Earth to Hollywood: People Will Pay to See a Female Superhero Film

The success of Catching Fire suggests that giving Wonder Woman her own movie wouldn't be such a gamble after all.

Lionsgate / Murray Close

After 72 years as a leader among superheroes in the DC Comics universe, Wonder Woman is finally going to be in a movie. Someone else’s movie. This week, Warner Brothers announced that Gal Gadot will don the heroine’s bulletproof bracelets in Batman vs. Superman.

While it’s nice that Wonder Woman’s screen debut has arrived, it’s disappointing that it’s only as a sidekick: As Noah Berlatsky wrote here at The Atlantic on Thursday, Wonder Woman was originally meant to replace Superman, not back him up. Why not give her, or any other female superhero for that matter, her own film? Conventional wisdom dictates that Hollywood just doesn’t think it would make money. The twin flops of Halle Berry’s shoddy Catwoman film in 2004 and the ill-advised 2005 Daredevil spinoff, Elektra, are often invoked as a warning that films where the tights-wearing, crime-fighting protagonist is a woman are doomed to failure.

But times have changed and the conventional wisdom no longer applies, if it ever did. In the wake of the $580 million box-office haul for Catching Fire, the Hunger Games sequel starring Jennifer Lawrence, the economic case for the viability of a woman superhero in a starring role makes it look like a slam dunk. Here’s why.

Action-Adventure Films With Female Leads Are Succeeding at the Box Office

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Catching Fire is the highest-grossing Thanksgiving-released film in history, making $110.2 million over the five-day holiday. It pulled in the fourth-highest gross of any second-weekend box office ever, after The Avengers, Avatar, and The Dark Knight, two of which are superhero movies.

The fact that this sci-fi film starred a woman and conquered the box office isn’t a fluke: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, opened in October and so far has grossed $250 million domestically and $615.5 million worldwide, outperforming even Catching Fire abroad.

The Best Movie Stars, Right Now, Are Women     

The recent difficulty of casting the male lead of Fifty Shades of Grey led Variety and other news outlets to bemoan the lack of young leading men who can be relied upon consistently at the box office. While the industry continues to scout for the next Brad Pitt, smart studios can take advantage of the stars that they do have: women.

Between the first and second Hunger Games films, for example, Jennifer Lawrence proved herself to be a bona fide box-office draw with the affection of the masses. Her paycheck for the first installment amounted to a relatively paltry $500,000, despite her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone. A few years later (with a Best Actress win under her belt), she pulled in $10 million for Catching Fire as an image of her, alone, smoldered on the posters that blanketed the country. The movie studio reaped the rewards at the box office. If 2011’s X-Men: First Class came out today, Lawrence’s character Mystique would be featured in the advertising far more heavily than she was at the time. People will clearly pay to watch Jennifer Lawrence as a steely underdog, and people will pay for superhero movies. Would they really turn away from her if she wore a cape?

Lawrence isn’t alone in her ability to anchor a blockbuster. Sandra Bullock has had enormous recent success with both Gravity and action comedies, but has never played a superhero. Scarlett Johansson’s star power could certainly attract audiences to see her Avengers character The Black Widow in a standalone picture. Young actresses like Shailene Woodley and Chloe Grace Moretz have both been cast in roles that play with ideas in the sci-fi genre, but there has been no talk about a tentpole superhero feature for either of them yet. Television is exploding with skilled, tough actresses: Scandal’s Kerry Washington or Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany could vanquish evil with flair. Another excellent possibility is Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff, who is rumored to have already met with Marvel. These actresses are assets, and deployed correctly, could prove highly effective.

