By Rebecca Pahle and Jesse Rifkin
This Christmas sees the release—theatrical and via HBOMax—of Wonder Woman 1984. The film marks the second solo outing for Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, the most prominent comic book superheroine. Though her DC brethren Superman and Batman have been popping up on the big screen (in the form of serials and, later, features) since the ‘40s, it took until 2014 for Wonder Woman to get her big screen debut: as a supporting character, borderline cameo, in The Lego Movie. The character (played by Gal Gadot in the DCU) made her live-action movie debut in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed the next year by Wonder Woman. Upon the film’s release, it became (temporarily) the highest-grossing female superhero movie and the highest-grossing live-action movie by a female director.
The fate of Wonder Woman mirrors that of the female superhero overall in her transition from the comic book page to the big screen. Even as superhero movies went through phases of dominating the box office, female characters—even those as prominent as Wonder Woman herself—were rarely given top billing, instead relegated to supporting, villain, or ensemble-member roles.
The first female superhero movie—narrowly defined as a movie unambiguously lead by a heroine originating from a comic book—is 1984 fantasy film Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. The character of Sheena, played in her first and as-yet only official big screen outing by The Beastmaster’s Tanya Roberts, actually predates Wonder Woman by several years. Directed by The Towering Inferno’s John Guillermin, Sheena opened to an inauspicious $2.9M in August 1984, enough to land it at number eight. Domestically, it topped out at $5.7M.
Sheena was the first (by a whole three months) in a miniature run of female superhero movies to hit big screens in the mid-1980s. The second, November 1984’s Supergirl, opened at number one with $5.7M—the same amount that Sheena managed to make in its whole run. Still, Supergirl‘s $14.2M domestic cume doesn’t overwhelm when you compare it to its parent franchise. Released in 1978, the success of Superman—the first Man of Steel film to star Christopher Reeve—helped kick off a wave of superhero movies that would continue throughout the ‘80s. Superman opened to $7.4M and topped out at $24.36M domestic; later came Superman II ($14.1M/$35.7M), and Superman III ($13.3M/$59.9M). In terms of box office Supergirl was only narrowly defeated by the notorious Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($15.6M), produced by low-budget outfit Cannon Films.
Finally, the ‘80s gave us Red Sonja, released in 1985. Like Supergirl, Red Sonja was a solo female spinoff of an established film franchise: In Red Sonja’s case, the two Conan the Destroyer films from earlier in the 1980s that helped establish the screen stardom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger co-starred in Red Sonja as Lord Kalidor, a clear Conan stand-in; his appearance, fresh on the heels of The Terminator, couldn’t elevate Red Sonja above a $2.2M opening and $6.9M total domestic cume.
Following Red Sonja, it would be another 19 years until the next female-led superhero film opened in theaters—though, in this case, star Halle Berry’s character was less a superheroine than a super-antiheroine. By the time of Catwoman’s release in summer 2004, Berry had proved her superhero bona fides in two critically acclaimed X-Men movies. (The critically derided X-Men: The Last Stand came later.) And it had been seven years since the last theatrically released Batman movie, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997). The fact that audiences were primed for some sort of return to the Batman universe was proven when Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins hit theaters just shy of a year after Catwoman’s debut.
Catwoman sure hadn’t hit the spot for fans or critics; it opened in third place with $16.7M, behind The Bourne Supremacy and holdover I, Robot. The film went on to notch $40.2M domestic and $82.1M globally. (Compare that to fellow superhero outing Spider-Man 2, which was the second highest-grossing film of 2004 with $373.5 domestic.) Star Halle Berry became one of the few people to accept the Razzie Award she earned for the film in person; director Pitof hasn’t helmed another theatrically-released feature since.
The trend of spinning off male-led superhero franchises into female-led one-offs continued with 2005’s Elektra, with Jennifer Garner reprising her supporting role from 2003’s Daredevil. Opening at $12.8M in the then-box office dead zone of January, it was beaten by two holdovers (Meet the Fockers and In Good Company) and only managed to secure the number five spot. No good word of mouth was there to save Elektra from an ignominious domestic finish: $24.4M, landing it outside of the top 100 films released in 2005.
With Catwoman and Elektra, another set of female-led superhero flops led to another years-long lull in female-led superhero movies. (It goes without saying that both the mid-‘80s and the mid-‘00s had plenty of male-led superhero movie flops, yet studios never washed their hands of them as a concept.)
Twelve years after Elektra, 2017 saw Wonder Woman, one of the key characters in the DC Comics pantheon, finally get her own solo outing. Its $103.2M domestic opening was the seventh-highest of 2017; its global domestic cume of $412.5M stood as the year’s third-highest, behind Beauty and the Beast ($504M) and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Last Jedi ($517.2M). Globally, its $821.8 cume brought it to spot ten, behind Disney/Marvel Studios superhero outings Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880.1M), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($863.7M), and Thor: Ragnarok ($854.9M).
Not that there was a ton of competition… but Wonder Woman officially became the highest-grossing female superhero movie ever, passing Catwoman, on its second day of release. It wouldn’t hold the title for long. 2019 saw the release of Disney’s Captain Marvel, which opened to $153.4M before topping out at $426.8M domestic (sixth-highest of the year). Globally, it became the first female-led superhero movie to cross the billion-dollar mark with $1.128B, the fifth-highest total of a movie released that year. Captain Marvel was given a box office bump by fellow 2019 MCU entry Avengers: Endgame, which would go on to become the highest-grossing film of all time. On Captain Marvel‘s eighth weekend (Avengers: Endgame’s first), it jumped from spot four to spot two, putting the character in the weekend’s top two films at the same time.
2020 would give us one final female-led superhero movie before shutting the industry down due to the Covid-19 pandemic: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which came to the big screen around six weeks before U.S. theaters temporarily shut down en masse. Star Margot Robbie—as with Jennifer Garner’s Elektra and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman—first played her comic book alter ego in a film in which she did not star. In Robbie’s case, that was 2016’s Suicide Squad, from which she and fan favorite character Harley Quinn emerged as breakouts. Birds of Prey underperformed to the tune of $33M in its February opening weekend and went on to earn $84.1M domestic, a number that likely would have had a few additional millions tacked onto it had the pandemic not happened. Globally, the film earned $201.8M, making it (barring highly unlikely $200M-plus performances from films coming out around Christmas) the seventh highest global grosser of an extremely strange year, box office-wise.
If the typical female-led superhero pattern of “a few movies clumped together, then radio silence for the better part of a decade” does hold, at least we’re not seeing the downswing quite yet. Wonder Woman 1984 comes out Christmas and will be followed in May 2021 by Black Widow and in November 2022 by Captain Marvel 2. Harley Quinn, though she doesn’t have another lead outing confirmed, will return for the 2021 ensemble film The Suicide Squad. A Batgirl movie is also reportedly in the works at Warner Bros.