Superheroines in film, ctd

by Sonny Bunch on July 4, 2012

Following up on yesterday’s post about Marvel’s “lack”* of female superhero films, I wanted to address a slightly different issue. As we’ve seen, the supply simply isn’t there: It’s disingenuous to argue, as Alyssa Rosenberg does here, that “Marvel will dig into the weirdness of its back catalogue before making a movie or a television series about one of its recognizable, established female heroes” simply because there aren’t many “recognizable, established female heroes” in Marvel’s catalog that would justify a standalone film. I covered this amply yesterday, so there’s on real reason to revisit it.

So there’s no supply. But what about demand? Are audiences clamoring for lady-heroes to save the day? Is Marvel shooting itself in the foot by buying into “the industry’s entrenched sexism,” as Manohla Dargis puts it? This is certainly possible. Maybe The Hunger Games shows that audiences are ready for a feisty female hero to complement all the mighty male heroes on the big screen.

I’m not so sure. The Hunger Games was a success because it is based on one of the most popular young adult novels of all time; it would’ve been hard to screw that one up. As we’ve seen, there are essentially no existing, female-only properties that it would make sense for Marvel to adapt. But maybe audiences will grab on to a marginal lady-hero and flock to the theaters anyway. If I’m a studio head, however, I don’t rely on “maybe.” I rely on history. And history shows that female-driven superhero movies are box office death.

Elektra (2005), which Dargis and Rosenberg both conveniently ignore, is the sort of film that Marvel has been great at turning into a success. Elektra’s a classic, if somewhat fringe, character; she was introduced to movie audiences in the modestly successful Daredevil two years prior to her solo debut; the flick starred a then-popular actress and had a reasonably high budget. It would not have been unreasonable to hope for this movie to do Blade or Ghost Rider numbers.

Instead, Elektra crashed and burned, grossing just $24M on a $43M production budget plus god-only-knows-how-big advertising budget.

But okay, that’s one flop. Surely there’s not a whole string of superheroine films flopping, right? Remember Catwoman (2004)? That had a huge budget ($100M!) and it starred one Oscar winner in Halle Berry and one Oscar nominee in Sharon Stone and the character had a great pedigree as one of DC’s longstanding heroines, someone audiences will surely come out for. I bet that made tons of money at the box office.

What’s that? Catwoman grossed just $40M? That can’t be right, let me check th…..oh. I see.

Well, fine. Maybe we just need our superheroine films leavened with some humor. My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), while not strictly speaking a “comic book movie” in that it wasn’t adapted from a comic book, is about a super-powered woman who fights crime. I think it counts for our purposes. I’m having trouble tracking down a budget, but given that it had some decent stars (Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson), a well-pedigreed director (Ivan Reitman), and a bunch of special effects sequences, I think we can safely assume that it was (at the very least) in the $40M to $50M range, certainly once advertising was taken into effect.

Whatever the actual budget was, it was almost certainly higher than the gross: a measly $22.5M.

So here we are: three female-driven superhero films in the heart of the comic book boom of the mid-2000s; three massive, massive flops. The three of them combined to gross less domestically than the production budget alone for Catwoman.

So there’s no supply. And there’s no demand. If I’m a studio exec, my question for Rosenberg and Darghis, then, is a relatively simple one: Where’s the money in making the films you want us to make?

Update: I forgot about Supergirl, though I’m not sure how much it really applies to this conversation given that it was released in 1984, well before the current flood of comic book movies. Still, that film was also largely ignored by audiences, grossing just $14M, less than all of the Superman films released in the same timeframe. Anyway, that’s 0 for 4 when it comes to female comic book flicks.

*I put “lack” in scare quotes because I think it’s weirdly dismissive to argue that the X-Men and Fantastic Four films, not to mention Elektra, don’t feature and rely on female superheroes.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Brett July 4, 2012 at 11:33 am

It seems that DC really has the *only* major-league standalone super-heroine — Wonder Woman, and although I enjoyed her direct-to-DVD release I don’t know that it was more than a modest success compared to some of the other animated movies from DC.

You could make a case for Supergirl, I suppose, but I don’t know how “standalone” she is and I think any project with her would require a very sure hand and a LOT of luck to get right.

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Sonny Bunch July 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

True story: I was updating the post just this moment with the data from the Supergirl movie that was released in 1984. Needless to say, it was also a box office flop.

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Brett July 4, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I remember — there was surprisingly little desire on the part of the moviegoing public to spend money to stare at Helen Slater. And it kinds of confirms the idea that a very deft touch would be needed to make it work; a screenplay by the guy who wrote “Martians Go Home” and directing by the guy who directed “Jaws II” would not seem to fit the bill.

The Salkinds would have been better off giving Slater a movie with no story than the ridiculous one they actually filmed.

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