From 'Wonder Woman' to 'Wonder Woman': Female superhero movies and TV shows through the decades
Posted June 3
In recent years, especially, female superheroes have come to play a much more prominent role in movies and on TV. Characters like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique are as vital to their franchises as their male counterparts.
But even so, female heroes have mostly been stuck as co-leads, side characters or even just bit parts with only a line or two of dialogue.
That could be changing now, though.
This weekend’s release of “Wonder Woman” starring Gal Gadot is a huge step forward in terms of diversity, not only for the genre, but movies in general, marking a number of major firsts. For one thing, it’s the first female-fronted superhero movie of the modern era and the first one, period, in 12 years. It’s also the first time Wonder Woman has ever appeared in her own theatrically released movie (and only the second time she’s appeared on the big screen at all) despite more than 75 years of comic book history — more than nearly any characters other than Superman and Captain America.
“Wonder Woman” is also the first action movie directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) with a budget of more than $100 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and the highest-rated DC Extended Universe movie on Rotten Tomatoes so far, according to Entertainment Weekly.
And from the looks of it, it could very well wind up being the first female superhero blockbuster ever, according to the L.A. Times.
To get a sense of just how big a deal that really is, here’s a look back at the shockingly sparse and, many times, problematic history of female-fronted superhero movies that have led up to the new “Wonder Woman.”
1974 'Wonder Woman' (TV movie)
No, this isn’t the classic TV series with Lynda Carter in a star-spangled one-piece and gold tiara. Predating that by one year — and thus holding the title of “first female-led superhero movie/TV show ever” — this made-for-TV movie was intended as a pilot for a proposed series that never came to be. Portrayed by Cathy Lee Crosby, a blonde former tennis pro, this Wonder Woman didn’t have powers or magical weapons like the Lasso of Truth, and her secret identity was, well, not really a secret to anyone. Instead, in keeping with Wonder Woman’s comic book appearance during roughly the same era, this version of the character was basically an American Emma Peel from the British espionage series “The Avengers” (not to be confused with Marvel’s superhero team), fighting alongside government agent Steve Trevor to thwart a plot by the villainous Abner Smith (played by the always-great Ricardo Montalban).
1975-1978 'Wonder Woman' (TV series)
Lynda Carter’s classic portrayal of the Amazonian princess only lasted three seasons, but it left an incalculable impact on pop culture, helping to make the character into a feminist icon. The first season told a slightly modified version of Diana’s origin story — in some ways, like the setting (World War II instead of World War I), closer to the comics than the new movie. Lyle Waggoner, a male model, co-starred as downed pilot Steve Trevor. As a way to reduce costs, seasons two and three were retitled “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman” and the story picked up 30 years later after Diana, who had returned to her home on Paradise Island, meets Steve Trevor’s son, Steve Trevor Jr. (once again played by Waggoner) in the then modern-day 1970s.
1984 'Supergirl' (movie)
The first-ever theatrically released superhero movie with a woman in the lead role, this British-made spinoff from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies starred Helen Slater as Kara Zor-El, Superman’s Kryptonian cousin. Unfortunately, even with respectable actors like Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole filling out the cast, it was widely panned by critics and turned out to be a costly flop, earning just $14 million on what was, at the time, a massive budget of $35 million, according to Box Office Mojo. (To compare, 1983’s “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” cost $2.5 million less.)
1984 'Sheena' (movie)
While not technically a superhero per se, Sheena is definitely one tough female comic book character. Just glancing at this movie’s original theatrical poster, featuring a skimpy loincloth-wearing Tanya Roberts, blonde, feathered hair waving behind her as she rides a zebra into battle, one might be tempted to dismiss it as just an exploitative Tarzan rip-off. But there’s a little more to it than that. “Sheena” was actually an adaptation of a mostly forgotten Golden Age comic series, “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle,” about a woman orphaned while on safari as a young girl and raised with the ability to speak to animals, according to screenrant.com. The character’s debut appearance actually dates all the way back to 1937’s “Wags” No. 1. Then, in 1942, Sheena made history as the first female hero to get her own dedicated comic series, beating Wonder Woman to the punch by three whole years. There was also a TV series in the 1950s. And OK, yes, even back then, it was essentially a Tarzan rip-off, but one with more than a little historical significance.
2001-2002 'Witchblade' (TV series)
Based on a '90s Top Cow Comics character more famous for her almost nonexistent costume than for anything story-related, this TNT series ditched the titillation in favor of a pretty straightforward supernatural police procedural. Yancy Butler starred as detective Sara Pezzini, the latest in a long line of women dating back thousands of years chosen to bear the Witchblade — a magical, sentient gauntlet that grants the wearer special powers. Despite decent ratings, the series was canceled after two seasons. A few years later, the comic was also adapted into a Japanese anime that was even less faithful to the comic’s story (but more faithful to the costuming), and just recently, it was announced that NBC has tapped the creative team behind “Vampire Diaries” to launch yet another Witchblade series, according to gizmodo.com.
