Leading ladies abound in superhero films

June 2013 Prof. Cassandra Lobiesk

Behind every dark, dashing, out-of-this-world superhero stands a down-to-earth, compelling, and beautiful but equally dangerous love interest. Well, if I had a say in how any of these superhero movies went, that would be the case in every one of them.

Thankfully, the current screenplays are giving more roles to women; whether they are part of a superhero league or the girlfriend at the sidelines, they are still kicking rears and looking fabulous to boot. This is a huge difference from the previous superhero movies, where girls were still depicted as damsels in distress (and believe me, this has been happening for decades).

Take the older movies, for example. Superman (1978) broke the barrier on superhero movies by placing it in mainstream, popular culture. Christopher Reeve stood out as the ultimate Superman, and Margot Kidder gave a spunky performance as the superhero's main lover, Lois Lane. This doesn't change the fact that Lois, however, seemed to be more trouble than she was worth. Trust me, she was being saved time and time again, and I'm not even sure there was much she did to help.

It doesn't get better with the later movies, either. Save for the X-Men and, arguably, Fantastic Four (Jessica Alba's Sue Storm occasionally pulled through) series, where females rocked because they had superpowers, there weren't really very many leading females in these superhero films. And if you were purely the love interest? Forget about it, you were practically useless to the whole saving the world plot. Mary Jane Watson (Spider-Man series), Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Jane Foster (Thor), Carrol Ferris (Green Lantern)? Yeah, forget about it. These women, in a relative sense, had some part to play as far as the movie went, but when it comes right down to it, how big of a role did they really have, besides being damsels who needed saving?

Then you get to the more modern female leads: Natasha Romanoff (The Avengers), Selina Kyle (The Dark Knight Rises), Pepper Potts (Iron Man 3), Gwen Stacy (The Amazing Spider-Man). These females don't even have superpowers, yet throughout the movie, their involvements become almost paramount to their superhero counterparts' saving the day. Not to mention that these women are not exactly your run of the mill "girlfriends," either. But yeah, I'll briefly talk about each of them below.

The Black Widow - Natasha Romanoff

The Avengers' Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johanssen) breaks the barrier of female characters in any superhero movie to date. Firstly, she doesn't have any superhero powers in the film. Secondly, she's slated as part of an otherwise testosterone-filled group. Thirdly, she doesn't need to hook up with a man to show the world how lovable and alluring she is. The Avengers (2012) focused on action-packed fun, and it was refreshing to see that none of the leading men had any urge to fight over the only alpha female in their pack.

The Scientist - Gwen Stacy

Thor (2011) actually showcased a female scientist when physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) entered the scene. However, her appearance kind of pales in comparison when scientist Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) joins the fray of romantic interests in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). Gwen is intelligent, practical, and observant, even to the point that she immediately deduces Peter Parker's (Andrew Garfield) reluctance in continuing their relationship. The girl certainly played a huge part in nursing Spider-Man and creating the antidote that saved the entire city. Not too shabby, for a daddy's girl.

The Catwoman - Selina Kyle

The introduction of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), however, was probably one of the best things in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)--perhaps equal to the addition of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Selina is a professional burglar with a desire to erase her past and disappear from the evil clutches of Gotham. At the risk of sounding cliché, she is pretty catty in all things she does, and knows how to use everything she has to her advantage. While she does play a part in sending Batman (Christian Bale) into Bane's (Tom Hardy) clutches, she does redeem herself later by allying herself to the Dark Knight.

The Businesswoman - Pepper Potts

Admittedly, the comic books give Pepper Potts the rank that she deserves, as the first Iron Man (2008) put her in the background as a cookie cutter damsel (with impeccable business acumen, mind). But by Iron Man 3, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is anything but helpless and insecure. At the meeting of Tony Stark's (Robert Downey, Jr.) ex-lover, Ms. Potts barely bats a jealous eyelash, choosing instead to make a light, indifferent joke of "what's done is done." Further, this statuesque CEO of Stark Industries gets occasional protective streaks throughout the third film, oftentimes saving Tony's life when he physically could not do so himself.

I don't know if it's the rapidly changing times, the increase of geek female demographics, the constant push for decent female writing, the desire for stronger, female role models, or a combination of all three. Whatever the case, I completely approve of where the directors and screenwriters are going with the leading ladies of these recent superhero movies.