Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

Posted: September 4, 2014 in watching
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A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.


Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?


Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.

  1. Sue Archer says:

    Reblogged this on Doorway Between Worlds and commented:
    For those of you who enjoy my posts on movies and superheroes, I have a guest post on Andrew Knighton Writes today that you may wish to check out. Thanks for hosting me, Andrew!

  2. Bravo! I so agree! There are so few female-led sci fi / fantasy shows out there for the adult audience, it’s ridiculous. Xena comes to mind, which I enjoyed, and the Queen of Swords, a female version of Zorro, but at least she wasn’t called that. Unfortunately, that show only lasted one season. The first season of Dark Angel was good, though I didn’t like the second nearly as well. I was really disappointed when the Wonder Woman movie fell through. She deserves better, and I hope at some point, the Hollywood head honchos figure that out.

    • Sue Archer says:

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your faves, Lori! Yes, I enjoyed the beginning of Dark Angel as well. The failure of the Wonder Woman movie was so disappointing – I am sure Joss Whedon would have done a fantastic job of it.

  3. You’re right about one thing: You can’t blame the dearth of super-powered female hero movies on a world full of men who don’t want to see them. Especially considering the way they are typically presented (by a male-dominated industry).

    Unfortunately, that same male-dominated movie industry is very conservative, and incredibly myopic, when it comes to their perception of their own audience, even to the point of ignoring their own stats, following 50-year-old tropes and attitudes, and somehow not noticing that the popularity of TV characters like Cara Thrace, Xena, Dana Scully, Zoe Washburn and Samantha Carter did not come from soap opera romance storylines. Even movies like Salt and the Tomb Raider movies ably demonstrate that female heroes work.

    I think that, on a real level, they are just plain afraid of female superheroes… and I don’t mean from a masculine standpoint. Costumes tend to be hyper-sexualized… how much grief will we get from making our heroes wear those body-revealing outfits to get into punch-ups? And then there’s the threat: If a woman is even temporarily defeated… beaten… (gasp!) restrained… especially by a mayan… what kind of feminist backlash will there be?

    So they tiptoe around the issue, and we get weak fare like Catwoman… mostly a result of sad writing and production to avoid scaring people.

    Hopefully better heads will prevail soon, they’ll get over their fear, and be able to give us something with teeth in it. Personally, I’d rather wait for them to do it right than get Catwoman 2: The Electric Boogaloo.

    • Sue Archer says:

      Hi Steven, thanks for the comment and linking to my post. I enjoyed reading your follow-up post! That’s a great point about understanding the perceptions of the audience – how can they make a good female superhero movie if they are not in touch with what both the male and female audience members would enjoy – or find acceptable? A lot of women dislike the hyper-sexualized outfits (including me), and fighting styles that are designed to show off physical assets rather than demonstrate true strength. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed watching the movie Haywire, even though it had its issues – Gina Carano was cast because she was an MMA fighter, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a movie where the woman used brute force to fight rather than fancy acrobatics. That’s how I imagine Wonder Woman would fight – and if she got defeated in that sort of context, I don’t think execs would have to be so afraid of backlash.

      • I’ll have to look for Haywire and check it out. I’ve said (for, God, years now) that if Hollywood wants to find women to play superheroes, they ought to be looking in the pro fighting and wrestling arenas (however authentic) for girls who not only can fight, or at least are built like fighters, but can act as well… instead of the usual waifs and starlets who barely look like they can lift a chair, much less hit you with one.

        Even better: Gina Carano LOOKS like a Wonder Woman! Hollywood, what’s your problem?!?

  4. […] recent blog post by Sue Archer flags this popular issue: Thanks to years now of excellent and popular superhero movies, the fan […]

  5. I do want to mention that the Resident Evil movie franchise is all wrapped around Alice, and there is the Underworld franchise with Selene. And they did try with Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet, though both movies were hashed in the editing process.

    And on TV, I want to add Dollhouse and Haven and Fringe; even though those were all ensemble casts, the lead was still a woman.

    So there have been some attempts — including rather successful ones — that shouldn’t just be shrugged off. But that’s part of the point. There have been successes! Take that as permission to make more, people!

  6. Sue Archer says:

    Some great examples, H. You’re absolutely right about Alice and Selene – I’ve only seen the first movie in each series, did you find the others were worth seeing? I hadn’t thought of them as successful franchises in the sense that the movies have been panned by critics, but there’s certainly a fan base out there and it’s great to see strong female characters be successful on screen. As you say, time to make more!

