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2020 Is (Finally) the Year of the Female Superhero

The Harley Quinn–led ‘Birds of Prey’ kicks off a string of movies—with ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ still to come—that will put the women of comic book stories at the forefront. It’s about time.

Marvel/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The release of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) this week comes with some baggage Warner Brothers would probably rather you forget: the badness that was 2016’s Suicide Squad. As suggested by the film’s lengthy subtitle, Birds of Prey makes the rejection of its prequel explicit. The trailer even begins with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn saying goodbye to all that: “The Joker and I broke up. I wanted a fresh start.” Behind every great female superhero, as they say, lies a bad breakup from a toxic man. Having ditched the dude (and, really, the worst dude, in this case), the Suicide Squad spinoff centers instead on Quinn, who assembles a rag-tag team of women. With Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984 still to come, Birds of Prey is the first step in marking 2020 as the year of the female superhero. Finally.

The rise of the female superhero film is both long overdue and ultimately inevitable. As with the history of female superhero comics, their subsequent movie adaptations have emerged belatedly and unevenly to their male counterparts. While female figures such as Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, and Invisible Woman were introduced in the 1970s when second-wave feminism influenced even the bro culture of the comic book world, contemporary superhero films continue to mirror this pattern by giving us lady protagonists in what have often felt like reactionary responses to real-world gender inequality. The belatedness is classic sexism (ladies last, amirite?), but it has also made visible an obvious hunger for more female representation in a largely male-dominated genre. Given the commercial success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, both the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannot afford to stop making female superhero films. Nothing makes this more obvious, perhaps, than Marvel’s decision to produce Black Widow, even after its eponymous heroine was killed off in the MCU’s main chronology. Sometimes the road to diversity is, I guess, going back in time? While the financial impetus to foreground female superheroes is largely cynical, the result is nonetheless an increasing variety of women in America’s most popular media franchise. The surest sign that female superhero films are on the rise is that there’s now more than one of them.

This point was most recently made toward the end of Avengers: Endgame, in which all the ladies of the MCU suddenly converge to battle together. The scene is completely unmotivated at a plot level, and a clunky reminder about “female superheroes, plural!” and all the good feelings that should inspire. (The fact that female superheroes aren’t just multiple today, but also multiethnic is obviously the icing on the cake.) But while superhero films are moving toward large ensemble casts, the forced deux ex machina energy of a gathering of female superheroes in Endgame shows how the genre still struggles to bring women together in a narratively compelling way.

Female superhero plots have often emerged as appendages or afterthoughts to stories featuring male protagonists. Consider the pre-1956 Golden Age of Comic Books, in which women played secondary roles—secretaries, nurses, and models—to leading men. By the time the superhero genre became popular during the Cold War, female superheroes continued to play supporting characters: Kathy Kane was a heiress before she was Batwoman; Supergirl was Superman’s kid cousin before anything else; and Dr. Harleen Quinzel had to be Joker’s girlfriend before she could become Harley Quinn.

In contrast, what made Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman feel politically progressive and narratively cohesive in 2017 was the amount of time spent establishing Diana as a daughter of the Amazonian utopia. The female community and collaboration in that film were framed as foundational—rather than tangential—to its world-building. And what made the film’s humor work was Diana’s plausible confusion in the face of a male-dominated society. Conversely, what made Captain Marvel a less compelling rendition of girl power was how much it isolated the girl at the center of its drama. Rather than flesh out Carol Danvers’s backstory, Captain Marvel aggressively strips its superheroine of her memory, and leaves little screen time for Danvers to reconstruct it with her best friend, Maria Rambeau. Female networks would offer an opportunity to develop Danvers’s character, but Captain Marvel instead opts to leave its female protagonist as an unknown cipher. This mode of treating women as plot devices or character functions—rather than as believable individuals—can be traced to Endgame’s opportunistic and one-off “girl power” scene.

While overdue, the female superhero films of 2020 seem to rectify this tendency by giving female characters backstories. The plot twist to the forthcoming Black Widow film, for instance, is that Black Widow has female siblings. Superhero sisterhood comes in many guises, and in this case it’s literal. That one of the sisters is played by Florence Pugh—a.k.a. Amy March of the Little Women sisterhood—makes this all the more perfect. And as suggested by Pugh’s recent genre switching between horror, domestic period piece, and now superhero action thriller, the road to female empowerment in Hollywood might involve a reassessment of what we expect that empowerment to look like.

