Comics to Screen is a recurring feature in which Ben Kaye analyzes the constantly evolving leap from comic books to screens of all sizes.
The truth fans have been screaming at Hollywood about for years has finally been proven: female-led superhero movies are wanted, needed, and can be successful. Wonder Woman crashed into theaters with record-setting numbers, becoming the highest-grossing opener for a female director ever. Not only that but critics and fans are loving the movie, which considering how well Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did at the box office is probably a better gauge of success. For the first time, you can actually hear Marvel fans start to worry about their grasp on cinematic domination.
It’s interesting that what you aren’t hearing, however, is a lot of cries from men worried about Y chromosomes being removed from their superhero epics. Sure, there was uproar about those women-only screenings of the film, but even that was relatively muted. For years, Hollywood has seemed scared that audience wouldn’t respond to a female superhero, that somehow this was a male’s marketplace and inserting the “fairer sex” wouldn’t garner the same outpouring of adoration (or money) as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. If you listen closely, though, it doesn’t sound like anyone’s really complaining about a good superhero movie that just so happens to star a woman.
So consider the floodgates opened. Hollywood now understands that female-driven comic book features can be all sorts of successful, so expect more studios to be open to the idea of making them. In fact, a few are already in the offing, with DC Films working on Gotham City Sirens (change that name now, please) and Marvel Studios prepping Captain Marvel. Still, there are plenty of other comic book properties with female leads out there that have long begged for the cinematic treatment — and not all of them come from the Big Two.
In the pages ahead, we’ll highlight 10 women-centric comic books that would make excellent movies. For the sake of originality, we’ll skip things like Catwoman and Elektra, which have already received failed adaptations, because we all already know those could’ve been done better. We’ll also avoid anything that’s actively being developed in one form another; Squirrel Girl will be part of Marvel’s New Warriors show on Freeform, and Batgirl is being developed by Joss Whedon, so there’s no need to talk to about those properties.
Still, that leaves plenty of creative concepts for filmmakers to tap into. From characters we’ve already seen on screen who deserve their starring role to beloved underground heroines to mutants with ridiculous powers, here’s our list of 10 female superheroes that deserve their own movie.
The fact that this movie hasn’t been announced in some form yet is still kind of shocking. Outside of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson has been a Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero longer than any other actor or actress. (She’s technically tied with Don Cheadle’s War Machine, but she’s been in more films.) Yet, audiences still don’t know a whole lot about Black Widow, and her intense, fascinating backstory would make for a killer standalone feature.
Joss Whedon gave just a hint of Natasha Romanoff’s origin in Avengers: Age of Ultron during the Scarlett Witch-triggered dream sequence that saw her dancing in a ballet school that also apparently taught firearms and hand-to-hand combat. The reality is the ballet memories are implanted ones to cover up the extreme physical and psychological training/torture she underwent from the time she was a child in the Soviet Union’s Black Widow Ops program. Imagine a spy thriller that found Romanoff facing off against an antagonist that forced her to confront her past, revealing the deep mental torment she’s been under all along while giving her an opportunity for vindication. It would be a genre film the likes of which the MCU has yet to see — a classic espionage tale — and a chance for Johansson’s Black Widow to finally spin a web of her own. Plus, she might actually get some redemption for that weird barren subplot from AoU.
DC Films has been trying for years now to get a Justice League Dark film off the ground, with the project recently losing director Doug Liman. Instead, perhaps they should take the complementary lessons from BvS and Wonder Woman, realize that introducing everyone all at once doesn’t work, and pick one hero on which to focus. No one is really clamoring for a JLD film, so there’s no need to rush things. If that’s the case, why not choose a lead character that isn’t necessarily the typical focal point of the series, as Marvel did by starting off with Iron Man? Thus, instead of the obvious choice of Constantine, DC could launch the supernatural underbelly of their Extended Universe with Zatanna.
Zatanna Zatara is the daughter of a magician who grows up to be a stage performer; her original superhero costume was really just a standard magician’s suit, top hat and all. The Zatara bloodline is one of true Homo Magi, people with innate magical powers. When her father disappears, Zatanna sets out to find him, unlocking her potential as a sorceress along the way. She typically casts her spells by giving commands in reverse (“yawa oG” for “Go away,” for example), which could lead to some fun moments on screen. The story for a great mystical thriller-comedy is right there in her origin, and it could easily intersect with Constantine to expand the JLD interconnectivity. As one of the DCU’s most powerful characters and one of the better occult figures in mainstream comics, Zatanna would be the perfect choice to introduce viewers to the dark, mystical side of the world occupied by Wonder Woman and Batman.
