A while back, someone asked me about the yellow-and-blue pin I wear on my jacket lapel. “It’s the Batgirl insignia,” I answered. This perplexed them. Was I trying to be politically correct? No -- Batgirl was just that cool.
It seems that Hollywood has finally gotten the message that female superheroes might be viable as stand-alone properties. Wonder Woman, the third most prominent DC Comics superhero after Batman and Superman, has a place on the 2017 release calendar, while Marvel has a Captain Marvel movie scheduled for 2018. They'll have strong lead-ins on the small screen: CBS’ Supergirl is getting rave reviews and Jessica Jones, debuting this week, is set up to be Netflix's next hit. But which female superheroes paved the way for them?
As Jessica Jones gets ready to smash preconceived notions and glaring cultural omissions, here are the superheroes who helped us arrive at this significant moment. Each deserves a second look, but especially number three, in case you run into someone wearing a Bat-pin.
Played by: Irish McCalla In 1942, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 beat Wonder Woman #1 into existence by a matter of months, making the brainchild of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger the first action lady to headline a comic. On the love letter to colonialism that was her television series, Sheena rescued white people who weren’t wearing blackface from white people who were wearing blackface. Different times. Sheena also had a chimp friend.
Batwoman (The Wild World of Batwoman, 1966)
Played by: Katherine Victor Those familiar with this iteration of Batwoman, likely via its repurposing in a now-classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, bore little resemblance to Katherine Kane, who took up the cowl in Detective Comics #233, 1956. That didn’t stop DC comics from slapping producer/director Jerry Warren with a big honkin’ lawsuit. The courts ultimately sided with Warren, but his sleazy spin on Batwoman paved the way for the barely litigation-safe Batman proxies to clutter comic book history.
Batgirl (Batman, 1967)
Played by: Yvonne Craig Batman’s stature as a television and movie star had a singular impact on the comic book property. Not unlike the popular Harley Quinn, who sauntered onto Batman: The Animated Series about a year before her ink debut, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara took up crime fighting in the pages of the comic book only because producers of the Batman TV series thought a female hero could reverse plummeting ratings. Batgirl didn't avert cancellation, but she did rescue the Dynamic Duo from nasty expiration at the hands of the Joker on several occasions.
Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman, 1975)
Played by: Lynda Carter Despite the magic island, the invisible plane, and one of the era's cornier theme songs, Wonder Woman’s ‘70s show managed grittier realism than any Bruce Wayne-led Batstravaganza from 10 years prior. That is, until Rover the Adorable Robot Pal showed up. Wonder Woman didn't do cute as well as television executives imagined. But anyone questioning the icon status of Carter’s performance should watch the 2014 viral sensation Too Many Cooks, which invoked Wonder Woman’s twirling transformation.
Played by: Helen Slater Kara Zor-El is a badass. The comic version sacrificed herself to save the Multiverse in 1985’s comic saga, Crisis on Infinite Earths. A modern animated version of Kara thwarted a legion of metahuman clones trying to demolish the Justice League’s orbital headquarters. Then there’s this movie’s Supergirl, who flails through a sequence of scenarios linked by coincidence and conceived by presumption of the audience’s expectations of prior Superman movies. Movie Supergirl’s powers include flight, strength, milquetoast wholesomeness, and an obliviousness we’re supposed to find charming. The ‘80s were not kind to superheroines.
Red Sonja (Red Sonja, 1985)
Played by: Brigitte Nielsen Nielsen wasn’t known for her acting in 1985, but she and her stunt double could both swing a broadsword. Red Sonja became a more-than-adequate distaff counterpart for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who concluded his Conan the Barbarian trilogy by playing a character who isn’t Conan the Barbarian. If producers would have trusted her with the movie, she could have become Hollywood's first true female franchise heroine.
Catwoman (Batman Returns, 1992)
Played by: Michelle Pfeiffer With respect to Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether, and Anne Hathaway, Batman Returns’ decisively bizarre take on Gotham’s feline femme fatale warrants contemplation. Most of the time, on-screen and on-page, Selina Kyle occupies herself by stealing stuff and making googly eyes at the Caped Crusader. But director Tim Burton takes her a step further. Kyle eats live birds. She chugs milk. She gives herself public tongue baths. Burton defied tradition. No one was surprised to learn he never read a comic book in his life.
