Entertainment Black Widow and beyond: The meteoric rise of the female superhero

Black Widow and beyond: The meteoric rise of the female superhero

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Forget Batman, Ironman and Spiderman. Oh, and Captain America too. Welcome to the bold new frontier of female actors getting their own superhero roles with top billing.

Ten years ago, the female superheroes were embedded as a key support act to the main male stars, playing an often pivotal role in saving the world but not doing it alone.

Think undercover KGB agent playing “sexy secretary” Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow in 2010’s Ironman 2, and that scene where she changes into a black leather one-piece in Happy’s limo and goes into Hammer Security to flatten 13 bodyguards.


Played by Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow went on to reprise key roles in The Avengers franchise, and was rapidly seen as a strong enough identity to have her own movie.

And now she does. Best of all, the action-packed spy-thriller hits our cinemas around Australia on July 7.

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Marvel Studios’ Black Widow is finally here, after its May 2020 release date was postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty

But it was a battle to get to this point. According to Entertainment Weekly, Johansson once felt frustration over how women were depicted in superhero films – or not depicted at all.

By her own admission, her performance as Romanoff has helped clear the path for movies like DC’s 2017’s Wonder Woman and Marvel’s 2019 Captain Marvel.

“That is such a powerful journey to see anybody take, but certainly to see a woman on screen represented in that way: a flawed superhero with a grey moral compass coming to terms with what’s happened to her,” Johansson told Entertainment Weekly.

“It’s definitely shown some sort of path for these other female superheroes to be able to walk down. I certainly don’t take credit for that, though.”

TND takes a look at the current crop of movies where the female superhero finally gets the stand-alone top job.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn tops the credits in Suicide Squad. Photo: AAP

Robbie’s meteoric rise in Hollywood after supporting roles in films including Wolf of Wall Street and Once upon a Time … in Hollywood meant she had the gravitas to push into the action genre at full speed. After a killer performance in Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn is back in Suicide Squad, where she leads a team of convicts to blow up a Nazi-era laboratory, wearing a ripped red Prom dress. As she tells the August issue of British Vogue, action roles are “really, really fun”: “I really love being on set, covered in blood or dirt, working 19-hour days, hitting the pub afterwards, going a bit loopy.”

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (third instalment underway)

Gal Gadot in a scene from Wonder Woman 1984. Photo: AAP

As a former Israeli combat instructor, Gal Gadot’s performance in both the 2017 Warner Bros smash hit Wonder Woman, and the 2020 follow-up Wonder Woman 1984 gave her the unofficial title of stand-out action hero of the year. She is majestic starring as unconquerable warrior Diana Prince. Rolling Stone magazine writes: “It is, in part, Gadot’s innate unflappability that helped Wonder Woman not just vastly outperform anyone’s wildest expectations, but also almost singlehandedly save the floundering DC Comics universe”. “It just shows that the world was ready for a female-driven action movie,” says Gadot.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel

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Brie Larson does her super hero thing in prequel Captain Marvel. Photo: Marvel Studios

Oscar-winner Larson is larger than life, literally, and got to be Marvel Studio’s first solo female-led superhero in her own movie, Captain Marvel. She plays Carol Danvers, a former US Air Force pilot, who is also an extraterrestrial Kree warrior. Grossing $1.3 billion in ticket sales worldwide, Vogue mused that with her superhuman strength, “the ability to fly, and invulnerability”, Larson has easily made her “one of the most bankable” heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

Letitia Wright in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

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Wright was clearly the breakout favourite in a supporting role in Black Panther. The sequel has officially entered production at Atlanta’s Pinewood Studios. Photo: Twitter

Letitia Wright played Shuri in 2018’s blockbuster Black Panther [and later in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame], the first film based on a superhero adventure nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. While Chad Boseman’s lead role of T’Challa, chief of the nation can’t be overlooked, sister Shuri is a delightful, genius superhero who is destined to star in the sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

She’s an engineer, can heal people from mortal wounds somehow, is a skilled martial artist and fighter. She’s compared to the brilliance and intellect of Tony Stark (Ironman). Wright herself says Shuri “is different”: “She’s a well-rounded … fun character”.

And she’s earned her right to be another Disney princess.