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The Slow Evolution of Female Characters in Comic Book Movies and TV Shows

Superheroes in movies and TV isn’t quite the boys’ club it used to be.

When it comes to comic book properties, there’s long been common traits to what the heroes look like. There’s been a tendency to have most of the characters be Caucasian males. Little by little, we’d start to see some female characters along with characters from different ethnic backgrounds. Some of these characters grew in power and popularity but it seemed many believed that the majority of comic readers and fans were simply white dudes. These days, it’s clear that isn’t the case. Comic book movies and TV shows have never been more popular but most of the characters being adapted are still males.

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2008 marked a turning point for comic book media. With Iron Man, we saw a new focus on bringing the characters to life and remaining true to the original source. The problem is, these movies tended to focus on the guys. AfterIron Man, we had The Incredible Hulk, Punisher War Zone, Iron Man 2, Thor, and so forth. Some of these movies did feature female characters but they were either the damsel in distress or given secondary roles and forced to spend most of their time on the sidelines.

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Even though these movies focused on the guys, we did see Black Widow, Lady Sif, and Peggy Carter fight to show how easily they could fight side by side with the guys. Unfortunately the progress being made still was held back. We saw Gamora, the deadliest woman in the universe, needed Peter Quill to bail her out when they were taken to the Kyln Prison in Guardians of the Galaxy. This might not be a problem for some male viewers but imagine the frustration for the female audience.

Things are slowly changing in the movies. Guardians of the Galaxy featured five main characters and only one was female. The Avengers featured six main characters and only one female (eight characters if you include Fury and Maria Hill with one more female). Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced another female character with the addition of Scarlet Witch. In many ways, Ant-Man also has an ensemble cast. We have five good guys and only one female. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne again showed a female character could be one of the toughest characters on the screen. And she didn’t even have any superpowers or a fancy power-suit.

[Slight spoiler for the mid-credits of Ant-Man.]

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When Hope discovers what could be next for her, she says, “It’s about damn time.” Whether you agree or not, it is about damn time. As the father of a daughter, I want her to see and be able to relate to more and more strong female characters. When I attended an Ant-Man press conference on the Disney lot, Lilly said the following:

“I think there’s a lot of excitement in the focus groups you’ve seen already with the female audiences about this character in general and the fact that Marvel is really really taking female characters very seriously. Looking at their line up, you can see they have good intentions. As a woman who came into a predominately male film, I had a great time working with Peyton [Reed] and the producers on this character because I could see a hunger in them to really really do right by Hope and do right by their female fans and female audience. When I pick a role, one of the things I aspire to is somebody’s parent will come up to me after the film’s come out and say, ‘My daughter idealizes that character. You’re her hero.” And that’s what we aim for. Especially in this brand. We’re in the business of making heroes.”

Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, also stated, “We have plans for her in the future.” We'll have to wait to see what those plans are as well as wait until 2018 for the Captain Marvel movie.

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Surprisingly enough, comic book TV shows have actually been making bigger strides in this area. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. features several strong female characters with Agent May, Skye/Daisy, Bobbi Morse, and even Simmons has started venturing out and kicking butt in the field. That means half the cast is male and female (sure Ward straddles the line between good and evil but, come on, he’s pretty evil these days).

The Flash does have Iris West and Caitlin Snow but Caitlin seems stuck at STAR Labs while Cisco has been allowed to go out with Joe. Iris and Caitlin have been important parts of several story lines though. Arrow has been pushing the ladies forward as well with Felicity playing an integral part in Ollie’s fight and now we have Black Canary, Nyssa al Ghul, and Thea Queen joining the fight (with Sara Lance and Hawkgirl over at the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow). We also have a second season of Agent Carter and iZombie as well as the upcoming Supergirl to look forward to.

Superheroes are not just guys. Comic fans are not just guys.

In the words of my daughter, "There needs to be more female characters." I absolutely agree. Why not have something for everyone? More characters and more fans just means the industry can thrive and more movies and TV shows for everyone.