the take

Where Are the Roles for Superwomen?

Courtesy of Paramount (Iron Man, Hulk), Warner Bros. (Dark Knight), and Universal (Hellboy 2)

The heroes in this summer’s crop of superhero films have the potential to be some of the most sophisticated and compelling in action-movie history, bolstered by the high-wattage charisma of Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Christian Bale (as Batman in The Dark Knight), Ed Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and, maybe to a lesser extent, Will Smith (Hancock). Additionally, these films pack an impressive amount of star power and talent into their supporting female roles: Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark’s executive assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts; Liv Tyler as scientist Betty Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Gotham district attorney Rachel Dawes, and Charlize Theron as the hypotenuse of Jason Bateman–Will Smith love triangle. This talent roster seems to suggest that we’ll be seeing one hell of an other half this summer — but just how super will these heroines be?

Probably not very. Historically, in superhero movies, the only way for an actress to get a piece of the action is to be a piece of action. While all these female characters will certainly be smart, capable women, their primary function will still be as the hero’s love interest. These perilous roles virtually guarantee that no amount of brains or pluck will be enough for a damsel to save herself from distress; her endangerment serves to ratchet up the tension of the film, which is always nicely resolved with the tender coda of her rescue. Naturally, as usual, the girls will also suffer the emotional kryptonite of loving a man with a serious identity crisis. On top of that, they’ll be given no otherworldly powers to contend with their crises, unless you count being really foxy with superhuman capacities for understanding.

Thank the gods, then, for Selma Blair. As the sharp, pyrokinetic Liz Sherman of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Blair promises to be the antidote to all this leggy helplessness. She may be Hellboy’s main squeeze, but she wields her very own superpower as a member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an international intelligence agency frequently tasked with saving the world. Still, it’s telling that the only real superwoman we’ll see this summer is in the most low-profile film of the genre, being played by the actress least likely to be featured in Us Weekly. That’s a pretty woeful state of affairs for such an otherwise enlightened set of hero tales. What does it take to get some superequal rights up in here? —Tammy Oler

Where Are the Roles for Superwomen?