The DataHero Blog

The Case For a Female Superhero Blockbuster

January 28th, 2014


The last 10 years have seen a huge surge in blockbuster movies based on comic books. In 2002, superhero films brought in just over $200 million at the box office. In 2012, this number ballooned to over $800 million. We’ve seen the Avengers and nearly countless iterations on Superman and Batman, but what we haven’t seen is a female superhero snag her own gigantic blockbuster. The reasoning usually boils down to some combination of “it’s too risky” and “no one will want to see it”, the assumption being that both men and women will see a male-led superhero film, while only women will turn out to see a female-led superhero film. In this post we’ll cover how female-led blockbusters are on the rise and bringing in big box office revenue, which is why the time is ripe for a female superhero blockbuster.

If we take a look at the gross earnings of superhero movies from 1978 onward, we see that superhero movies featuring female protagonists have accounted for a relatively small portion of earnings. The small blips of red in the column graph below represent Supergirl and Sheena (1984), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), The Powerpuff Girls (2002), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006).

 DataHero Average Lifetime Gross of Superhero Movies by Date and Gender (1)

In this post on originality in blockbuster films, we discovered that Hollywood is very risk-averse with their large upfront investments in big films. This partially explains why we see so many book adaptations or remakes of older movies, it also directly relates to the superhero movie trend we’re currently seeing. It is safer to use characters and stories that American movie-goers are familiar with for such large budget (and thus high risk) movies. However, this reliance on pre-tested source material does not explain the lack of female superhero movies. DC and Marvel have numerous female heroines to pull from, and have used many of them as supporting actresses in the form of Catwoman, Black Widow, Elektra and so on.

The chart below shows the top 20 blockbusters from 2003-2013 broken down by the gender of the lead protagonist, with superhero movies receiving two separate categories (superhero male and superhero mixed, there were no superhero female films in the top 20 blockbusters). You can see that females are starting to account for more top 20 blockbusters, and superhero movies remain relatively constant at with two films per year breaking into the top 20 grossing movies. Yet there are still no female superhero films in the top 20 blockbusters.

DataHero Blockbusters by Gender of Protagonist by Date

From the graph above, we know that the superhero genre is traditionally more male focused, but the bar graph below is ranked by top grossing movies of 2012 and 2013, separated by gender of the protagonist. It shows that newer movies like the Hunger Games franchise have begun to challenge the idea that big blockbusters must have male leads. In fact, six of the top 20 grossing movies of 2012 and 2013 feature female leads. Could this mean blockbusters are just beginning to trend toward female leads?

DataHero Top Grossing Movies 2012-2013 by Gender of Protagonist

The next chart shows the gross earnings of the top 20 grossing movies from 2003-2013 broken down by percentage of the gender of the protagonist.

 DataHero Gross Earnings Percentage of Top 20 Movies by Year

Women are not only being featured in more movies overall, but are also accounting for a larger percentage of box office income.  Thus, the graph below seems to suggest that yes, big budget movies are increasingly favoring female leads.

We see that the propensity of female protagonists is gaining momentum, most of these roles come from book adaptations like The Hunger Games or Twilight Franchises.  Using  book adaptations as source material for blockbusters is very similar to using comics as source material, and it seems that Hollywood has found a winning female formula with book adaptations. Divergent is another female-led young adult book that has a film adaptation set to release in April of 2014. If the Divergent series follows the patterns of the Twilight and Hunger Games films, it should do quite well at the box office. Other female-led films pull largely from fairy tales, books or musicals, with some originals and TV shows mixed in as well.

Interesting to note is the chart below featuring a breakdown of the types of movies that feature female protagonists broken down by box office revenue.

DataHero Female Lead Gross Earnings by Date and Category (1)

These are again characters and stories that have been approved by the American public, mitigating the risk of a big budget film.

On a purely subjective note, it’s possible that Hollywood’s depiction of female leads was a little off before. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, costumes tended to be much more revealing. Many of the visuals, including fight scenes focused on the woman’s sexuality and femininity, sometimes neglecting character development. Is it possible that Hollywood simply had the wrong formula during this time? The recent female protagonists from young adult novels favor more modest garb and focus on the protagonist as an individual who happens to be female. This approach worked well for movies like Alien or Salt, where the lead role (Sigourney Weaver and Angelina Jolie respectively) was originally written as a male part. This ensured that the lead role was complex and engaging.


It seems that Marvel or DC would have a solid base of female heroines to pull from, Catwoman, Wonder Woman or Black Widow all have strong presences in pop culture . A Black Widow movie, especially, would be an easy spin off from the Avengers. Despite Marvel’s lack of female heroines, we should have some good films in 2014 that are sure to pass the Bechdel Test and sell plenty of box office tickets and perhaps in the future Marvel will jump on the bandwagon. Sign up free for DataHero and explore the datasets on your own to see what you can uncover.


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Access the female superhero datasets here.


By Kelli Simpson

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