AWFJ’s Summer Opinion Poll: Superheroes

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What do we women think of superheroes?

Superheroes kick ass at the box office and rule multiplex screens. While superhero movies are mostly male-centric and male-made, women certainly contribute to their blockbuster status.

We don’t present stats on numbers of superhero movie tickets bought by women, nor how many gals see superhero movies because they’re serious or marginal fans.

Instead, we take on the current crop of superheroes and their movies, their appeal to and treatment of women, and the root of the genre’s importance in contemporary culture. We look at how women play in superhero movies and whether their roles have changed in this summer’s crop.

Our definition of superhero is inclusive: characters who have super powers and those who are super adventurers and can brawl with the best of the bad guys, whether they’re born of comic books and graphic novels or are being regenerated from past and proven adventure flicks.

Truth is, there’s not much difference anymore–because cinema technology and gimmickry enables mere mortals to behave on screen as those endowed with super powers do.

Because we’re concerned with the way superheroes and their antics translate into societal norms and behavior, we comment on who and what superheroes represent, and what messages their stories impart to impressionable audiences–women, men and kids.

AWFJ member MaryAnn Johanson, who’s carved her critic’s niche by taking superhero movies seriously, provides an introduction:

“Comic books and comic book movies ain’t just for boys anymore–if they ever were. The latest slew of superhero flicks, which began to come of age with 2000’s “X-Men,” have gotten increasingly sophisticated and now focus equally on the existential dramas of their heroes and the mythic arcs of their typically tragic stories as they do on slam-bang action.

“That may explain why not just teenage boys, but also girls, women, and adult men are flocking to superhero movies these days, and taking them as seriously as the movies take themselves.

“Today we’re seeing fantasy drama with an accent on the drama. Superhero movies are not longer lighthearted comedies dressed up in capes–as in 1978’s “Superman”–or expressions of over-the-top outrageousness–as in Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s “Batman,” for example. Even “Hancock,” which was marketed as a comedy, turns out to be more intensely dramatic than it is funny.

“Today we see deeply thoughtful actors –Christian Bale, Edward Norton, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr., among them–who are better known for their intensely provocative indie fare than for their buff bodies–putting on the superhero mantle.

“And, let’s note that many superheroes currently raking it in at the box office don’t, in fact, have superpowers (though they still qualify as superheroes in the comic book/graphic novel sense, as distinguished from the likes of James Bond and Indiana Jones, who’re cut from a different variety of hero pie–one without overtones of demigod-hood).

“Bruce “Batman” Wayne, Tony “Iron Man” Stark–one may be psychotic, the other a genius–are recognizably human, which cannot be said of, say, Clark “Superman” Kent. Even Bruce “Incredible Hulk” Banner is a human struggling with a terrible affliction. Why, he’d even make a fetching protagonist in a weepy disease-of-the-week TV flick.

“We’ve yet to see a film as powerful as “Batman Begins“ or “Spider-Man“ with a female superhero, but there are certainly many female characters out there waiting for the same mythic treatment. Anyone up for a Black Orchid or Madame Mirage?

“But while we wait for those larger than life superheroines to step onto the screen, there’s still plenty for female fans of the superhero genre to enjoy,” writes Johanson.

With that in mind, here’s the The AWFJ Superheroes Survey — July, 2008

QUESTION: Are superhero movies fundamentally boy movies, or do they have an inherent appeal for women because of their beefcake factor or other elements?

AWFJ members’ opinions range from Jeanne Wolf’s observation that studios make superhero movies specifically for boys because “fan boys buy movie tickets and go to see favorite movies more than once, and blockbusters are an incentive to create more potential blockbusters” and Karen Martin’s comment that “women go to see superhero movies because they’re trying to please someone else–usually a man” to Kim Voynar and Nell Minow’s referencing of superheroes as “archetypes with deepest Joseph Campbell-esque and Jungian mythic imperatives that can illuminate our cultural norms.”

Within that range, most AWFJ members concur that superhero movies are primarily ‘boy movies’–although they have great appeal for women when the right factors are present. And, not altogether surprisingly, it ain’t the beefcake that holds greatest appeal.

Voynar points to the need for a great story, while Maitland McDonagh focuses on engaging characters and finds “the beefcake appeal is negligible because of those ridiculous costumes.“

According to Susan Wloszczyna, “Superheroes as their real-world alter ego, have nerd appeal–they’re regular guys whose superpowers/duties are both empowering and a pain. Sure, Downey’s Tony Stark is a genius billionaire, but inside that metal exterior, he’s just a lost boy who likes dangerous doodads and really fast cars.”

