We've come a long way in the evolution of women in comic book film and television. Thanks to the comic book renaissance we are currently enjoying, things have been getting better on all fronts every year. Long gone are the days of only love interests and mothers, defined largely by their nurturing archetypes, or their unfortunate tendency to get into trouble so the hero can swoop in and save the day. By and large, the Lana Langs and the MJ Watsons have been left in the past, replaced by the Black Widows, the White Canaries, and the Peggy Carters of the world.
Still, it's not a perfect science. On all fronts, there's still plenty of room for improvement. Let's take a look at each of the four major universes (#DCEU, Arrowverse, X-Men, and #MCU) to rank how they're doing with their female characters.
DC Extended Universe
This is going to be the trickiest one to rank largely because it's the one with the fewest amount of existing properties. Still in its nascent stages, it's hard to fully consider DCEU — what it is and what it could be — until it gets a few more movies under its belt. A task made all the more difficult by the middling-to-poor responses all three films in existence have received from fans and critics alike.
Even still, with this burgeoning universe, there are a few bright spots. While Lois Lane hasn't done much to challenge archetype, #WonderWoman is a breath of fresh air, and was easily one of the highlights of #BatmanVSuperman, leading us all to wonder why the film didn't spend more time on her, and less time on the contest between its two title characters.
What's more, the first trailer released for her solo film is enormously promising. #GalGadot has already proven a solid pick for the role. DC is even beating Marvel to the punch here — releasing the first female-led film in the genre in over a decade.
In a similar vein, #SuicideSquad survived in large part due to the pitch-perfect casting of Margot Robbie as #HarleyQuinn and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Both have proven to be wonderful assets in this universe, and there's already promise for further appearances from each of them down the line.
The longest running of these singular franchises, it's kind of both surprising and disappointing that it still doesn't rank all too well on this front. While there have been some excellent films produced from our beloved #XMen (including X2, First Class, and Days of Future Past) and while they've consistently done well by the likes of #Wolverine, Xavier, and Magneto (among others) there's still ongoing trouble with the women of the X-Men universe. A dispiriting thought considering the myriad of characters at their disposal, and the sheer amount of diversity they provide.
Jean and Storm have been two of the biggest names from the start (as they should be) but both were underwritten and fell flat in the original trilogy and #XMenApocalypse. Poor casting has really worked against them in both timelines. Rogue was a prominent character in the initial X-Men film, but as a shadow of her true self: stripped of her most iconic powerset, and pretty much all of her personality, she was whittled down to a demure teenager that bore little resemblance to her comics counterpart.
A few others (like Kitty and Jubilee) have appeared here or there, but never strong enough to resonate as they could (or should), and appearances from the likes of Tempest/Angel, Emma Frost, and Psylocke have proven all but forgettable.
The one female character of most prominence has been Mystique — right-hand to Magneto in the original trilogy, and then centered at the heart of the Xavier-Magneto trilogy. However, she never really came into her own as a villain. Likely due to #JenniferLawrence's rising fame, Apocalypse explicitly situated her as a hero, and a new leader within the X-Men, meaning they've essentially stripped her of just about everything that makes her the fascinating villain that she is in the comics.
One bright light? Perhaps #Logan's introduction of X-23 will finally provide a proper standout we've all been waiting for.
This is probably the one universe that offers the most extremes in this discussion. While it has had some truly amazing female characters, it also has some depressingly terrible ones as well.
#Arrow started the universe off strong, giving us characters like Moira and Thea. The former actually flipped the archetypal superhero mother on its head and then proceeded to trod all over the entire concept, to spectacular results. Introduction of Sara in second season increased the load — even as the show continued to invest in these mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships. The trend extended well into its supporting cast, offering up solid characters like Nyssa, Lyla, and Amanda Waller among others. On Arrow, women get to be superheroes; they frequently have female relationships, and the best are given storylines that very much serve the purpose of the character (instead of being defined by male characters). This is to say at its best, Arrow has contributed enormously to the cause.
The growth of Sara has, in turn, proved to be one of the best elements for #LegendsOfTomorrow. As one of the most dynamic and fully realized characters on the show, she's consistently entertaining and complex, and a valuable asset to #Arrowverse as a whole. Unfortunately, the show has also struggled to acquire and keep any decent female character not named Sara Lance.
#Supergirl, for obvious reasons, has made a lot of positive contributions. It pounds its feminist themes home a little too hard more often than not, but there's a real sincerity to what it's accomplished in Cat Grant's mother-figure relationship to Kara, Kara's sisterly relationship to Alex, and fully embracing the female empowerment of having a women superhero leading the charge. It's not perfect, but it's still doing very, very well.
Unfortunately, #TheFlash near threatens to undermine all of these, so terrible is it with its women. Caitlin Snow and poor Iris West are so backwards as to almost be regressive — bringing to mind the horrendous dark days of Lana Lang on Smallville. Caitlin — in spite of being an accomplished and intelligent scientist — is almost always given storylines pertaining to whatever guy she's flirting with, getting into a relationship with, or mourning the death of. Iris has it even worse: little-to-no-agency, defined by male characters around her (who refuse to respect her right to agency); when the writers don't know what to do with her, they give her another romance plot line.
It's probably not a coincidence that Kendra/Hawkgirl — who was similarly bogged down with tedious romantic subplots — originated on The Flash.
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Marvel really benefits from the fact that it has the most content here — and with it, the most possibility for variation and progress. While it wasn't exactly exciting when starting out (Pepper Potts, Jane Foster, a "Strong Female Character" rendition of Peggy Carter, and Betty Ross) they still (by and large) edged just enough away from the Lana Lang type so as to be an improvement. Potts and Foster have even gone on to be defined by their own career accomplishments, while Carter's TV series allowed her to flourish into one of the best characters in the MCU.
Though we're still years away from #CaptainMarvel, characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Gamora have proven how far we've come — the placement and prominence of female superheroes that's already growing.
The TV verse has done even better in this regard. #AgentsOfSHIELD boasts three (four if you count Mockingbird) fantastically well-realized female characters, and a host of relationships between them to drive the show. #AgentCarter, as stated, offered wonderful new life for Steve Rogers's one-time love interest. And #JessicaJones tackled female issues and the female perspective like no one else, offering up as well some fantastically rich female characters in Jessica, Trish, and Jeri.
This progress has yet to fully leak over into the film world, but Marvel has come so far that even the weakest in the game are still pretty positive (Karen Page is really the lone woman of Daredevil, but she also has definition and agency that surpasses many others on the show; Hope van Dyne was the sole woman in Ant-Man, but is already promised to become Wasp; Gamora was the only woman on the team, but Nebula looks to be joining for the next Guardians of the Galaxy).
The big question now is how Rachel MacAdams and Tilda Swinton will fare in #DoctorStrange. Based on Marvel's history, I'd be surprised if both don't at least hit "pretty good." Of course, meeting #BrieLarson's Captain Marvel will no doubt be a high point of #InfinityWar.
- DCEU — C
- X-Men — C
- Arrowverse — B
- MCU — B+
Which comic book universe has your favorite portrayal of female characters?