This was a big year for superheroes and sidekicks who happen to be female. Netflix released its wildly popular, though uneven, Jessica Jones (which also kinda featured Hellcat); CBS premiered Supergirl, portrayed as both emotionally complex and sugar-sweet by Melissa Benoist; Avengers: Age of Ultron furthered Black Widow’s romance with Bruce Banner, and gave us perma-angry Scarlet Witch, who joined the JV squad. And that was far from the end of it.
Ant-Man gave its only female character her own super-suit in an after-credits sequence, promising us an eventual Wasp film. Wonder Woman appeared, but didn’t say anything, in trailers for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn inspired a lot of excitement, and the two other female characters in Suicide Squad, Enchantress (Cara Delevigne, celebrity malcontent) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) were, well, also in trailers, barely!
2015 for female superheroes in film and TV was this emoji: ¯_(ツ)_/¯. It’s certainly fun to see more women in big-budget superhero media, but celebrating the arrival of two female main protagonists and a handful of sexualized side characters feels a little silly, especially if one considers the gigantic leap forward that female superheroes took in comics this year.
If 2015 was a lukewarm year for live-action female superheroes, it was a veritable renaissance for female superheroes in their first, and most important, medium. Female-led comics were so popular this year that publishers were falling all over themselves to reissue runs from earlier years, including DC’s She-Hulk, in an attempt to keep up with public demand.
The beauty of comics is that anything can be canon, even if publishing houses only decide to explore an alternative timeline for a handful of issues. The ability to gender-swap in other dimensions and timelines, like Earth 65, allowed characters like Spider Gwen and her rival, a gender-swapped, black, female Captain America to thrive.
Spider Gwen, set in a world where Peter Parker was defeated quickly (and mysteriously) and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy was bit by a radioactive spider, allows the familiar New York City spidey origin story to play out in Gwen’s white and pink aesthetic. Spider Gwen is notably less funny than her male counterpart, but she’s an interesting experiment in gender and tone on Marvel’s part.
Marvel’s other gender-swap experiments saw greater success. The creators of Thor: Goddess of Thunder insisted upon the comic’s release that the mystery woman wielding Thor’s hammer was not She-Thor, or Thorina, or any other dumb twist, but was instead simply Thor, rightful wielder of Mjölnir. 2015’s female Thor outsold her male counterpart’s comics by an astounding margin. When the comics revealed that the original Thor had lost the right to his hammer to Jane Foster, audience were thrilled. (You know Jane Foster, by the way. Remember Natalie Portman, the character who appeared in the Thor films and is referred to comically in both the Avengers films? That’s her, except in the comics universe she’s dying due to radiation exposure.)
Perhaps inspired by the success of its female Thor, Marvel released an all-female Avengers comics in 2015, entitled A-Force. This new squad, living in a world devoid of men called Arcadia, fought off aliens and accused each other of sabotage for a full run. No one was surprised when the primary culprit turned out to be Loki (dubbed by fans as “Lady Loki). A-Force is led by a more-serious-than-usual She-Hulk, and includes female version of male classics like Hawkeye, a visibly pregnant Spider Woman, and Spider-Gwen; typically female classics like Scarlet Witch, Agent Carter, Storm, Black Cat and Enchantress; a collection of teenage heroes including Dazzler, Ms. America, Sister Grimm, and Shadowcat; and Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. Though the series failed to delve satisfyingly into each hero’s personality, it created a stepping stone toward each hero’s solo run, rooting all of them in one foundational world. It also gave new audiences a stunning selection of female heroes who deserve film and television adaptations.
Marvel also explored the militant Captain Marvel, touching briefly on time travel abilities and introducing the Banshee Squad, Cap’s horde of female 40s era soldiers. This contemporary iteration of Captain Marvel, or Carol Danvers, has become one of the most sought-after female role in Hollywood. Actresses considered run the gamut from inappropriately young and goofy (Jennifer Lawrence) to excitingly fitting (Emily Blunt, Mission Impossible’s Rebecca Ferguson, and Vikings’s Katheryn Winnick).
Marvel played Carol Danvers as a foil to its new fan-favorite Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan. Though Kamala succeeded in her own adventures, she was introduced to her superhero abilities, and checked in on periodically, by Captain Marvel. Doreen Green, aka The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, received similar support from Marvel heroes including Wolverine and Tony Stark.
In her 2015 comic run, she defeated enemies as large as Galactus using informational villain trading cards made for her by Deadpool. Both Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl illustrated that female superheroes need not be grim in order to be taken seriously; in addition to being heartfelt and accurate portrayals of female adolescence, both comics were legitimately funny. Late in the year, Marvel released the first issue of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which already appears to be a realistic portrayal of an even-younger female superhero.
Perpetually playing catch-up to Marvel’s innovation, DC released one of the most successful female superhero campaigns in 2015 by moving two of its young heroines to Burnside, a new neighborhood in Gotham that looks suspiciously like Bushwick. At home in Gotham’s hip new borough, DC’s new Batgirl and frenemy Black Canary defeated villains through coding, hacking, and old-fashioned fisticuffs. Black Canary became a quiet look at indie music, and began building a slow burn in tension later in the year, but Batgirl shone, using social media and texting in a non-cringeworthy way that felt organic to both the characters and millennial readers.
Female superheroes succeeded more obviously in comics this year, as opposed to in film and television, because their writers and designers refused to treat them like gimmicks. Some characters, like Captain Marvel, rejected femininity and acted purely as soldiers. Some, like the Batgirl of Burnside or Spider-Gwen, embraced what’s special about being a girl, playing out their personalities in the context of being teenaged, optimistic, and superhuman. Once film and television populate the media with more female superheroes, we’ll experience a similar broadening effect, and viewers won’t have to applaud for female superheroes simply because they’re the only ones available. Comics have shown us that’s anything possible.