“But beefcake? Not since Chris Reeve was Superman!,” says Wloszczyna, “Those are stunt dudes in the stretchy suits, not Tobey Maguire. I mean, Christian Bale’s a doll, but he had zero steam with Mrs. Tom Cruise in “Batman Begins.” And, who knows how Maggie G. will fare in “The Dark Knight? What really propels superhero adventures is romance, The most memorable image from the recent “Spidey” three-pack was that upside-down kiss. Even the flirtation between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwynnie in “Iron Man” was kinda cute.”

Brandy McDonnell says superhero movies are popular “because they tap into classic good-vs.-evil formulas and, with superpowers in play, offer escapist fantasy. Also, popular and enduring superheroes have problems people relate to–Spider-Man’s teenage awkwardness, Hulk’s hair-trigger temper and Iron Man’s drinking problem and bravado.”

Carrie Rickey reminds us that in pre-60s flicks like “I Married A Witch,” “Topper,” and “Blithe Spirit,” super heroines–mostly in the guise of witches or angels–had mass appeal and, she says, “during the 80s, Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator” and Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” were superheroines with mass following and recently we had Mrs. Incredible in Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles, so, no, I don’t think super movies are fundamentally boy films, though as Marvel is monetizing its backlist, it seems as though superheroes are skewing male–both on screen and in the seats.”

QUESTION: Do superheroes represent the ongoing ‘juvenilization’ of audiences, or are they modern-day variations of archetypal mythic characters?

“Both,“ says Minow, “and all power to them for it! Stories of hidden power appeal to 13-year-olds, and to the 13-year-old in all of us.“

In a variation on that theme, McDonagh responds, “Superheros are modern day versions of classical warriors and demi-gods, but they’re dumbed down to appeal to a 12-year-old sensibility.”

Shelli Sonstein sees superhero movies “as pure escapism,” but Lexi Feinberg comments, “I’d say they’re mythic. Adam Sandler movies represent the dumbing down of audiences much more than ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Batman’.”

For Carol Cling, it’s film-specific. Citing “X-Men” as dealing with provocative themes, Cling says, “Consider that these characters’ powers make them “different” and “outsiders” the same way gays are different, AIDS patients are outsiders, etc. Superman is an illegal alien, albeit from a foreign shore far, far away–and his powers make him feel it most acutely. Batman struggles with a dual identity that would make anybody neurotic. And in the current “Iron Man,” Tony Stark undergoes a figurative as well as literal change of heart, putting him on a collision course with his own company–and his old self. That’s pretty mythic stuff.”

Johanson refers to superheroes as “modern demigods–the way the Greeks and the Romans told stories about their pantheon of deities, we tell stories about Superman, Batman and Wolverine,” and McDonnell says, “They are just a modern-day spin on archetypes that have been around since time immemorial.”

But Eleanor Ringel thinks superhero movies are “probably more juvenile than mythic” and Thelma Adams says that “comic books and comic book heroes have strong entertainment value,” while Laura Emerick thinks they’re just “mainly proven box-office draws.”

QUESTION: In your opinion, which of this summer’s superhero movies has been most successful in appealing to a cross section of moviegoers, and why?

Johanson points to “Hancock” as “speaking to the widest range of moviegoers because of Will Smith’s cross-demo appeal and because the film is marketed as a comedy, which will appeal to those who don’t generally go in for superhero action.

Other members say, for a variety of different reasons, that “Iron Man” is the movie with broadest appeal. Here‘s a sampling of comments:

Joanna Langfield: “Iron Man, because it’s a fresh entry into the field, because Robert Downey Jr. brings a real performance to the proceedings, which considerably classes up things, and it was the first superhero movie released of the summer onslaught.”

McDonagh: “Tony Stark is an adult character with adult problems: He’s forced to admit that he’s been lying to himself for much of his adult life, that he’s squandered his abilities and helped — through action and inaction — to make the world worse. And having admitted all those things, he has to decide what he’s going to do about it, and then apply himself to doing so. Stark never gains superpowers: Iron Man is a suit, and Stark made it piece by piece, through trial and error, in hopes of equipping himself to start evening out his karma. That’s not kid stuff, and Robert Downey Jr. has what it takes to explore those ideas.

Emerick: “Iron Man,” mainly because of the quality of the script, and the presence of Robert Downey Jr., who appeals to an older demographic.

