Female superhero movies, ranked
Expectations are sky-high for this weekend’s debut of Wonder Woman, the very first female-led superhero movie to premiere since the era of cinematic universes kicked off roughly ten years ago. And if it proves to be a hit, it’ll make history as the first successful superhero film starring a female character. Ever. As you might have noticed, the track record for female-led superhero movies is downright abysmal.
Theories abound as to why every movie starring a female superhero has tanked so far, but it’s possible that Wonder Woman might be the movie to finally put all that idle speculation to bed. So what better time to take a walk down memory lane and relive the short, unpleasant history of cinematic superheroines with every live-action feature film starring a female comic book superhero, ranked from worst to best? And since all of these movies are, at best, stunningly awful, I’m also going to try my best to point out the positives along the way.
Based on the chain mail bikini-clad warrior who first appeared in the pages of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian series, Red Sonja was envisioned as a sequel/spin-off of the Conan films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Which already brings up one of the main reasons female superhero movies fail—they’re usually conceived of as spin-offs to an already creatively depleted film series starring their male counterparts, which we’ll see more of later.) Alas, the producers had lost the rights to the Conan character by the time Red Sonja was made, and so Arnold became “Kalidor”, and despite being MIA for two-thirds of the film, he also gets top billing over Brigitte Nielsen even though she’s playing the title character. (Even in their own movies, female superheroes can’t catch a break.) Pretty much every aspect of this film is awkward and inept, from the awful performances, to the terrible dialogue, to the lame action scenes that only exist for Arnold to show up after five minutes to do the actual work of defeating the bad guys.
The positives: Brigitte Nielsen at least looks the part, even though her acting abilities leave much to be desired. The film was scored by the great Ennio Morricone, though the juxtaposition of his majestic score behind Nielsen’s clumsy swordplay is somewhat laughable. And, um… um… How about those sets? There was some pretty impressive set design going on here.
I’m including Tank Girl as a superhero because she originally appeared in a comic book and has a superhero-sounding name, but it would appear from this film that her only power is making the most asinine quip at any given moment. I’ll grant that Tank Girl has a talented cast, but this is a comic that was probably too bizarre and off-kilter to ever survive the translation to the big screen. Also, one can only imagine how things went so wrong that they had to insert panels from the comic book and entire animated sequences to replace scenes they forgot to film. Despite the best of intentions, this will forever be remembered as the movie where Ice-T plays a half-man, half-kangaroo.
The positives: Lori Petty is pretty much note-perfect here; unfortunately, she’s note-perfect as the most annoying lead ever. And Stan Winston’s makeup for the kangaroo men is impeccable, of course. But enlisting Stan Winston for a Tank Girl movie is like getting Joss Whedon to write and direct a film based on Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew.
Operating in the far-flung year of (wait for it) 2017, it’s a stretch to call post-apocalyptic mercenary Barb Wire (née Barbara Kopetski) a superhero, because it appears her only power is fitting into tight leather outfits and awkwardly running in heels. The writers of Barb Wire took the original comic and reworked it into a blatant rip-off of Casablanca (all the better to have pseudo-Nazis as villains, you see) only with the roles gender-swapped. So instead of Bogie’s innate coolness we get the charisma-challenged Pamela Anderson, whose starring role on Baywatch had made her an international sex symbol, but there’s not one remotely erotic moment in this entire movie. Barb Wire is wholly unpleasant from start to finish, from its garish visuals to its unlikable characters to its incoherent action scenes.
The positives: …It’s not Tank Girl? And I suppose there’s a good drinking game to be made out of “spot the Casablanca reference”.
There’s a dull inevitability that pervades this film; I’m guessing this project started as a vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer after her turn in Batman Returns (see what I mean about most female superhero movies being conceived of as spin-offs of creatively bankrupt male superhero movies?), and somehow it just kept rolling along through development without anyone having the good sense to stop it before it became an actual movie. The Batman franchise was a year away from being rebooted after devolving into campy nonsense, so what did this spin-off bring us? More camp, of course, in the form of Halle Berry hissing at dogs, stuffing her mouth with sushi, and achieving orgasm just by sniffing catnip. The film is basically unwatchable thanks to director Pitof (he’s got one name, so you know he’s an auteur) filling the movie with unnecessary tracking shots and big sweeping CGI pans, all while exhibiting a complete fear of allowing any shot to last more than 0.8 seconds.
The positives: Unlike the above examples, this is not a boring film; Headache-inducing? Certainly. Offensively idiotic? You bet. But it’s never boring.
In yet another female-led superhero film borne out of the collapse of a waning male superhero franchise, Supergirl picks up the cape that Christopher Reeve refused to put on again and passes it on to newcomer Helen Slater, in a story that makes no sense in context with previous Superman films—Krypton was destroyed, but there’s an intact Kryptonian city floating around in “inner space” like it’s no big deal? The movie also gives us an unspeakably lame villain in Faye Dunaway’s Selena, a sorceress who somehow knows that a Kryptonian doodad called the Omegahedron can make her magic do whatever the plot demands. And if that’s not bad enough, Supergirl and Selena eventually battle over the affections of some random shirtless guy, meaning the first major motion picture starring a female superhero is also a glorified catfight.
The positives: Helen Slater nails the character and looks great in the costume. And while it happens very, very sporadically, there are some moments in this movie that bring back memories of the first Superman and I suppose tangential nostalgia is better than nothing.
I’m including Sheena, Queen of the Jungle as a superhero, because she first debuted in a 1937 comic (predating Wonder Woman), and can telepathically communicate with jungle wildlife, making her at least as much of a superhero as Aquaman. In the film, Sheena (Tanya Roberts) is raised in the remote African wilderness and has to stop a westernized king from raping the land, but there’s no way they’d make a movie these days about a blonde white woman being the guardian and savior of a tribe of noble savages—which wasn’t exactly the most enlightened concept in 1984, either. Mostly, this movie makes me wonder how the cast was able to keep straight faces while delivering terrible lines like “His fermented buffalo milk will be your fermented buffalo milk!”
The positives: Yes, it’s dumb, but it’s also dumb fun, and it would at least appear the filmmakers actually had some affection for the source material, even if what they produced was cringe-inducing. And Tanya Roberts’ extended nude scene is certainly a positive for me, though even I have to admit its inclusion in a PG-rated family movie (not even PG-13!) is pretty bizarre.
Yes, Elektra earns first place purely by virtue of being uninspired and predictable and half-hearted, instead of outright stupid and painful like all the runners-up on this list. Once again, we have a female superhero film that follows on from a failing male hero franchise, in this case, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, and why anyone thought Jennifer Garner’s take on Elektra warranted its own movie is anyone’s guess. Worse yet is the bland action plot where Elektra proves herself to be a contract killer with a heart of gold as she rescues the father and daughter she was supposed to kill, while also going up against an inept squad of minibosses who can’t last more than two minutes in a fight.
The positives: The performances are good (or at least, they would be good if the cast had been given anything to do) and there’s the occasional decent visual, but the biggest positive? The failure of Elektra led to Fox (the same studio hopelessly committed to churning out awful Fantastic Four films) abandoning their plans for a Daredevil sequel and letting the rights lapse back to Marvel.