Catching Fire Has Crossover Appeal, and So Do Superhero Movies

A lot of industry execs have long assumed that a sci-fi action-adventure movie starring a man has universal appeal, while a film in the same genre starring a woman draws mostly women. As The New York Times reports, “Many box-office analysts have viewed The Hunger Games as a successor to Twilight—an extremely popular movie series, but ultimately one with limited appeal to certain demographic categories, particularly men.” In an interview about upcoming Marvel films, Stan Lee demurred when asked whether Black Widow would be given a solo film like most of her teammates. “Well, probably at one time," he said. "They’ll make a movie of the Black Widow. The thing is the women like these movies as much as the guys, so we don’t have to knock ourselves out to find a female ... but we will.” That's right: A film with skintight-leather-clad Scarlett Johansson punching people would be Marvel having to "knock" itself "out"—not cashing in on an obvious way to get both men and women in the theater.

Would guys really avoid a new film in a series they already like because a girl got more screen time in it? The Catching Fire numbers suggest not. On opening weekend, 59 percent of the audience was female and 41 percent were male, and Catching Fire doesn’t even happen to be related to a pre-existing, male-dominated franchise. The other movie dominating the box office on Thanksgiving weekend was Disney’s animated offering, Frozen (which also featured a female lead) while pulling in an audience that was 57 percent female and 43 percent male. Sandra Bullock’s blockbuster Gravity actually skewed male, with an audience that was 54 percent men and 46 percent women (though, to be fair, the marketing made it seem as though George Clooney had a bigger role than he did).

Lee was right about one thing: Superhero flicks don't shut out women. The audience for The Avengers was 40 percent female and 60 percent male. Catching Fire and The Avengers have both done equally well with audiences over and under 25. A female-helmed superhero movie wouldn’t be a niche alternative to existing superhero franchises—it could serve the roughly same audience while developing previously underused characters.

Comics Are Full of Source Material New to Moviegoers—but Not Too New

The Hunger Games films were based on Suzanne Collins’s YA book series, a choice most likely driven by the books’ sudden popularity but one that ultimately proved astute in terms of genre storytelling. The plot is familiar: Futuristic gladiatorial combat, heroic teens, and dystopian governments have been sci-fi staples for decades. The thing we haven’t seen onscreen before is a heroine like Katniss facing these recognizable demons. Even compared to print storytelling, where female sci-fi protagonists are more common, Katniss stands out for her complexity and composure.

Watching a great new character work within a familiar structure has paid off so well that other studios have ransacked the YA shelves in search of a story with similar alchemy. So far, the results mostly look like fairly bland girl-in-dystopia imitators. But where else can you find adventure stories with mythology already entrenched in pop culture? Where else are there droves of fierce female characters with interesting backstories who have never been onscreen? The answer is comics.

You Don’t Have to Spend as Much Initially if Your Material’s Not Already a Blockbuster Commodity

Even though The Hunger Games books were already bestsellers, the first film cost a relatively cheap $78 million to make. At times it shows in lackluster CGI, but that didn’t stop the movie from becoming a runaway success. Once it became clear that this franchise could be a commercial juggernaut, Lionsgate upped the budget to $130 million and switched directors for Catching Fire, a sequel that outperformed the first film at the box office and was met with more enthusiastic critical reception. In contrast, the 2012 Spider-Man reboot The Amazing Spider-Man did not gross as well as the last incarnation of the hero, and cost around $220 million to make.

While stories about female superheroes would be new material for the screen and therefore require less initial expense, they wouldn’t be completely untried. Marvel and DC comics each have their own established universes and characters that viewers are familiar with. So using those franchises to launch a female-driven film could prove low risk for potentially high reward.

Cultural Capital

The plot of Catching Fire itself functions as a parable about the importance of public perception. Part of what makes the film juicier and more complex than its predecessor is the conflict between the portrayal of Katniss the government wants to promote and the way that the public sees her as a revolutionary figure. Building buzz, starting conversation, upsetting expectations—these things have concrete consequences. In the story of Catching Fire, they lead to an uprising; at the box office, they help make a fortune.

There is a gap in the film industry that Catching Fire filled somehow, and it reaped the reward for that. If studio executives choose to also fill the adjacent gap in the superhero genre by casting a lead female, all signs point to the potential for similar results. So why banish Wonder Woman to the second tier in another superhero’s movie? If Hollywood lets her, she just might save it.