Ringel: I’d have to go with “Iron Man” because you’ve got all that dumb action for the kids and Robert Downey’s sly performance for adults. Gwyneth Paltrow, too.

McDonnell: So far, “Iron Man” has clearly had a strong across-the-board appeal, with great acting, sure-handed direction and strong visual effects. I think characters are key: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is such a charismatic and relatable character, and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is not just a screaming damsel in distress or a vapid bimbo.

Voynar: “Iron Man,” by far. It had a smart storyline, and Robert Downey Jr brought something different to the table. Great cross-demo appeal.

Martin: “Iron Man,” because the hero has a lot of grown-up problems (and doesn’t resolve them all by the end of the film).

Wloszczyna: “Iron Man” did it for me because Downey was allowed to play a human being, not a vehicle for an origins story with a lot of faux science explanation for everything. In fact, even if Tony never donned the suit, it would be fascinating to watch this billionaire grapple with his conscience.

Minow: “Iron Man” because it’s funny and smart, as well as exciting and beautifully acted. In most superhero movies the most important character is the villain (this is not just true of superhero movies–see Dante), but Downey makes Tony Stark the most arresting superhero character since Michael Keaton in “Batman.”

Sonstein: “Iron Man” is funny, smart, quick and 3 words: Robert Downey Jr.

Rickey: “Iron Man.” Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow. Enough said.

QUESTION: Superhero comics have been popular since the 1930s — why has it taken more than 60 years for superheroes to emerge as the mainstays of mainstream, big-budget movies?

Halper thinks the mainstream emergence is due “audiences, that in general have a shorter attention span. Superhero antics give moviemakers the opportunity to use advanced technology to replace actual story with near-looking shots. It’s the equivalent of net surfing, only on the big screen.”

Most members attribute the change to those big advances in technology. As Voynar says, “Seeing Superman “flying” using wires that are clearly visible doesn’t come close to the virtual reality today’s computer graphics give the audience. Makes it easier to suspend disbelief. Iron Man’s suit couldn’t have been done that way 30, or even 20 years ago.”

Langfield and Rickey say the ascent of superheroes to the mainstream isn’t a recent phenomenon. “”Superman” in the 70s, “Conan” and “Batman” in the 80s were huge hits,” they point out.

But, according to Johanson, “Comics weren’t really popular or ‘respected‘ in a mainstream way until the 80s. It took the coming of age of Gen Xers, who grew up with the attitude that comics were cool and could be important, for us to see the value of movies that take comics seriously–and, it’s important, too, that Xers are the filmmakers making those movies. Tim Burton paved the way with 1989’s “Batman,” but that was a very early example. It was Bryan Singer’s 2000 film “X-Men“ that really kicked off the “taking comics seriously” thing–and that’s not as long ago as it might seem.”

QUESTION: Of the most recent crop of superhero movies, do you think any have broken new ground or taken the genre in a new direction–especially where women characters and/or audiences are concerned?

McDonagh says, “No. They’re all wish-fulfillment for guys. Some are smarter than others, but they’re all rooted in the desire to stop being pushed around by bullies…crooks, the government, the military, whoever.”

The majority of AWFJ responded similarly with a “no,“ “not really,“ or “not especially“–but followed with interesting qualifiers regarding several recent superhero movies and several projections:

Ringel: “They’re casting more respected actors in the lead roles. It’s a big leap forward from Eric Bana to Edward Norton.”

Sonstein: “At least Gwyneth Paltrow had smarts in “Iron Man.“

McDonnell: “Batman Begins,” “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” placed good acting and storytelling at the forefront, thus ushering in the idea that superhero movies aren’t just for kids, but can be enjoyed by adults who just like good movies.”

Halper: “In “Batman Begins,“ Christopher Nolan definitely has unique tone/style, but the women are basically nil. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in “Iron Man” was self sufficient. “Indiana Jones” had a female protagonist over 50–but that, sadly, was probably only for nostalgia’s sake.”

Feinberg: “Batman Begins“ upped the ante by showing you can make a serious, not uber-geeky superhero movie.”

Rickey: “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man” tend toward the vulnerable rather than the omnipotent — they defy superhero expectations.”

Minow: “Iron Man” has an adult protagonist with a complicated history and that raises a fresh and more complex set of issues. I am hoping “Wonder Woman” will also take the genre in some new directions.”

