Creating a Good Female Superhero For Hollywood

You hear the lament all the time about how Hollywood can’t make a good female superhero movie/television show. While not exactly true, the fact remains that Hollywood is much less persistent in seeking a successful formula here than it does with the male superheroes–who have their collection of duds, as well.

It’s said that, for some bizarre reason I don’t understand, people won’t watch a female superhero. Enough examples can be cited that show this isn’t true. Audiences will eagerly watch a GOOD movie or tv show with a female hero, but too often the screenplay is lacking (either due to the writer or the suits). Unfortunately, this script/directing failure doesn’t factor into the post-crash analysis nearly as much as the fact that the lead was female. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after it therefore because of it).

While I’ll be the first to say that Wonder Woman is a difficult character–she’s basically a female Superman but from less humble roots–hers isn’t impossible with the right creative talent. On the other hand, a character like Catwoman should be a slam-dunk. There is no excuse for making a poor Catwoman film. So, let’s take a look to see what should go into creating a good vehicle for a female superhero (or a superhero in general, for that matter).

The Hero

Obviously you need to pick your tent-pole character. While there are fewer iconic and generally recognizable female supes around, they are there–or they can be created out of whole cloth. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t exactly spring forth from the comics, after all…nor did The Bride/Black Mamba/Beatrix Kiddo.

The key here, for this to work: the unambiguous lead must be a female superhero. While the X-Men are better than most at bringing in the femme, the fact is that it’s pretty much a Wolverine piece with a large ensemble cast. When considering our female hero…if there is a male counterpart hero, then they need to be mildly mentioned but not heard in order not to unnecessarily shift the focus away from our lead.

The Scribe

After you pick the character, you’ll need someone to write the script. Seems simple but evidence points to it being more difficult in this situation than you’d expect. You see, you have to find a screenwriter who actually likes writing strong women characters. If you want the character to resonate with the audience, the writer must be able to find the balance between the feminine and the heroic. Too often, writers view these characters as male heroes with breasts or as heroes who are dependents/victims. That’s actually fairly insulting and pretty much dooms the script from the start. The writer needs to be able to convey hero as well as an interpretation of “female” that is lacking in misogyny.

I think it’s important that the writer be a fan of the hero–to at least know the basic mythology. If the writer is very much a “fanboy”, knowing every bit of minutiae that the hero has endured since her first publication, then caution must be taken. It can be very good that the writer is also their own continuity department. On the other hand, they can be so beholden to the canon/mythology that they are unwilling to explore new avenues…even if they tweak some of the “established” rules. More on this later.

Also, this being a superhero tale, you need to find a writer capable of not only writing action, but also of writing within an ensemble. Why?

Characters

Because good storytelling always–ALWAYS— comes down to the characters and how they interact, that’s where the script attention should be focused. Many feel that genre stories, especially, can be more plot-heavy and less invested in the characters. I was once in that camp myself. I was wrong. The fact is that great characters can rescue a poor plot, but the kryponite of a great plot are poorly-realized and/or poorly-executed characters. It’s a simple formula which boils down to the fact that you have to surround the superhero with well-rounded people.

And I’m not just talking about the supporting good-guys that are too-often put in only for “color”. No, the antagonist(s) have to be just as dimensional as our hero. In fact, the antagonist has to honestly believe that eir actions are just as righteous as our hero’s are. If, as is often the case, the antagonist is just a mustache-twirling sort of villain bent on doing evil for evil’s sake, then you might as well just flush a few tens of millions of dollars down the toilet now–it’ll be faster and less painful.

This is an area where I think the writer has a bit more leeway. The supporting characters are often less fully rounded so as not to detract from the super one. I disagree with this, especially in film and tv. The writer can and must take the established template and fill in some of the personality/history gaps. Again, great characters go a long way toward making the final product great. If you short-change the supporting cast, you short-change the show.

The Setting

For many superhero tales, when to set the story is very tricky. Many heroes are best when in a certain era (World War II is usually the case as Nazis make great bad guys). Updating them to the modern world can require a fair amount of balance so you don’t rob the hero of what they need to make them shine. On the other hand, it is important to make stories that resonate with the younger target demo, so that’s a very strong pull toward having the adventure take place in the modern era. Which brings up the related issue:

Canon or Reimagining

This can be the trickiest decision of all. The fans have certain expectations. If the hero isn’t recognizable, then you’ll not only lose the audience but also gain their enmity. If the superhero doesn’t already have their own heroic franchise, then I think the sanest way to go is to be conservative. Don’t try to be too innovative, but don’t be afraid to test out new waters. Older franchises can often be refreshed with a bit of a reboot. Sure, the fans will grumble, but if you’re respectful about it and do a good job, they’ll come around–witness Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek.

