I’ve spent most of my life aching for great superheroine portrayals on film. To see some of my comic book heroines reflected back to me on 40-foot screens. With a few awesome exceptions (X-Men, X2) I have been disappointed again and again (Catwoman, Elektra, Sue Storm in Fantastic Four, Batgirl in Batman & Robin, Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, Supergirl, Mary Jane in Spiderman, okay not a superheroine, but still) the list of bad performances, bad writing, bad directing, and just bad ideas is painfully long.
However 2012’s portrayals of Black Widow in The Avengers, Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and Judge Anderson in Dredd seemed to signal that changes were a coming. Given what we got this weekend in the form of Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, dare I hope that 2012 was the superheroine year that changed everything FOR GOOD?
Let’s just talk briefly about each of these performances and why they mean so very much. Potential spoilers for each film, read with caution!
BLACK WIDOW in THE AVENGERS
The first to show us the way last year was Joss Whedon’s Black Widow in his mind-blowingly good superhero fiesta The Avengers. With Scarlett Johansson picking up with Natasha post Iron Man 2, Whedon has her practically leading off the badass-ness as she casually kicks a bunch of bad guy butt while strapped to a chair. A key scene later in which Loki tries to manipulate Natasha’s “weak womanly emotions” is turned on its head by Natasha faking him out and then walking out of the room with his master plan. For the bulk of the film Natasha is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Smart and savvy, skilled and crazy deadly she’s strong in a way all us ladies that dream Technicolor superhero dreams would like to be. Later in the film Natasha shows some vulnerability when she is completely overwhelmed in a chase scene by the sheer power of The Hulk. She holds her own (in more of an escape to live another day way) but the fear and shock she exhibits in the presence of The Hulk shows the kind of layers and complexity you rarely get to see in an action movie, let alone a massive ensemble cast action movie.
CATWOMAN in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Anne Hathaway isn’t my favorite actress. She probably never will be, I don’t really know why, as she’s clearly talented with a ton of range. However, what she did with the character of Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises was sublime. Between Hathaway’s performance, Nolan’s directing, and the Nolan squared script, DKR captured a perfect Catwoman, something few have managed (though I am still incredibly fond of Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1992 rendition as well). The complexity that DKR’s managed with Catwoman from her sexy smarts and uber cool fighting skills to her philosophies and political statements was simply dead on. She commanded attention in every scene she was in and they found that perfect blend of absolutely moral, so long as it’s her very specific brand of morals.
JUDGE ANDERSON in DREDD
Easily missed among these other more successful action films, Dredd was a shockingly good comic book movie, and one deserving of far more praise and attention than it received. One of the many reasons this R-Rated super violent, gory, dark, and smart film deserved praise was its writing of Judge Anderson, and her portrayal by the wonderfully talented Olivia Thirlby. With directing by Pete Travis and a great screenplay by Alex Garland it’s not that surprising that Thirlby had excellent material to work with. In Dredd, Anderson is a naïve rookie Judge, one under intense performance pressure if she wants to make the cut, but she never lets that get in the way of doing what’s right. Trapped in Peach Trees - a massive residential apartment complex run by a drug lord – with Judge Dredd, Anderson uses all her skills - those she was taught as a Judge in training and the one she was born with – psychic powers – not fancy superhero-y ones but more a more subtle version. As the soft moral center of Dredd, Anderson has a tender spot for the people of Peach Trees, having grown up (and been spit out) by a similar situation. But rather than becoming bitter or despising the people and system that basically tried to kill her at every opportunity growing up, she tries to help them, no matter what it costs her. Though a vastly different character than the devastatingly tough Judge Dredd, Anderson has her own kind of steel and Thirlby taps into with astonishing power.
Dredd also deserves a special shout out for a fantastic villainess role – with Lena Headey (Cersei represent!) playing Ma-Ma. As a former prostitute turned powerful drug lord that runs Peach Trees, she is despicably brilliant.
PEPPER POTS in IRON MAN 3
Most recently, Pepper Potts got her badass on in Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s Iron Man 3 thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow. The previous Iron Man films did a good job of creating a smart and savvy Pepper Potts – anyone that can keep pace with Tony Stark (or Robert Downey Jr.) is holding her own, but Iron Man 3 ups the stakes by enlarging her role throughout. Sure, she does have to play the damsel in distress at some point, but ultimately she not only rescues herself but also defeats the final “big bad.” This is a huge mega deal on multiple levels. It’s practically unheard of to let the “powerless damsel” do much, but to have her defeat the primary villain on her own is bold beyond belief. It shows such a confidence in the audience, and perhaps more importantly, in Iron Man himself. Iron Man is more than enough man and hero to not be threatened by Potts saving herself, saving him, and in a way, the world. That’s my kind of hero, people. One happy to have his ass saved because we all need saving sometimes. It was awesome.
So here’s my question - to both the comics industry and Hollywood, I suppose - why do we think that these awesome superheroines can’t carry their own films? In an age of Jennifer Lawrence anchoring an action franchise (The Hunger Games) and the ladies above just owning the screen whenever they’re on it, it seems like one plus one should just equal two, right. Combine that with the fact that we’re constantly told in comics that dudes love to read about sexy superheroines (which is why they must *always* be sexy with revealing clothes)...so why do we continue to think that they don’t want to go to a badass superhero film with sexy actresses kicking that ass? Seems silly.
I did a post a while back about some superheroines I'd love to see on film, but we should start with these talented ladies first with their awesome build in audience...someone get on this, willya?