2002 'Birds of Prey' (TV series)
The year after “Smallville” became a massive crossover hit, attracting comic fans and noncomic fans alike, Warner Bros. tried to build on that success with this female-centric show set in a Gotham City abandoned by Batman. The Birds of Prey in question were an all-girl superhero team consisting of Bruce Wayne and Catwoman’s daughter, Helena Kyle (aka Huntress), a paraplegic Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl, aka Oracle) and Dinah Lance (aka Black Canary). The series also featured as one of its main villains a pre-“Suicide Squad” Harley Quinn played by Mia Sara of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” fame. Even though a record number of viewers tuned in for the pilot, later episodes just weren’t very well-received, and the show was canceled after one season. Since then, Black Canary has gone on to become a key part of the so-called “Arrowverse,” and MCU alum Joss Whedon is gearing up to write and direct a Batgirl movie as part of the DC Extended Universe to exist alongside Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Ben Affleck’s Batman.
2003 'Stripperella' (TV series)
Co-created by Stan Lee — yes, that Stan Lee, but no, not for Marvel — and featuring the voice of Pamela Anderson, this raunchy animated comedy series debuted on TNN and lasted just one season. During that time, the titular character — real name, Erotica Jones — dealt with villainous plots like explosive breast implants and a rampaging werebeaver. Needless to say, it probably wouldn’t be considered a high point for female superheroes. At the same time, though, while more serious characters like Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl and a host of others have all appeared in animated series as either supporting characters or as team members in shows like “Justice League,” “Teen Titans” or “X-Men,” Stripperella remains to date the only female superhero who’s gotten her own animated TV series.
2004 'Catwoman' (movie)
One year later, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” would revolutionize comic book movies, ushering in an era of “dark and gritty” everything, but in 2004, Warner Bros. and DC decided to release this bomb that has virtually nothing to do with the comic book character fans actually wanted to see on the big screen. Instead of a burglar in a catsuit — or a cat burglar, as one might say — Catwoman is turned into some mystical, “chosen one” with a mantle passed down through millennia a la Buffy or Witchblade, turning women into skimpy leather-and-high-heel-wearing cat-poeira masters (get it?). Halle Berry’s heroine, Patience Phillips — not Selina Kyle, like in the comics — is called on to become this generation’s Catwoman so she can battle an evil cosmetics company CEO. It bears mentioning that this movie went through a total of 28 screenwriters, and this is what they came up with, according to denofgeek.com.
2005 'Elektra' (movie)
After first appearing as the Greek ninja assassin Elektra Natchios in Fox’s tepidly received 2003 “Daredevil,” Jennifer Garner was given a rare opportunity to reprise the role for a solo flick. Unfortunately, the final product was a complete flop with critics and audiences, scoring a 10 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and earning just $24 million at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Completely overlooking the quality of the movies, the back-to-back failure of “Catwoman” the year before and “Elektra” was seen as proof that audiences aren’t interested in watching action movies starring women, contributing to the decade-plus drought of female-led superhero properties that’s only now coming to an end. Since 2005, the character of Elektra has been rehabilitated in the MCU as a major part of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” this time played by Elodie Yung.
2009 'Wonder Woman' (direct-to-video movie)
While Warner Bros. was still struggling to figure out how to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen, having hired (and then fired) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon to direct a version that never made it past the scripting stages, according to comicbook.com, this straight-to-DVD animated feature provided a perfect template — if anybody had been paying attention, at least. In fact, with an 88 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was the highest-scoring female superhero anything up to that point. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) voiced the Amazonian princess opposite Nathan Fillion (“Firefly”) as Steve Trevor. Also noteworthy about this version is that it was directed by a woman, Lauren Montgomery — the first time that had happened in Wonder Woman’s history.
2015-2016 'Agent Carter' (TV series)
Nearly a decade into the MCU and with 15 blockbusters under its belt, Marvel has rightly been criticized for so far failing to give a female superhero a starring vehicle on the big screen — a problem it plans to rectify with “Captain Marvel,” but not until 2019. On the small screen, though, it’s a little better. In 2015, in fact, it launched two female-centric series. First up was this period spy show that ran for two seasons. A spinoff from “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Agent Carter” followed Cap’s World War II-era love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), on a series of spy adventures set just after the events of that movie. Positive reviews couldn't keep the viewership up, though.
2015 'Jessica Jones' (Netflix series)
The second female-starring Marvel series that year is also arguably the best of the Netflix Marvel series. Krysten Ritter stars as the eponymous Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned private investigator suffering from PTSD after a run-in with a particularly nasty bad guy. The series scored an impressive 92 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A second season is slated for next year with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg stating that all 13 episodes of the new season will be directed by women, according to Variety. Before then, though, Ritter will play Jones again in Netflix’s team series “The Defenders” alongside Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. “The Defenders” will be available in its entirety on Netflix on Aug. 18.
2015-present 'Supergirl' (TV series)
It took 30 years, but TV’s “Supergirl” starring Melissa Benoist has proved to be a lot more popular than the 1984 movie, that’s for sure. Offering a decidedly lighter take on superheroing than many contemporary movies and TV shows, this version has been a breath of fresh air for DC fans put off by the overly grim, humorless Superman seen in the cinematic DC universe. And remarkably, critics like it a lot, too. The second-season premiere earned an almost unheard of 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Although not technically part of the “Arrowverse,” the characters have crossed over a few times now, including for a Flash/Supergirl musical episode that earned rave reviews. And as a treat for fans, a couple superheroines from decades past also make appearances, including, as Kara’s adoptive mother, Helen Slater, and, as no less than the president of the United States, Lynda Carter.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.