Cling: “The first two “X-Men” movies featured women in pivotal roles, and I liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s liberated twist on the traditional Gal Friday role in “Iron Man.” But while “Elektra” spotlights a female superhero, it’s not a watchable movie. And Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was a movie that was too artistically ambitious for its audience–as Marvel chief Avi Arad told me: it was steak, but the audience wanted hamburger.”

Johanson feels that comic book movies of the 2000s have broken new ground to a significant degree: “Batman Begins,” “Spider-Man“ and “Spider-Man 2,” and “V for Vendetta“ are profound metaphoric explorations of angst and alienation, and (as is particularly relevant post-9/11) a manifestation of a desire to have an impact on the world–to do something in a world in which it feels like it’s not possible for one person to make a difference. As for women characters, alas, no groundbreaking films. There are many interesting comics about women characters, but I suspect Hollywood’s general disdain for women has prevented these from making it to the big screen in any way that matters.”

Thelma Adams focuses on television–particularly the Cartoon Network–where women are making heroic strides. “We have to give props to things like the Powerpuff Girls, which had a feature movie in 2005, and became a mainstay of girls’ TV that I didn’t have when I was growing up.”

QUESTION: When and why did superhero movies become acceptable as adult fare, and not just for kids and adolescents?

“Ever since arrested-development boys came to reign in Hollywood.” says Rickey.

Other comments range from Minow’s “We’re still moving towards that goal” to Wloszczyna’s “Always.“

Feinberg attributes the change to writers, who “started realizing that superheroes could be intense, well-fleshed-out characters who just happen to have a special power. People can see themselves in these superheroes, even though they will never soar in the sky or save the world from evil” and Johanson puts the transition into the hands of X-er filmmakers who “didn’t treat them dismissively, and saw, appreciated and understood the mythic and archetypal aspects.”

Martin thinks it was “when they became more violent and sexier.“

As Ringel points out, “A lot of today’s adults grew up

on the comic books of the 50s, 60s and 70s.The Reeve “Superman” wasn’t considered a kids’ picture. Emerick, too, says it began with the “Superman” franchise.

Voynar points to “Star Wars,” which “made it okay for grownups to admit to liking fantasy. LOTR trilogy also, with archetypes and classic good-evil storyline, which is what superhero films have,” says Voynar. “Also, there’re a lot of grownups now who grew up loving comics and comic-book characters, and the Internet has made being a “fanboy” a legitimate designation. Fans have more direct influence now on which properties will be developed, and they can immediately, and vocally, sound off on how they want it done, and what they think about the results.”

Langfield suggests that audience needs have changed. ““When escapism became a positive thing.“ she says.

And, Wolfalso cites the importance of the fantasy factor: “Fantasy–especially far out fantasy appeals to both sexes in these frustrating times when people would like to have that power to change things and make a difference.”

QUESTION: When did graphic novels graduate to being considered an art form and adult fare?

“That’s a fascinating question,” Rickey comments. “Cartoonist Lynda Barry argues that the onetime disdain for illustrated narratives comes from the perhaps unremembered feeling of “graduating” from books with pictures to books without pictures and that maybe now we’re restoring the balance.”

Ringel says it was when they “found a firm footing in their cult status.” while Voynar mentions the “popularity of Japanese manga and anime and its increasing acceptance in Western culture.”

Langfield claims that “These adaptations have always been around, albeit in “B” forums.” But once Tarantino scored with “Pulp Fiction,” it cleared the way for pulpier mainstream.”

Emerick sets the transition during the mid-90s, but Johanson and McDonagh think it was earlier, with the work of Alan Moore (“Watchman“) and Neil Gaiman (“Sandman“), whose comics were literature. As McDonagh says, during the 80s, adults stopped being embarrassed to read comic books in public because a handful of writers started trying to explore more complex material. The cachet of books like The Dark Knight and Watchmen spread to ordinary comic book characters like Spiderman and the X-Men, and from there on down.”

Members mentioned specific titles that raised the ante on graphic novels: Ghost World, Art School Confidential, History of Violence and, most of all, Maus.

As for the transition from graphic novel to blockbuster, Wloszczyna points to “Sin City,’ which “put the graphic in graphic an was able to successfully emulate the source material on screen.

QUESTION: Why did “Catwoman” and “Elektra” — superhero movies featuring women — fail so dismally, both creatively and financially? Were they just bad movies, or were there other reasons?

