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Birds of Prey and the Evolution of Female Led Superhero Films

by Elizabeth Jolly In the last 3 years, superhero films led by women have been an explosive topic, with millions of box office dollars coming in for films featuring women as heroes. Yet decades before this, superwomen were box office disasters - so what changed? How has the evolution of superhero films headed by women brought us to the upcoming film Birds of Prey?

Wonder Woman, the Original

Image from Amazon
In the discussion of female superheroes, one name will almost universally be the first to come up - Wonder Woman. In 1974, Wonder Woman’s first self-titled movie was released for television. The film starred Cathy Lee Crosby, a tennis player turned actor. Crosby was blonde, despite the character being typically depicted as a brunette. Pitched as the pilot for an ABC television series, the reviews were lackluster and the show was never picked up. A year later, a different Wonder Woman show was started starring Lynda Carter. This is arguably the most famous live-action portrayal of the character. The 1974 pilot was Wonder Woman’s first live-action appearance, airing twice in ‘74.  Wonder Woman, or Diana Prince, appeared in many movies after the 1974 film. However, she did not receive another solo film until 2017, when Gal Gadot starred in another self-titled film. Gadot had played Diana before in other DC Universe films, so she was already a familiar face when the film released. The 2017 Wonder Woman was highly received among audiences with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, even winning a Screen Actors Guild Award for the stunt ensemble. Wonder Woman grossed $821.74 million in the box office, the highest of any superhero origin film at the time. The success of Wonder Woman led to an influx of female superheroes onto the silver screen throughout the next several years. Gadot is set to reprise the role of Diana in another upcoming solo film, Wonder Woman 1984, slated to release later in June 2020.


Another DC property, Supergirl, received a solo film in 1984. Despite a cast of reasonably well-known names, including Mia Farrow and Peter O’Toole, Supergirl was a flop. The film only grossed about $14,000,000 dollars - despite having an estimated budget of $35,000,000. The film has a 42% on Metacritic. Superman’s cousin may have superpowers, but she doesn’t have the star power that he does - or at least she didn’t in 1984. Perhaps the plot of Wonder Woman 1984 will be Diana coming to save Supergirl from a box office disaster.


Image from The Undefeated
In the history of box office flops, one of the most famously bad movies is 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry. With a 27% from Metacritic, this film actually won awards for how terrible it was, including a Razzie for Worst Actress that previous Oscar winner Berry actually accepted in person, calling out Catwoman in her acceptance speech as a “piece-of-sh*t, godawful movie.” In its own way, DC’s Catwoman did make movie history - but it did little to pave the way for future female-led hero movies, except perhaps as an example of what not to do.

Tank Girl

In 1995, a British comedy series called Tank Girl was adapted into a film of the same name. The film was a financial disaster, and critical reviews were heavily mixed but overall negative. It is now considered a cult classic due to its steampunk aesthetic and other atypical characteristics. The music for the film, which included songs by artists like Björk, Ice-T, and Joan Jett, was widely considered to be better than the film itself. A reboot has been reported to be in early development and is linked to Margot Robbie. The general school of thought surrounding Tank Girl is that it was simply ahead of its time. The film was also heavily cut by the studio, largely to remove sexual content, although it still attained an R rating.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Image from Amazon
Nothing can prove the shortcomings of the early forays into female-led superhero films quite like the romantic comedy spoof of the genre: My Super Ex-Girlfriend. For one thing, this film is more about Luke Wilson’s character than Uma Thurman’s superhero character. For another, the essential premise is that Jenny (Thurman) uses her powers to get revenge on her ex for starting a relationship with another woman, featuring some superpowered catfights. The film performed well at the box office but was critically panned. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “only sporadically amusing” and says that it “embodies sexist clichés.” Not only did early female-led superhero films flop, even a spoof of one couldn’t do it better.


As part of a promotion for Street Fighter IV, a 20th Century Fox film was released, a prequel featuring the backstory of Chun-Li. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li starred Kristin Kreuk and was unsuccessful at the box office, though DVD sales have been decent. Critical reviews were mostly negative, and in Australia the movie never hit theaters, releasing directly onto DVD instead. The movie is mostly forgotten today, which the creative team is probably grateful for, as Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 5%


Marvel’s first female-led film was 2005’s Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner. Elektra was a spinoff of the Daredevil franchise, with largely low critical reviews. It grossed just $56 million worldwide and did not garner any awards. Garner’s performance was praised, but everything else about the film was panned. One critic, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to blame Elektra for ruining Garner’s career and the future of female-led superhero films for a decade.

