Let's face it, comics haven't always done well in their treatment of women - there's a tradition in comics for female superheroes to wear outrageously bizarre skimpy costumes, often standing in back-breaking poses. That sad tradition has also been translated into the movies; Marvel's first movie starring a female lead will be released in 2018, a full decade after they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the good news is, if you look a little deeper you'll find that comics have many strong women - and that these, too, are making their way into the movies. Here, I want to celebrate some of the best female superheroes, of comics, TV, and the big screen...
10. Red Sonja
Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword, is an unlikely entry in this list - but she's here for good reason. The character was created by Robert E. Howard in his short story "The Shadow of the Vulture", published in 1938, and she became the archetypal fantasy figure of the fierce barbarian warrior woman. In 1975, she was absorbed into Marvel's Conan the Barbarian series, and - although originally drawn in a less sexualised costume - her costume swiftly developed to a weird kind of "bikini armour". The latest Red Sonja series, penned by Marguerite Bennett and no longer published by Marvel, has kept the look but de-sexualised it a bit.
Although Red Sonja's adventures take place in the distant past, she's actually teamed up with several key Marvel superheroes - most notably Spider-Man. On one occasion, her spirit possessed Mary-Jane Watson so she could take on her immortal enemy Kulan Gath in the present day! Anjelica Bridges played the part in the 1990s Conan series, while Brigitte Nielsen acted alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1985 movie. Plans for another film seem to have petered out, but there's a rumour that Bryan Singer is currently working on a Red Sonja TV series.
It's not unusual to find a female superhero who's inspired by a male hero. Take Spider-Man - he's had countless Spider-Women and Spider-Girls in his wider universe, while there's even currently a Spider-Gwen comic! Supergirl stands tall as one of the first of these, created in 1959, and pretty much a staple of the DC Universe ever since.
Thankfully, things are looking up for Supergirl. We're well past the stage where she was basically super-powered eye-candy, and while the 1984 movie didn't perform well, her current TV series is very popular. It's wonderful to see DC running a TV series with a female lead.
The X-Men comics have no shortage of strong, capable female superheroes - largely a legacy of writer Chris Claremont, who was seriously ahead of his time in treating female characters as, well, characters. One of Claremont's greatest creations was the sassy Southern Belle who called herself Rogue. Introduced as a villain, Rogue's power is to absorb the memories and abilities of anyone on skin contact. After she unintentionally absorbed far too much from Miss Marvel (now Captain Marvel), she fled to the X-Men for help with her powers.
What followed was a tremendous arc in which Rogue struggled to gain the X-Men's trust, but in the years since she's become a staple member. She was the star of Mike Carey's tremendously popular X-Men: Legacy run, briefly gaining full control of her abilities, and is currently the field leader of the Uncanny Avengers team.
Rogue is perhaps most famous for the iconic costume created by Jim Lee, which was featured in the much-loved X-Men animated series back in the 1990s.
Curiously enough, when Bryan Singer launched the X-Men movie franchise in 2000, he completely redesigned Rogue. The core 'absorption' powerset remained the same, but Anna Paquin's character was completely different; Singer regressed Rogue to her young teenage form, terrified because of the emergence of her powers. Rogue was critical to X-Men, and remained a key player in the first trilogy. When X-Men: Days of Future Past revisited that timeline, Rogue was cut out of the theatrical release. Fox released a special 'Rogue Cut' that featured the cut scenes, and was gleefully embraced by fans.
7. Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers - nowadays known as Captain Marvel, but originally as Miss Marvel and briefly as Binary or Warbird - is another character who owes a lot to the legendary Chris Claremont. Claremont was the one who wrote her first series, establishing the balance between competent secret agent and super-powered powerhouse.
Captain Marvel is another of those heroes who owes a lot to a male counterpart; in this case, to Mar-Vell, a Kree super-soldier who was the first to call himself 'Captain Marvel'. Affected by alien technology, Carol gained super-strength, energy manipulation powers, and the ability to fly - even to fly in space!
Sadly, the character has a troubled history. One 1970s arc featured her essentially raped by a cosmic entity, with the Avengers looking on happily as though she'd simply fallen in love. It fell to Claremont himself to turn things around in Avengers Annual #10, where he confronted the Avengers with the reality of their actions (this was also the comic that introduced Rogue).
Into the 2000s, Marvel made a dedicated attempt to up Carol Danvers' profile; in the aftermath of Civil War, they made her the field-leader of Tony Stark's Avengers team, even hinting at a romance between the two. It was Kelly Sue DeConnick who truly turned things around, though; she re-energised Carol as Captain Marvel, and since then the character's gone from strength to strength. The growth of the Captain Marvel brand is perhaps indicated by the starring role she'll be playing in this summer's comic event, Civil War II, where she'll be leading a faction of superheroes in direct opposition to Iron Man.
Excitingly, Captain Marvel will be the first Marvel female superhero to lead in her own film, due out in 2018!
Although the concept was originally conceived in 1961, it was in 1967 that Barbara Gordon took over the mantle of Batgirl - and she's been associated with it ever since! Batgirl is the daughter (or, in some versions, the niece) of Police Commissioner Gordon, and has been featured in television, film, and animated series! Batgirl's role in the 1967 TV series of Batman led to the character becoming something of a cultural icon, where she was played by the talented Yvonne Craig. The plots were as crazy and cooky as ever - the first episode of Season 3, "Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin", featured the Penguin kidnapping Barbara Gordon with a plan to marry her. Apparently he thought that being Commissioner Gordon's son-in-law would make him immune to arrest!
Barbara Gordon's life hasn't been easy - in Alan Moore's critically-acclaimed The Killing Joke graphic novel (now being made into an animated movie), the Joker brutally assaulted her. She wound up crippled, and took on the superhero identity of Oracle, an intelligent hacker who was an invaluable aid to Batman. Oracle's involvement in the Birds of Prey comic led to this version of Barbara Gordon making her way into the Birds of Prey television series. This makes her one of the very rare disabled superheroes.
In DC's last reboot, the so-called New 52, Barbara Gordon's history was adjusted; a surgical procedure restored her ability to walk, and she once again took up the mantle of Batgirl. Her ongoing series is fun and unbeat, rich in social commentary and with a deep understanding of socio-technological trends such as sexting and dating apps!
In 1997's Batman and Robin (which basically killed off the Batman film franchise until Christopher Nolan arrived on the scene), Barbara is Alfred's niece. Alicia Silverstone did the best she could under the circumstances, but in general, the less said about that film the better!
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