Enter Harley Quinn. In contrast to the classical beauty and morality of Wonder Woman, or Captain Marvel’s stereotypical masculinity all-powerfulness, the deliciousness of Robbie’s performance is her rejection of both proper femininity and ethical norms. Like Pugh, Robbie’s filmography shows an impressive range that denies typecasting. Beyond her physical transformation for I, Tonya, Robbie’s roles in films such as The Big Short, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, and, most recently, Bombshell all walk the line between self-objectification and shaming the audience for participating in it. This is no less true in Suicide Squad, in which Quinn’s metamorphosis from classically beautiful blonde career woman to villainess turns the viewer’s gaze into something much more fraught.

In Birds of Prey, Robbie continues to play into and upset gendered expectations about her character. Judging by the trailer alone, Robbie’s new version of Quinn departs radically from her portrayal in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Without Joker’s influence, this Quinn appears far less dark (can you blame her?). Instead, Quinn in Birds of Prey is not only happier, but also—dare I say it—ditzier? This new and presumably improved Quinn relishes in being a girl—a vision of female empowerment that is simultaneously high femme and lowbrow. And not only does Harley Quinn enjoy being a girl—she enjoys being a girl with girlfriends. As Quinn reflects in the trailer: “Turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” The emancipation here is twofold: not only from Joker the man, but also from, you know, the Man that symbolizes the superhero genre’s masculine tendencies more generally.

With neon lights blazing and Édith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour” blasting, Birds of Prey stages the performance of gender as indistinguishable from the work of being a badass bitch. In one scene, Quinn puts on a satin gown and belts what appears to be a cabaret musical number. It’s the kind of high-blown femininity that makes you aware of the labor behind it by pushing that performance to the point of turning grotesque. Quinn’s femininity is weaponized, and that aggression fuels her destructive potential. In another scene, Quinn (again, dressed in femme fatale camp) winks at a male police officer, before undoing her trench coat to reveal a fully equipped bandolier that she subsequently uses to blast the station to bits. Quinn plays up the problematic stereotype of the “hot mess,” subverting the often male perception of her as “crazy” and using it as a weapon against her enemies.

Birds of Prey feels potentially radical not only in its representations of female networks on screen, but also in the visibility of women working behind it. Robbie, who also coproduced the film, was adamant that a woman direct it. In place of Ayers, Warner Bros. tapped newcomer director Cathy Yan, best known for her Chinese indie film Dead Pigs. While Yan might be an unlikely choice for Birds of Prey, her participation in the DCEU keeps with the superhero genre’s recent experimentations with more indie and prestige filmmakers. It’s a smart move on the part of the studio, too, as the aesthetic mark of the indie auteur gives superhero films more credibility these days. The color palette of Birds of Prey evokes not only the hypersaturated world of, for instance, Todd Phillips’s recent Joker, but also that of Wong Kar-wai and Jia Zhangke (the latter who produced Yan’s Dead Pigs). Joining Yan is a promising script by Christina Hodson, who, as evidenced by her work on Bumblebee, writes stories that are both emotionally cohesive and funny. Hodson’s contribution to Birds of Prey—as well as the forthcoming Batgirl—suggests that she’s making a name for herself as a writer of female superhero stories.

Having Yan and Hodson—two Asian female artists—join forces in Birds of Prey feels like a strategic move on the part of the MCU, given how much Hollywood blockbusters increasingly rely on an overseas Chinese market. And in light of the success of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, it’s perhaps no surprise that the superhero film industry is now seeking to diversify by enlisting female directors such as Ava DuVernay and Chloé Zhao for future projects. Representation on Hollywood screens has long been a reflection of those working behind them. If Birds of Prey is any indication, the blockbuster superhero film is strategically diversifying not only in terms of gender, but race as well. While such diversification might be largely driven by capitalist interests, the results can’t be undervalued. Such representation of difference, however slow to come and however motivated, makes a difference.