AWFJ members are in consensus about “Catwoman” and “Elektra,” saying they failed because they’re bad/terrible/wretched/ awful/horrible/dreadful movies. Feinberg calls them a “grease stain on the genre.“

Some elaborated: “They were bad because they had poor scripts and not very good actresses,“ says Emerick. And, “they were made by people who don’t understand women, comics or movies,” comments Minow. And, “they played to centerfold fantasies rather than female empowerment,” according to Rickey.

Wloszczyna points to the “bad writing and perhaps even bad casting. Jennifer Garner, sweet as she was in “Juno,” can be very grim onscreen sometimes. Who wants to see her fight bad guys? “Catwoman” was just a big mistake, especially putting Sharon Stone in there and making it about a cosmetics company. Talk about girly pandering!”

“Hollywood holds women in contempt,” says Johanson. “A female superhero whose movie didn’t treat her as a sex kitten or novelty, but as a real person suffering real trauma and manifesting that in a mythic way, could do extremely well at the box office. Female ‘superheroes’ slinking around in leather catsuits will not–except as objects of derision.”

Voynar’s analysis goes a bit further, adding that “guys don’t really want to see a film starring a chick superhero. Sad but true.”

But Sonstein and Langfield, taking a more positive stand, hold up the success of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft movies. According to Langfield, “the Croft pictures prove that the right star, with a decent, if not outstanding film surrounding her, can make her mark–and bring in big bucks.”

McDonagh adds: “To my mind, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 is the best female superhero movie ever made in the US. “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) doesn’t have inhuman powers, but brutal training has transformed her into a super-assassin with physical abilities far beyond those of normal people. Thurman isn’t a pin up – she looks tough, agile (a nod here to her stunt double, Death Proof’s Zoe Bell), dressed for the job (no sky-high heels) and as though she’s been knocked around. But what’s really great is that her story starts as a simple quest for vengeance – she’s going to kill everyone who turned her wedding into a bloodbath and left her in a four-year coma – and evolves into a profound emotional journey through her past. Meaty stuff, and guys loved it too.”

QUESTION: Which female director of directors would be ideal to tackle a superhero film, and why?

For most AWFJ members, Kathryn Bigelow and Kasi Lemmons top the list of women directors who’s make great superhero movies. Also mentions–in no particular order–are Julie Taymor, Nicole Holofcener, Mimi Leder, Nicole Kassell, Kimberly Pierce, Penelope Spheeris and Catherine Hardwicke.

But Martin suggests ‘the genre seems too silly for many women directors, who are struggling to be taken seriously,“ and McDonagh thinks “the woman who should direct a superhero movie is the woman who wants to–but most men don’t want to see superhero movies directed by women, just as most men don’t want to read thrillers written by women. They think they’re soft.”

Wloszczyna says a woman superhero helmer is overdue. “You’d have thought Karen Kusama, who did “Girlfight,” could have handled something like “Aeon Flux.” But no! Just because a woman directs a good tough chick film doesn’t guarantee anything,” comments Wloszczyna. “I like how Sarah Polley handled “Away From Her.” I say let her direct one for the fan boy’s club. Just as long as Sofia Coppola is barred. Since she‘s such a fan of non-action, her superhero movie might even make Ang Lee’s “Hulk” look good.”

Feinberg suggests a team effort between Nicole Holofcener and Mimi Leder, because “the former can write honest, poignant dialogue; the latter can make it all look cool.”

QUESTION: Who is this summer’s sexiest superhero, and why?

Johanson responds that “Characters like Bruce Wayne

and Tony Stark are sexy for their confidence and fearlessness, yet they’re also very attractive to women because they’re not perfect–they‘re flawed, they’re human. That’s the key to the new adult-minded superhero movies–they treat superpowered mutants as real people, not as cartoons.”

Disagreeing, McDonagh finds that “none of the summer’s superheroes is sexy because they’re all cartoons.”

And, Wloszczyna thinks that a cartoon is the sexiest of all summer superheroes. “I think it’s “Wall-E,” she says, “because I like the way he beeps.“

Several other members named Edward Norton as the Hulk and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones as their favorites, but the majority went with Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark/Iron Man as this summer’s sexiest superhero–both the character and actor–because, as Voynar puts it, “he’s a flawed, moody artistic guy who appeals to a lot of women in that “but if I love him, I could save him” way. We like to believe we can save a tortured, brilliant guy from himself,.” and, as Sonstein says, “he has it all, and America loves nothing more than a comeback story.” Rickey says “It’s about the vulnerability, not the omnipotence.“ And for Langfield and Ringel, “Downey/Stark is smart–and smart is sexy.”

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).