Associated with this is the question of the costume. We’ve all seen enough superhero movies to know that it’s more likely that the costume that looked great on the page looks positively ridiculous when the character is out in the real world. Part of this is tailoring, some of it is writing. If you set your costumed character in situations where they are being heroic, they don’t look nearly as silly as when they are simply walking down to the corner store to get a liter of milk.

Again, I think it’s generally best to be conservative and focus on the style of costume that the audience expects to see without much modernizing. Keaton’s Batman was an interesting update, but a few films later…well, the nipples needed to have never shown up. Reeve’s Superman was classic while Routh’ missed the mark with the small “S” and hip-hugging shorts. And of course there are the surprising wins with Carter’s Wonder Woman and Maguire’s Spider-Man–both of which could have easily looked ridiculous but which fit in their worlds amazingly well.

Origins

The more obscure the hero, the more necessary is the origin story. My opinion is that the origin story should be minimized in many cases. Often the general origin story of a particular hero is known by the audience by the time they view the picture. Also, in many cases the origin story is simply being lazy. It’s an easy way to fill pages by simply adapting the established and prior work of others.

Still, origin stories are probably necessarily as many in the audience will be lost without one. This being the case, I’d recommend keeping it short–no more than the first act or (ideally) in the teaser and titles. There’s a reason why the majority of superhero franchises find the sequel better than the first movie: they aren’t saddled with telling the origin story.

Special Effects

And it’s only now that I think any attention needs to be paid to how to realize the super powers and their effects. Despite what the marketing department would seem to have us believe, this is the least important element of the pre-production stage. Even in a video game era, the gee-whiz special effects are thought of more and more as eye-candy by the viewers. Sure, poorly done FX can drag a movie down, but building a movie around the effects instead of having the effects seemlessly augment the story is akin to lighting a match in a fireworks factory. You might get out OK, but I wouldn’t lay odds on it.

Getting it Done

Unless the script is finished and is mighty, no thought at all should be given to casting or hiring directors or anything else. Superhero movies tend to be on the expensive side so there is no excuse for putting the cart before the horse. Nail down a good script and the rest should take care of itself…unless some damn fool vainly mucks it up.

Legacy and Final Thoughts

I mentioned before that there aren’t as many female heroes as males, but there are enough. The one everybody points to is, of course, Wonder Woman. While Lynda Carter made the role her own, it isn’t sacrosanct. The problem with Wonder Woman is that she’s a difficult character to do right so that the audience is immersed in that world while also not diminishing who Wonder Woman needs to be.

If I were a studio, I’d probably go for doing either a Catwoman or a Batgirl movie. Like WW, they are generally known; but unlike WW, they are mortal women and thus easier characters to write for. The television attempt of Birds of Prey (with an injured Batgirl–now Oracle, and Catwoman’s daughter–Huntress) was hampered by many small problems but nothing that couldn’t have been surmounted with tighter scripts–so giving this another try wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

I’d love it if a studio would do a Supergirl reboot with Laura Vandervoort, who I think has established herself as a very good modern Kara on Smallville.

Of course there are a plethora of heroes in the X-Men universe to draw from, but many of them are so entwined in the X-verse that it might be better to focus on superheroines that are more stand-alone.

Despite the obstacles, there are solo female superheroes in movies and TV that achieved a reasonable measure of success. TV: Wonder Woman, of course. Xena. Buffy. Jaime Sommers. Æon Flux (cartoon). The “Charmed Ones” (though more of a coven of sister witches than supes, they were consistently heroic). Movies: Breatrix Kiddo. Ellen Ripley. And that’s pretty much it, I think. Other characters of note (e.g. Supergirl, Sheena, Catwoman) have largely fallen into the dust bins of “meh” or worse.

All-in-all, there really is no reason, other than a lack of will to do it honestly and respectfully, for female superheroes (or superheroes in general) not to find success at the box office. Good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of the gender of the protagonist. If we cater to the characters and the stories they have to tell, instead of writing to assumptions based on marketing demographics, the next superhero franchise could easily feature the face of a woman. Based on the griping I’ve seen on the Information Super Interwebs for more than a year, I think it’ll be a welcome arrival.

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