    • I think they’re on par with any other explosion-fest, heh. So not up to the quality or carrying the same weight as Ripley, but still making in-roads into the traditionally male-dominated action hero genre. And usually with a love interest that they have to (try to) save, or a younger female that they mentor, which is cool!

      Heck, Expendabelles may be coming out eventually, trading off of the Expendables series but with a full female cast — and I think it’s great that there are enough action women with a decent following that the producers feel like they can make this movie. I doubt it will be high art, but we’ll get more women kicking butt.

      Women are slowly pervading the male roles on TV and in movies. Female police chiefs (Psych, Dexter, Castle), buddy-cops (The Heat), flawed driven antiheroes (Homeland — from what I’ve heard) and dominant corporate/legal/political schemers (Damages, etc) are all there on our small screens. Oh, and I should add Sleepy Hollow and Once Upon A Time (including the Wonderland spinoff) for female-led fantasy/sci-fi shows. Movies need to catch up, but I personally think movies need a lot of work; the way they’re constructed these days leads to bloated run-time without a lot of real impact, at least for me. And I say this across the board. TV just has so much more time to make character arcs, while sci-fi movies have largely become glossy actioners.

      (And as a side note, Prometheus starred the conflict between two women. So Noomi Rapace’s character has taken up Ripley’s banner directly, if not so fantastically.)

      • Sue Archer says:

        Yes, it’s been much easier to make in-roads in television rather than movies. Even the animated series tend to have better female characters than what we find on the big screen, like Katara and Toph in Avatar: The Last Airbender (not to mention Korra). I enjoyed Stana Katic’s portrayal of Beckett in Castle until the show got too soap opera-ish for me. But that’s also part of the challenge of including romantic tension in a show. I was so glad that Black Widow didn’t end up as Captain America’s love interest in Winter Soldier. Once romance shows up, everything always seems to go downhill in terms of female character portrayal. (Which is too bad, because I enjoy a good love story.)

        I am now going to have to see Prometheus. After hearing about the nonsensical action scenes in there, I had been avoiding it as something that could cast a shadow on my enjoyment of the Aliens universe. But it would be worth it to see Noomi Rapace in that context.

        Maybe the ultimate solution is to start with a great female character from TV, and have her star in a movie. Best of both worlds! 😉

        • Yeah, Prometheus has the worst scientists in the history of science, so brace yourself for that. But it’s still a rare case of a sci-fi movie with a female protagonist and antagonist (at least on the human side).

        • And since you mentioned The Last Airbender — I don’t know how influenced they were by anime, but I wouldn’t be surprised, because anime has whole genres dedicated to girls and women kicking butt, with men as mere peripheral characters. Though there are issues with many anime shows, it would be nice if American animation could pick up that thread a bit more. Revolutionary Girl Utena is still my favorite show of any type or genre.

          • Sue Archer says:

            The Last Airbender was strongly influenced by anime (and it’s a lot of fun watching Toph throw boulders around with her earth-bending). Thanks for the tip on Revolutionary Girl Utena – I’ll be sure to check it out!

  7. brennalayne says:

    YES to all these things! Ripley is amazing, and for me, as a woman, she’s one of the few female action-heroes who doesn’t make me cringe. She wears clothing that makes sense. She acts like a human being. Perhaps Hollywood typically fails to create successful female action heroes because they’re so tied to the same old model–the airbrushed, physically exagerrated woman who wears protective gear over her boobs but not her vital organs.

    • Sue Archer says:

      LOL, Brenna! Yes, the clothing is nonsensical most of the time, isn’t it? I also love how Ripley had no fighting skills at the beginning of the movie, and so she’s not your typical action hero fare. She’s just a person trying to do the right thing. And it’s awesome.

  8. […] Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say? […]

  9. L. Marie says:

    I totally agree with this post! I’m tired of the excuses that are made when movies are canceled. They could have done a great Wonder Woman movie. And last time I checked, Catwoman is no superhero!

    • Sue Archer says:

      Yes, it’s mind-boggling that Catwoman got her own movie ahead of Wonder Woman. Apparently having a movie about a sexy villain in black leather is more acceptable than telling the story of a powerful Amazon warrior who’s a great role model for girls.

  10. Sue Archer says:

    I had to come back to this post to say how pleased I am that Marvel has recently announced a Captain Marvel movie for 2018. Better late than never! This follows DC’s announcement of a standalone Wonder Woman movie for 2017. Crossing my fingers that the studios do these right, and we get to see even more of them in future!

    • I’m very pleased with that too, and with the addition of Black Panther to increase the ethnic diversity of their leads. It would have been nice if, with so many big budget films on their rosters, DC and Marvel had managed more than just one female lead each, but it’s progress.

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