Like Black Widow, this one seems obvious, but also somehow more likely. X-23 debuted in this year’s nearly flawless Logan, portrayed with captivating intensity by Dafne Keen. I’m not sure I’d buy Keen as the lead figure in a movie without a Hugh Jackman or Patrick Stewart-type to play off of, but the Laura that she created through the story definitely has somewhere interesting to go.
Spoiler if you haven’t seen the best comic movie of the year yet, but Logan ends with Laura/X-23 burying her father-via-cloning, Wolverine, and heading off across the Canadian border to find a rumored mutant sanctuary. All the Transigen goons were well wiped out by the conclusion, but that doesn’t mean the threat is gone. Still, you wouldn’t need to have some more corporate lackeys tracking down a bunch of kids in Canada to successfully continue X-23’s arch. It might be even more intriguing to watch her struggle with the legacy of her lineage, knowing that her father died alone and disgraced, only redeeming himself in the eyes of these young kids he helped save. Having her return to the states, to Westchester even, to reconcile with the death of Wolverine while adopting the moniker herself could be a compelling way to build off the fierce emotional journey that took place in Logan. That movie gave us a new idea of what a superhero movie can be, so why not continue that line with X-23?
Top Cow’s Witchblade was previously adapted into a made-for-TV pilot film that was followed by a very popular, very good TV series that ran for two seasons in 2001 and 2002. Unfortunately, following lead actress Yancy Butler’s time in rehab for alcoholism, TNT gave the highly rated show the axe. It was a shame, but the show did prove one thing: Witchblade can make one hell of a supernatural cop drama.
The Witchblade itself is an ancient, sentient, supernatural weapon that has been wielded by a number of women throughout history. Taking the form of a gauntlet, the symbiotic weapon will remove the arm of an unworthy bearer while a worthy one will be granted its immense power. When the host is in danger, the Witchblade expands into various weapons or an armor that covers its host based on the intensity of the threat. New York City detective Sara Pezzini becomes the modern wielder of the weapon when the artifact chooses her during a bust of an underground auction in which a chance to wear the Witchblade is the prized lot. As they confront everything from crime bosses to demons, the artifact’s dark history only further disrupts Pezzini’s already tumultuous life. A reluctant host could make for a gripping character study wrapped in a paranormal crime drama. What’s more, if Top Cow wanted to get really fancy, a Witchblade movie could launch an interconnected universe focused on the 13 Artifacts that guide the fate of the world, of which the Witchblade is one. Even if they chose to keep it to just the one character, however, Witchblade has all the potential for one badass, dark comic book movie.
The world could really use a movie like Ms. Marvel right about now. The character encapsulates the types of outsider feelings that grip a whole clutch of demographics: She’s an awkward teenage girl, a nerd, a Muslim, a daughter of immigrants, and an Inhuman. Watching a young, daring girl like Kamala Khan overcome her insecurities to become an Avengers-level hero would empower a scope of the population that defies generations and categories.
What’s more, if they get this into production now, releasing a Ms. Marvel movie in 2020 would be timing perfection. The Inhumans are coming to IMAX theaters and TV screens this fall after being introduced in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so the concept of the Kree-human hybrid super-beings is already established. Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel hits theaters in 2018, providing Kamala with an icon to fangirl over. Then, of course, it’s an election year, giving even more weight to a strong representation of a character like Ms. Marvel. It’s true her polymorphic powers (the ability to change her shape and form at will) could prove difficult to visualize on film (see: every adaptation of Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four). On the other hand, it could provide further outlet for some of the lighthearted, quirky humor in which the book trades. Regardless, you’ve got a very modern character who fits almost too perfectly into the established MCU and resonates with communities drastically underrepresented in both superhero culture and cinema in general. That’s a film that needs to be made.
When Faith Herbert first gains her superpower of flight, she declares, “I’m going to be the greatest superhero in forever! Joss Whedon’s gonna make a freakin’ movie about me starring Christina Hendricks!” While we couldn’t guarantee that level of star power behind a big-screen adaptation of the superhero known as Zephyr, bringing Faith to the big screen would certainly make for a fun, offbeat take on comic book movies.
The character comes from the Valiant line of comics, and with the company seeking to launch their own cinematic universe with Harbinger, it seems plausible Faith might actually end up flying in cinemas. In the books, she’s a comics- and sci-fi-obsessed orphan who’s raised by her grandmother. When offered the chance to become the type of superhero she’s long idolized, she gleefully jumps at the opportunity, essentially making her every teenage fan’s dream. As Zephyr, she brings an unparalleled charm and optimism to superheroing, taking the purest kind of pleasure in helping those in need and stopping the bad guys. She may not be built like most superheroes, but she loves being one, and that could be insanely fun to watch.