The Invisible Woman (The Fantastic Four, 1994)
Played by: Rebecca Staab Marvel trademarks love to wallow in existential angst, but of all her oft-inconsolable contemporaries, Sue Storm deserves her self-pity the most. Jessica Alba almost quit movies after a rotten experience playing the character in 2007’s Rise of the Silver Surfer. Reboot actress Kate Mara can’t even muster up the energy to watch her own entry. At least The Invisible Woman can look back fondly upon the no-budget Fantastic Four produced by Roger Corman. Produced on a shoestring budget to maintain the property rights and never technically released, the kitschy superhero movie is a YouTube classic. Not every comic book can say it inspired an Arrested Development subplot, after all.
Played by: Lori Petty Amongst films that trainwrecked at the box office, then became unlikely cult standbys on DVD, Tank Girl sits half-a-notch above Empire Records. Rebecca "Tank Girl" Buck should have been her generation’s John McClane. Unfortunately, Tank Girl plays out like two films: a post-civilization sci-fi/action adventure, and a music video for a punk rock soundtrack. And if that sounds like an exceptionally amusing type of disaster, well, it is.
Barb Wire (Barb Wire, 1996)
Played by: Pamela Anderson Supposedly, Zack Snyder intended his 2011 film Sucker Punch to ironically denounce the notion that action movies and video games rattle the patriarchy when depicting ass-kicking women. Years earlier, Barb Wire illustrated the same thesis less obliquely and a lot less intentionally. In this iteration of a Dark Horse book, C.J. Parker (Anderson) shoots bad guys while the director caters to the male gaze. The pulpy character deserved better.
Emma Frost (Generation X, 1996)
Played by: Finola Hughes Frost, a.k.a. the White Queen, was the lynchpin of Fox’s well-intended attempt to transfer the success of X-Men: The Animated Series to primetime. Generation X added super powers to teen drama. Sharp writing served the Xavier Institute Headmistress particularly well. As far as her abilities go, Frost’s telepathy and diamond skin tend to play second banana to her caustic one-liners. Fun Fact: Hatley Castle in British Columbia made such a spot-on Xavier Institute/School for Gifted Youngsters in this failed series, it reprised its role in Bryan Singer’s successful X-Men film franchise.
Fire and Ice (Justice League of America, 1997)
Played by: Michelle Hurd and Kimberly Oja The same year Batman and Robin derailed one of the few sturdy superhero franchises, CBS threw together an ambitious, small-screen superhero property. Planned as a series and dumped in TV movie form, Justice League of America tumbled with its blend of mockumentary and goofy action. Fortunately, the ‘97 incarnation didn’t end the network TV crime fighting careers of The Flash or the The Atom, who now lead their own CW series. So expect Fire and Ice -- a duo whose powers couldn't be more self-explanatory -- to pop up again, sooner or later.
Played by: Janeane Garofalo We don’t have to imagine an alternate Earth where comic book movies typically lose tens of millions of dollars. It was called "the '90s." The magnificent ensemble satire Mystery Men was ahead of its time when it spoofed an Avengers-style team-up. On the bright side, it gave us certified national treasure Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler, a second-generation vigilante on a quest to extract merciless vengeance from the disco mobsters who assassinated her father and predecessor, Carmine the Bowler.
Storm (X-Men, 2000, X2, 2003, X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006, X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014)
Played by: Halle Berry Hugh Jackman’s definitive Wolverine overshadows just about everybody else in the inaugural X-Men trilogy. If Halle Berry had stuff to do beyond standing in the background and occasionally throwing a lightning bolt at something, she may have politely declined her second superhero franchise, Catwoman.
Captain Liberty (The Tick, 2001)
Played by: Liz Vassey Without taking Patrick Warburton’s involvement into account, the non-animated Tick has much more in common with Seinfeld than Superfriends. The Tick/Arthur/Batmanuel/Liberty paradigm that mirrors the Kramer/Elaine/George/Jerry dynamic. Everyone’s just dysfunctional enough to hang out with a giant man in a blue bodysuit who screams “Spoon!” at wildly inappropriate times.
Sara Pezzini (Witchblade, 2001)
Played by: Yancy Butler The comic version of Sara Pezzini was an anachronism from an age when artists abandoned the basic tenets of human anatomy (i.e. every character's everything was big). TNT's live-action Witchblade decided to scrap the exaggeration for a boilerplate crime procedural with subdued supernatural overtones. Neither clicked with the mainstream.
