Female directors have been shut out of the 2020 Oscars, only five women have ever been nominated for best director and superhero movies remain a rarity among Oscar nominees—but with Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn now out in theaters, comic book movies have reached a turning point.
This is the year in which women take control, both in starring roles and behind the camera.
Hollywood has been rightly lambasted in recent years for the gender gaps behind the scenes. but many of the biggest films this year come from female directors. While the image of the caped female crusader might seem a cliched meme for gender parity, this year’s conversation about comic book movies will be all about women and what they bring to and beyond the screen. As a Professor of Media and Cinema Studies, a lifelong fan of comics and a father of a young girl, I feel compelled to address this specific moment.
We’ve reached a point in which comic book movies have become so profitable that Hollywood has acknowledged there’s room for big-budget films about superheroes who aren’t white men. Unlike female-centered titles from past decades like Tank Girl or Elektra, there isn’t the risk of this year’s films getting lost in the marketplace—they are the marketplace for audiences seeking superheroes, making up five out of the eight comic book movies being released this year.
The lineup is impressive, with Hollywood reserving some of their top summer weekends for female-led franchises. Marvel and DC will each see two films this year, all of them with female directors and stars. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey sees Margot Robbie’s madcap villain take the lead after her debut in Suicide Squad. In May, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow finally gets her own solo film from director Cate Shortland. In June, Patty Jenkins‘ Wonder Woman 1984 marks the director’s second time helming Gal Gadot as Diana Prince. In November, Chloé Zhang’s Eternals stars Angelina Jolie and Gemma Chan as two of Marvel’s oldest immortal heroes. On top of it all, we’ll get the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants in April starring Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.
Sure, there are also a few films starring male heroes this year—but most are about characters that average moviegoers have never heard of. (Ask your friends who don’t read comics if they know Bloodshot or Morbius the Living Vampire and be prepared for a blank stare.)
Ultimately, the importance of this turn towards women in comic book movies is not limited to what happens in Hollywood. Recent polls suggest that women might be the key voting block who decides the 2020 election. The ways that women are represented in many of Hollywood’s top films this year—as heroes who wield immense power, whose voices matter and who are capable of changing the world—could reverberate with female voters. Media representations can have lasting consequences for audiences, especially when you see your own identity reflected back at you in new and inspirational ways.
Lest we celebrate too much too soon, despite how many movie tickets, toy lines, t-shirts and happy meals connected to female superheroes that will be sold over the coming year, the question still remains: Why has it taken so long for women to achieve such parity on screen?
Not everyone wants women to be heroes. The misogyny that permeates some corners of film fandom saw many troll the internet in the hopes of sabotaging Captain Marvel’s opening weekend box-office last year. Hollywood has a long history of denying, downgrading and ignoring women’s voices. By my count, there have been have been over 110 American movies based on comics since the year 2000, but only six of them directed by women.
It’s a decisive moment for Hollywood in 2020: We’ll either see women as powerful protectors on screen for years to come if audiences embrace these blockbusters, or we’ll go back to business-as-usual with the usual roster of he-man heroes. Either my seven-year-old daughter will grow up in an era where she can imagine herself as a superhero, or she won’t.
My greatest hope is that moment will mean more than just a patronizing “good for you, ladies!” pat on the back.
2020 can’t be just a bemused blip in reaction to the #MeToo movement. It needs to be the start of an acknowledgement among filmgoers that what we spend our money on determines who gets to be a hero and who doesn’t, and that consumers contribute to the decisions made by Hollywood producers.
If we want to build a culture in which our sons and daughters no longer ask why more women don’t direct films and win Oscars for doing so, let’s start by showing Hollywood that a year-long slate of female-led blockbusters can be profitable as well as powerful.
Whether you’re a comic book movie fan or not, I urge you to go see these movies. If the young women in your life grow up to ask why there weren’t more movies made about heroic heroines when they were kids, what will your answer be? “Because I didn’t bother to buy a ticket when I had the chance?”