When director Rachel Talalay went to San Diego Comic-Con in 1995 to promote her film Tank Girl, based on a British comic about a superpower-less woman who, well, drives a tank, the fest was a fraction of the spectacle it is today. Back then, the event was a more honest celebration of comic books, with far less coopting by studios looking to push their movies and TV shows. That’s mostly because movies and TV shows based on comic books were rare. According to Talalay, who now directs for television on shows including The Flash and Supergirl, another crucial difference between Comic-Con of the 1990s and Comic-Con today was how few women filed inside the convention center. “When I took Tank Girl there, I brought in this female audience who had nothing,” Talalay says. “The only women in Comic-Con were the booth babes.”
Tank Girl ultimately flopped. Talalay blames executives who, she says, pushed her out of the editing process and turned the film into something nonsensical. Two decades later, much has changed in the comics-based entertainment ecosystem, as exemplified by the March 8 release of Captain Marvel—the first film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a female lead. Set in the 1990s, it follows Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot with special powers who gets embroiled in an intergalactic war. Heading into its release, the film has unprecedented momentum and appeal. Avengers: Infinity War ended with a wallop, and it’s clear Danvers and her alter ego will play a substantial role in cleaning up Thanos’ cosmic trauma in the fourth Avengers installment, scheduled for May.
Such confidence in a female-led film is a new phenomenon in Hollywood, especially within Marvel Studios and its corporate parent, Disney, which bought the company in 2009. Over the course of 10 years and 20 Marvel Studios movies, female superheroes have served as supporting players (the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy series) or shared equal billing in a sequel (Ant-Man and the Wasp). DC Films and Warner Bros. haven’t done much better in their decades-long partnership. Warner has released seven live-action films about Batman, six about Superman and one about them fighting each other. It wasn’t until 2017 that the studio finally put out its first stand-alone female superhero movie, Wonder Woman.
For comic book enthusiasts, the answer is clearly that for so long, Hollywood didn’t know the formula.
With Wonder Woman, DC Films finally delivered to a movie audience that, nationally, is becoming less male and less white. “We’ve known for years that fandom has become more inclusive, more diverse and, frankly, more feminine than ever,” says Matthew Smith, a professor at Radford University and author of Critical Approaches to Comics. The record-breaking box office tallies of both Black Panther and Wonder Woman prove Smith’s assertion.
The reality that you would market only products that are tailored to an audience of white males is surprising,” Smith continues. “There’s more money available to you. Why are you not going after that money?”
Their poor showings (Catwoman made $40 million domestically and Elektra $24 million) justified to film executives that they needn’t invest in movies about female superheroes, and that line of thinking prevailed for more than a decade.
But Dergarabedian likes to counter that dry-era theory by noting the precedent of commercially successful female-led action movies predating Wonder Woman. He cites Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley in the early Alien movies and, more recently, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games franchise, the first film of which established March as a reliable month for launching blockbusters. Following her 2015 performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron starred in Atomic Blonde, which completed her evolution into a bankable action heroine after Aeon Flux’s 2005 failure. Scarlett Johansson carried Luc Besson’s sci-fi action flick Lucy to almost $500 million worldwide in 2014. And yet, for almost a decade, Johansson’s Marvel character remained a supporting player. That will change soon; Marvel green lit a Black Widow stand-alone film last year.
Captain Marvel has a female director (albeit as half of a husband and wife team, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) and six of its seven credited screenwriters are women.
Even with all the goodwill, Captain Marvel isn’t a sure bet. For one, outside comic book fan circles, the Air Force pilot is a largely unknown figure—as is an earlier incarnation, Ms. Marvel—even though she has been around in various forms since the 1970s. But optimists would argue that this lack of familiarity could work to the film’s advantage. After all, does anyone need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die yet again? Captain Marvel might make you actually give a damn about the Kree or the fact that the hero glows in the trailers like she’s tripping on ayahuasca. It also might make you wonder what took so long.