Played by: Ashley Scott The WB’s Birds of Prey was not a good show, though it didn’t fail because of the audience's inability to stomach women protagonists in action/fantasy. Birds of Prey was the result of female-driven shows like Buffy, Alias, and Xena. But being a knock-off, the show never understood what made the comic book great, a mix of Batman mythology and gender-specific characterization. Birds settled to be Just Another WB Action Series.
Elektra (Daredevil, 2003 and Elektra, 2005)
Played by: Jennifer Garner In a twist of prescient casting, now-erstwhile power couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner met while co-starring in Daredevil. Things don’t work out between Daredevil and Elektra in the comics either, albeit for far less mundane circumstances. Elektra added a spark to screens with her patented martial arts and wisdom. She's a favorite; it won't be too long before the character drops into the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil and supplants Garner as the foremost avatar of Matt Murdock’s tragic paramour. Not that she's likely to mind much. Her spinoff, Elektra, a huge step for solo female hero films, bombed at the box office.
Gail and Miho (Sin City, 2005)
Played by: Rosario Dawson and Devon Aoki Sin City’s leather-clad assassins are sympathetic enough to teeter on the edge of "antihero." But are they super? Super enough. The mute-yet-demonstrative Miho qualifies, given that her victims skew towards the dishonest bully type. And, sure, Gail doesn’t maim as many mobsters, but due to her performance in Daredevil as Claire “Night Nurse” Temple, Rosario Dawson deserves her place on the list.
Hit-Girl (Kick-Ass, 2010)
Played by: Chloe Grace Moretz With its gleeful depictions of a 13-year-old Moretz slicing evil-doers into piles of bloody chunks, Kick-Ass disturbed about as many viewers as it amused. Frankly, we don’t have any issues with Hit-Girl’s viciousness or vocabulary, but her codename certainly misleads. After all, she hardly ever hits anyone. Why isn’t she called Stab-Girl? Or Eviscerate-Girl? Or the Disemboweler?
Played by: Scarlett Johansson Blame sexism or Scarlett Johansson’s reluctance to sign another nine-picture contract with Marvel for the dearth of Black Widow solo movies. In her first appearance, Johansson turned Russian turncoat Natasha Romanoff into a more stoic figure than her illustrated representations. However, any nerds who hoped Johansson would return to the art-house films that suited her deadpan delivery changed their minds after Captain America: Winter Soldier, which should’ve been titled Black Widow and Captain America: Mostly Platonic Ass Kickers.
Mystique (X-Men: First Class, 2011, X-Men:Days of Future Past, 2014)
Played by: Jennifer Lawrence Although Rebecca Romijn portrayed B-list mutant supremacist Raven Darkholme splendidly in the first batch of X-Men flicks, Jennifer Lawrence stepped in for First Class and made it her own. An Oscar win and the love of America pushed producer Bryan Singer to recast the character as the lead of Days of Future Past, the cinematic retelling of Chris Claremont’s essential armageddon tale. Mystique mostly stands around looking worried during First Class’ homosuperior slugfest. But in Days, she beats up more people than Wolverine. Progress.
Peggy Carter (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011, Marvel’s Agent Carter, 2015)
Played by: Hayley Atwell Imagine if, while 007 was busy foiling an extinction-level terrorism conspiracy, his clueless fellow MI-6 agents bugged him about answering their phones. That’s basically Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off series that realized Atwell’s Carter was the best thing about Captain America. The show defied the 1940s’ presumption that espionage requires a penis, and proved that a successful comics-to-live action transfer doesn’t need brand recognition. “In the future, Captain America’s girlfriend’s mom is going to have a TV show, and it’s going to be really good? That’s crazy talk!” said a nerd from 1994. “Next, you’ll tell me Groot stars in a hit franchise….”
The Canary (Arrow, 2012)
Played by: Caity Lotz For all the attention heaped on Marvel’s movies and growing number of TV affiliates, the CW has built an impressive DC universe up from scratch -- and without access to the Justice League’s three heaviest hitters. Across the Arrow-verse, Canary hits as hard as her male contemporaries. And if CW ever needed ideas for a spinoff solo series, they only need to turn to the current (and excellent) run of Black Canary comics, where Lance takes a temporary reprieve from crime fighting to pursue a career as a rock singer. That is television.
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Barry Thompson writes pop culture and music things. His work has appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Esquire.com, Paste Magazine, and several other online and print publications. He lives under a bridge in Allston, MA, with a cat. Follow him: @barelytomson.