Captain Marvel

Image from Glamour
In 2019, Marvel Studios released a groundbreaking female-led film, with Oscar-winner Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, also known as Carol Danvers. Captain Marvel grossed over 1 billion dollars worldwide, with mostly positive reviews from critics. Fans were more divided over the film, including a large number of fans complaining that Larson did not smile enough in the movie. In response, Larson posted photoshopped versions of other Avengers franchise posters, featuring Marvel’s male heroes with large, toothy grins. Captain Marvel is the 9th highest-grossing superhero film of all time and the highest-grossing female-led superhero film. Riding the success of 2017’s Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel proved that audiences are starving for more female superheroes - and also, perhaps, that DC and Marvel have figured out how to successfully write, cast, and direct these films. Captain Marvel has grossed an additional $64.2 million through streaming and DVD sales in the US. A sequel is slated for 2022.

Black Widow

Despite first entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2010 in Iron Man 2 and being one of the primary Avengers, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will not get a feature film until mid-2020. The film is slated to release in May, with incredibly high expectations following Captain Marvel and Black Widow’s large fanbase as a core Marvel hero.

Alita: Battle Angel

2019 was a hallmark year for female superheroes, as Alita: Battle Angel released along with Captain Marvel. Based on a Manga rather than a Western-style comic book, Alita grossed about $404 million worldwide. Reviews were mixed, as critics and fans enjoyed the effects and the acting but not the screenplay. The reception was overall positive. Sequels may be in development, but the original film spent over a decade in development hell and no official announcement has been made.

Harley Quinn (and Huntress, and Black Canary, and Renee Montoya)

Image from Hearstapps
After Wonder Woman, one of the other most well known female comic characters is DC’s Harley Quinn, despite the fact that the character first appeared in the animated show, not the comics. Harley Quinn is typically a villain, though recent depictions show her as an antihero after breaking up with the Joker. In 2016, Harley Quinn was a main character in Suicide Squad, portrayed by Margot Robbie. Overall, this film performed well, and Robbie’s portrayal became immediately iconic. Ask anyone who has ever been to a comic convention and they will tell you that “Count the Harley Cosplayers” is an unofficial game played by attendees, with most attired as the Suicide Squad version. After all of this success, Robbie’s Harley Quinn is officially the head of her very own girl gang of superheroes, The Birds of Prey. On February 7, 2020, Birds of Prey: And the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn opens in theaters, and it is anticipated to break box office records. What makes this movie different from its predecessors? For one thing, this isn’t an origin story. Rather than telling the tale of how one woman became a superhero, this is the story of one woman who is already super at using her experience in the field to save the day again. Harley Quinn’s story is already established; Birds of Prey is an expansion of a canon that already exists. For another, this is a film with a superhero team where the headliner is a woman - and all of the other superheroes are, too. Harley Quinn teams up with Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montoya - played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez respectively - to save an adolescent girl from Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask. This completely flips the script set by other superhero teams like the Avengers or the Justice League, where all of the heroes are men save for one token woman. Not only that, but half of the team is portrayed by women of color. Birds of Prey is already flying high when it comes to diversity, and this is the team’s first film.  Another factor that sets Birds of Prey apart is a female creative team. Birds of Prey was written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan. Neither Wonder Woman nor Captain Marvel, the two most successful predecessors in this genre, are lead solely by women. Captain Marvel was written and directed by a team consisting of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet also listed as a screenwriter. Wonder Woman was directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Allan Heinberg.  Birds of Prey is largely anticipated to perform very well, but the film has received some backlash online. Certain audiences worry that the film will be “social justice warrior” propaganda intended to tell a misandrist story that men are evil. To these individuals, I suggest that they may enjoy watching My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Birds of Prey is intended to succeed. It's even being released by DC, a major studio. At the end of the day, movies are created to make money - and misandry doesn’t sell well.  As to whether or not Birds of Prey will be a feminist film, the answer is more subjective. Through things like the Bechdel test, many articles will be written to ascertain the level of “wokeness” that the movie contains after its release. Some will say yes, some will say no - but no matter how that debate finds its equilibrium, Birds of Prey will have made film history for its inclusion and the way it stands on the shoulders of superhero films before it. And that alone is, to me at least, an indicator that Birds of Prey is the most feminist superhero film we have ever seen. Every film in this list crawled, stumbled, or walked so that Wonder Woman (2017) could run. Wonder Woman ran so that Captain Marvel could fly. Captain Marvel flew so that Birds of Prey could soar. Birds of Prey opens in theaters February 7, 2020.  
Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, SAGA Awards, YouTube, IGN, Forbes Images: Amazon, The Undefeated, Glamour, Hearstapps Featured Image: Katherine Simon