It’s public knowledge that some funky rights issues with Paramount are hindering the potential for a Hulk standalone film starring Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Although where Banner’s cousin, Jennifer Walters, falls in the contracts’ fine print isn’t known, it could provide a nice workaround to Marvel Studios’ Hulk problem by allowing them to produce a She-Hulk feature instead. Of course, given the nature of the character, it would be an entirely different story — and all the better for it.
Lawyer Jennifer Walters becomes She-Hulk when a blood transfusion from her cousin gives her gamma-irradiated blood. Unlike the Green Behemoth, however, Walters can actually control her transformations and retain her intelligence as She-Hulk. What’s more, she actually chooses to remain in her six-foot-seven green form more often than changing back. Her career as a lawyer has given her a strict code of principles and morality, and how she brings that to her crime-fighting makes for a fascinating examination of superhero psyche. Imagine the legal mind of Daredevil with the morality and power of Luke Cage. The film would be one part legal drama, one part superheroine coming into her own, which would almost work just as well as a TV procedural. Still, it would be immensely fun watching She-Hulk stomp around the big screen.
Comic geeks are already laughing at this one, but hear me out. Dazzler is a mutant who has spent time with the X-Men, Excalibur, and S.H.I.E.L.D. throughout her career, so don’t brush off the disco dynamo as a weak character. With the right touch and access to a few other peripheral X-characters, a Dazzler movie could be everything Jem and the Holograms had the promise to be with X-Men: First Class quality.
Alison Blaire is raised by her by-the-books father after her free-spirited, stage performer mother walked out on them. Rebelling against her father’s strict ways, she decides to pursue a career as a singer. Her mutant powers allow her to absorb any sound and redirect it as various forms of light, including the spectacular light show she uses to increase her fame. She’s no simple Jubilee, however, as she can also form things like precise lasers, concussive bolts, or even holograms. Despite these great gifts, Dazzler doesn’t always want to be a superhero, and that’s what could make her movie interesting. Let’s say you have a bunch of young students from Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters come to check out Dazzler’s show, only to witness a group of power-hungry, evil mutants try to kidnap the performer and use her for their nefarious purposes. Together, they fight back the threat, and Dazzler is offered a chance to join the X-Men — but she refuses. It turns the superhero origin story on its heads while also focusing on a woman taking control of her life and powers in her own way. Plus, there’s great potential for musical moments. That’s a potent tale that could make for great comic book cinema.
Birds of Prey
Like Witchblade, Birds of Prey is another series that actually had a short-lived television adaptation. But where the WB show ultimately failed, a movie could succeed. Step one would be getting rid of police officer Jesse Reese. Step two would be to learn from the mistakes of Suicide Squad and not try to jam every character who’s ever been a member of the team into one movie. Keep it simple, stupid, and just focus on the original trio: Oracle, Black Canary, and Huntress.
The biggest hurdle to jump here would be figuring out how to bring in Oracle. In the comics, she’s Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl who ends up in a wheelchair after being paralyzed by the Joker. Joss Whedon is currently working on a standalone Batgirl feature, but it might not be so well received if the character was instantly shot in the spine as soon as she finally gets a standee in the theaters. Naturally, they could also go with a modern version that finds Batgirl swinging into the field with her teammates. That’s a decision for the writers, however, and they still have Black Canary and Huntress to work with either way. The former is a compassionate-yet-confident hero with a sonic scream, and the latter is a volatile vigilante much like Batman without the ethics. As a team, the trio each provide a counterpoint to one another, creating a balanced dynamic that requires all three of them to work effectively. If you want a movie that deepens the idea of what a superheroine “can” be with a range of characters, you want Birds of Prey.
Want to go a little farther off the beaten path to really make a standout, female-driven comic book movie? Try writer Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Image Comics series Rat Queens. The story isn’t your standard cape-and-mask superhero situation; it’s set in a Dungeons and Dragons-esque fantasy world, but written with an adult audience in mind. That means its four lead characters are as much about sex, drugs, and violence as they are about adventuring and protecting their home town of Palisade.
Essentially hired goons, the Rat Queens are foul-mouthed brawlers willing to kill anyone and anything for profit. The team comprises Hannah, a rockabilly elven mage; Violet, a dwarven warrior unapologetically described as a hipster; Dee, a human cleric who becomes an atheist when she abandons her faith in the flying squid god N’Rygoth; and Betty, a hippie halfling thief who enjoys candy and psychedelic mushrooms. Their wild stories fold in ridiculous gore with outlandish humor, simultaneously touching on feminist and LGBT issues in smaller moments. Its unabashed portrayal of strong leads is exactly the kind of thing that helps female-led comic book adaptations thrive (ahem, Jessica Jones). Plus, the images and stories are wonderfully rendered, practically begging for a bold director to dare present them in a feature film.