In June of 1989, Batman opened to enormous praise and a box office weekend gross of more than $40 million. Sixteen years later, the Marvel franchise opened its latest edition, The Fantastic Four, with sales exceeding $56 million.
Contemporary comic-book-based films are widely viewed as loud, special-effects packed, terrible in quality and unmistakably sexist toward female characters. In fact, calling them “characters” would be more credit than they deserve, and the ones that are characters are still continually shown as helpless or sex objects.
Catwoman and Elektra, the only two films that focus on a sole female heroine, opened to critical butchering and opening weekends of less than $17 million. Both films had banal content, yet that doesn’t explain how poorly received they were. Many movies with male superheroes were considerably worse, yet made much more money. Consider the painfully mind-numbing two hours of Hulk, which made more than three times the profit of either Catwoman or Elektra.
Sex has long been a failsafe for film advertising, with women usually as the selling points. When fully transformed into their superhero personas, both Catwoman and Elektra wear a thick layer of makeup, tight leather pants and itty-bitty tops. They aren’t shown as strong, intelligent women, but rather as sex objects – the only way to market them to men and boys.
While male superheroes are fully clad, females get tops that push their breasts up to their chins and out for the public to see. Though this method of attracting viewers often fails, it is still unabashed sexism.
Then there are the female heroes that are in a group of superheroes – a newer category that is still unimpressive. Here we see the women of X-Men, Fantastic Four and Batman and Robin, two in which the characters of Storm and Batgirl are entirely useless in the films.
Alicia Silverstone was 21 years old when she played Batgirl, yet she is still called a girl. Another pair of these women, Sue Storm and Jean Gray, are defined only by the male characters, for they both play a love interest and rift between two men. Rogue, the youngest of the X-Men group, is the only one that actually has a character.
The male superheroes don’t go it alone, though. Whether monogamous like Spider-Man, or with a new girl every movie like Batman, there is always that one female character always needing to be rescued.
These characters should not even qualify as ‘characters’ – it’s more appropriate to label them as ‘types’ because they come with little to no background and have virtually no personality to speak of. Simply put, they are the all-too-common, overused love interest.
These helpless characters, from Batman Forever’s Chase Meridian to Batman Begins’ Rachel Dawes, range from the extreme. Meridian is given no personality outside of being a blatantly forward psychologist; she is Batman’s girlfriend, nothing more.
Dawes has some backstory, some personality, even some guts, but still essentially fits the hackneyed mold. Even as she has a gun-trained one-on-one showdown with Scarecrow’s minions, Batman literally swoops in to save her.
However, not all the female characters of the film versions of the Marvel universe are sexist or insulting. In fact, Catwoman, as a villain in Batman Returns, is quite possibly the most interesting, well-acted and least insulting female character in a comic-book-based movie.
But the overwhelming majority paints comic book women as different versions of the same woman. It is time for society to abandon these archaic views of women and start portraying them in an equal light, beginning with film.
Ashley Helaudais can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.