Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Why Nobody Wants a Female Superhero Movie - The Chris Evans Effect

I took a look at the Wikipedia article listing American superhero movies. Here's the link if you want to investigate yourself. From this article, I created a list of superhero movies with women in the lead or titular role. A movie was disqualified if ...

... it was animated. 
... the female superhero was part of an ensemble cast.
... the female superhero had a secondary or minor role.

Of the roughly 194 live-action superhero movies listed, these were all that I could find that matched my criteria.

Supergirl - 1984
Tank Girl - 1995
Black Scorpion - 1995
Barb Wire - 1996
Black Scorpion II: Aftershock - 1997
Catwoman - 2004
Elektra - 2005
My Super Ex-Girlfriend - 2006
Wonder Woman - 2017
Captain Marvel - 2019

Since 1930, only 8 female superhero movies have been made, and none in the last decade. What gives?

Well, I have an answer. Let's take a look at some of the poster art for the above movies.

Black Scorpion II: Aftershock

Barb Wire
I'll give you a hint. These are not movies marketed toward women. Look at how provocative our titular characters are dressed. These are movies marketed toward men.

Want further proof? Let's take a look at a promotion featuring the current most prominent woman superhero, Black Widow, as played by Scarlett Johansson.

Taken from

Notice how her butt is prominently turned toward the camera. The marketers don't care about Black Widow being a strong, independent woman. "Hey, guys!" the marketers say. "Come watch this movie! Not only is it a testosterone-filled romp, it also has this hot woman in it! Here's her butt for proof!"

And then let's talk about Black Widow's status as a strong independent woman. The filmmakers seem determined to chip away that persona. Black Widow's personal character arc in Avengers involved ...

... acting vulnerable and insecure to get what she wants.
... worrying about her friend Hawkeye.
... quailing before the Hulk and feeling obviously shaken by it.

None of the male Avengers ever felt a need to act vulnerable. None of the male Avengers spent screen time bemoaning the loss of a comrade. None of the male Avengers were given a scene running in abject terror from the Hulk.

Taken from

"But blogger!" you may say to me. "Black Widow's vulnerability was all a tactical ploy! She was the only one connected to Hawkeye! Anyone would run from the Hulk!"

Those are fair statements. Maybe anyone would have run away from the Hulk, but they chose to put Black Widow into that situation. They chose to portray her as vulnerable. They could have easily scripted the scene to have Captain America run from Hulk, but they chose the woman. None of the male Avengers seemed particularly shaken up about the death of Coulson, except they recognized his death as a wake-up call. And let's imagine, in an alternate universe, the character of Black Widow was male. The writers would have come up with a more creative way for the character to obtain valuable information. Let's see them stick Thor in the below situation.

Yeah, she may have gotten the information she needed from these goons and then kicked their butts, but why did the movie have to show her in this position in the first place?
The movie undermined Black Widow's strong, independent nature.

The second Avengers movie did little to help. They turned Black Widow into a flirt. Of all the characters to be captured by Ultron, Black Widow drew the short straw. She found herself in a classic 'rescue the princess' situation, and nobody batted an eye. Why? Because that's the role women play in these sorts of movies.

"Ok, fine," you say to me. "I understand where you're coming from, but you still haven't explained why there aren't more movies with female superheroes."

Well, after that build-up, I'll tell you. I call it the Chris Evans effect.

When I watch a superhero movie with someone like Chris Evans in it, I am able to project myself onto Captain America. I am able to imagine doing the things he does. When the movie is over, I feel empowered, liberated.

Despite this, I suspect more women have seen the Captain American movies than have men. I have female friends who own Captain America action figures, have Captain America posters, react excitedly whenever they hear mention of Cap or Chris. When I mentioned that Chris Evans was coming to the latest Salt Lake Comic Con, many of my female friends looked up the price of tickets. Based on this sort of reaction to Chris Evans, I have a theory.

When a woman watches a superhero movie with someone like Chris Evans in it, they are able to imagine themselves being with Chris. They latch onto his positive traits and qualities. When the movie is over, they feel safe and protected.

The men appreciate the Captain America movies because they want to be him. The women appreciate the Captain America movies because they want to be with him.

Now, let's imagine what happens with superhero movies starring women. Shoot, let's say we live in an alternate universe where Black Widow actually starred in a movie.

When a woman watches a Scarlett Johansson superhero movie, they are able to project themselves onto Black Widow. They imagine doing the things she does. When the movie is over, the women in the audience feel empowered, liberated. 

If men want to be Chris Evans, the women want to be Black Widow. The gender roles are reversed in this scenario. ScarJo is a very beautiful woman. The men should want to be with Black Widow, right?

Let's say I watch this hypothetical Black Widow movie and watch her beat up a bunch of mooks, outsmart the main villain, and save the day. I see she is stronger, quicker, smarter, and more competent than me.

I'm a man. Of course I don't want to be with Black Widow.

Men are used to being the protectors, the leaders, the breadwinners. Men don't want to seriously imagine being with a woman like Black Widow because they would feel inferior. They would feel like they're not doing their job, fulfilling their role in the relationship.

So when a superhero movie with a male lead is produced, everyone watches it. But when a superhero movie with a female lead is produced, only the women want to watch it. The producers know this. That's why Black Widow is consistently shown as the weakest Avenger. That's why she's put into compromising situations. If she was portrayed as more competent than one of the male characters, they would alienate their male audiences.

The Chris Evans effect in a nutshell.

Remember my list of female superhero movies? Marvel and DC have one planned each. If men don't want to watch these movies, the studios will lose half of the audience. I bet Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel will be among the lowest grossing superhero movies of the 21st century. If I'm correct, I'm blaming the Chris Evans effect.

Not that Chris does anything wrong; he's just good at being himself and being awesome at it.


  1. I love this! I'm sending you many arbitrary feminist points, with a bonus for being incredibly insightful!

  2. How do you explain the Hunger Games?

    1. That's a great question! Maybe Katniss Everdeen's characterization wasn't portrayed as larger-than-life (like many superhero personalities). Maybe men found the character more relatable or realistic in her skills and abilities. Maybe the series' glimpses at Peeta and other male characters helped men feel confident in projecting themselves. Maybe Katniss isn't portrayed as idealistically as your average superhero. I'm not sure! What do you think?

  3. What about when Chris Evans' captain is seen crying and trying to get drunk while "bemoaning the loss of a comrade"?

    1. That's also a fair point! Perhaps I come across as being too absolute? Either way, that may be a hole in my argument. I WILL stand by my point that I think Black Widow is consistently portrayed as the weakest and most vulnerable, and that her character is over-sexualized for ... reasons. The other characters may have their opportunities to be weak or vulnerable, but Black Widow seems hit with the vulnerable ball the most. Am I right?