaptation of a Marvel Comics title featuring a female lead. At the time, these projects were seen as much-needed steps forward in the earliest years of the comic book movie boom. But they were ultimately all critically-maligned box office bombs that failed to connect with moviegoers.
The shortcomings in this trio of features are many, but one prominent issue shared by all three is their lack of interest in the behind-the-scenes participation of women. It isn’t enough to have your comic book movie feature a character saying that the X-Men should be named the X-Women to make it a boon to feminism. You need to take significant steps to ensure that the same voices being seen on the screen are also delivering input behind the camera.
Sadly, that was not the case with these projects. Though they carried unique leads, this trio of films had creative teams which were largely the same old white guys who are still in charge of the majority of comic book movies to this day. All three features had entirely male writing teams and Elektra and Catwoman were both helmed by male filmmakers. These were films interested in using women as leading ladies but not in having them participate in the creative process in any other capacity.
Even the exception among this trio reflects the hardships faced by women in Hollywood. Aeon Flux was directed by Karyn Kusama, an acclaimed auteur behind recent critical hits like The Invitation and Destroyer. The prospect of her directing an action-packed superhero movie starring Charlize Theron sounds like a can’t-miss proposition. Unfortunately, Kusama has been extremely open about how she had no creative say on the final cut of Aeon Flux. The film was taken away from her in post-production, effectively stripping her of creative control.
It’s one of several ways these productions reflect an animosity towards women’s perspectives. Another example of this is how Elektra has no time for prominent adult women characters beyond Jennifer Garner’s titular protagonist. Much like future women-led blockbusters such as 2018’s Tomb Raider, Elektra is an example of a Hollywood production that seems to believe having one notable woman around in your cast is enough to shatter the glass ceiling. Instead, it just continues the lack of extreme female representation on the screen, not to mention limiting the number of interesting characters that can appear in your story.
Then again, a surplus of female characters isn’t any good if they’re all written like trash. For example, four of the six leads in Catwoman are women. Unfortunately, there isn’t much depth to speak of among any of them, with most of them just inhabiting tired stereotypes like “the kooky best friend.” Though Elektra and Catwoman vary in terms of how many women are in their respective casts, they both suffer from lazy writing stemming from a general lack of imagination in how Hollywood perceives female characters.
That deficiency in creativity inspired hero-and-villain dynamics that were never going to grab the attention of moviegoers. The same summer Catwoman came out, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) got to face off against the uber-complex villain Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) in one of his most acclaimed features, Spider-Man 2. Here, a classic hero and villain showdown is eschewed in favor of Doc Ock confronting his own demons and vowing not to “die a monster.” The film’s approach to women (including reducing Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane to a damsel in distress yet again) was certainly familiar, but Spider-Man 2’s embracing of a nuanced antagonist was fresh. It’s a byproduct of the kind of creative freedom many male-led projects are given.
By contrast, Halle Berry’s Catwoman was saddled with fighting a cosmetics executive gone mad (Sharon Stone) rather than an established villain from the comics like Poison Ivy or The Penguin. There’s nothing wrong with eschewing the source material in a comic book movie, but ignoring all the exciting DC Comics villains out there in favor of such an uninspired original character is downright insulting. Worst of all, there wasn’t anything especially deep or even fun about their dynamic. It’s one of the rare comic book movies to feature two women in an adversarial relationship, but it didn’t open up any new thematic or narrative doors.
Instead, the basic details of their rivalry (including setting it against a perfume company) felt like the fulfillment of surface-level expectations of what male studio executives believed women audiences wanted. Meanwhile, the shallow personalities of the two characters and their eventual catfight (no pun intended) feel more aimed at a male gaze than anything else. Rather than taking this DC Comics fixture and giving her an exciting story to inhabit, the 2004 Catwoman movie was boxed into rigid expectations of how all female-led movies, superhero or otherwise, must play out.
Catwoman and Elektra are pretty terrible under any context but they look especially uninspired when compared to another superior film released in the same timeframe. Like Catwoman, D.E.B.S. debuted in 2004. An action-comedy following a group of female super-spies, the film scored initially mixed reviews back in its original theatrical release but has since garnered a cult following and it isn’t hard to see why. Writer-director Angela Robinson embraces subverting traditional norms of women-led genre movies with its largely female cast as well as explicitly exploring a queer relationship between the central hero and villain.
Catwoman indulged in eye-rolling cliches, while Elektra’s limited view of what kind of roles women characters could inhabit made it exceedingly disposable. As for Aeon Flux, it served as a tragic example of the ongoing struggles for women filmmakers to have a voice. Meanwhile, D.E.B.S. eventually earned a positive reputation for embracing new ideas while still being entertaining. This movie managed to endure in the memories of fans because of its willingness to look forward. Meanwhile, the trio of women-led superhero flops from the mid-2000s came up short because of their inability to look beyond the past.
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