The age of the male-dominated superhero movie is over. The success of films like The Hunger Games has prompted Hollywood to rethink its traditional blockbuster formula. As production budgets for tentpole films continue to expand, it only makes sense that studios would seek to broaden the appeal of their slates and reach a newly defined and expanded audience.
With The Avengers: Age of Ultron coming from Disney (NYSE:DIS) in 2015 and Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) hoping to quickly assemble the Justice League in the next three years, it might be tempting to overlook another battle that's brewing. Disney's Black Widow will be going up against Warner's Wonder Woman in a contest to establish the first successful female superhero solo film. The stakes are high. Who is more likely to create the right property and drive the ongoing superhero phenomenon?
That was then...
Female superheroes have been a notoriously tough sell in the film business. The last big comic adaptations to be driven by a lead with two X chromosomes were Catwoman and Elektra. These films bombed with audiences and critics alike and sent the message that filmgoers were only interested in male-driven superhero pics. In 2007, former head of Warner's film outfit Jeff Robinov even stated that his company was not interested in producing movies with a female lead. Robinov is no longer at Warner and the industry has changed substantially since that decree.
Black Widow vs. Hawkeye
Talk of a solo film for Marvel's Black Widow began swirling in 2012. The character, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, played an integral role in connecting the narratives within "The Avengers" universe. Now that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk have received multiple solo film outings, giving Black Widow a shot at center stage is the next logical move. Such a film would certainly have more promise than a Jeremy Renner-driven "Hawkeye." The cultural iron has never been hotter for superwomen. Renner's star, on the other hand, has faded quickly.
What a woman
Warner's ability to challenge The Avengers' box office supremacy with its Justice League may be on shaky ground, but the company has a great opportunity with Wonder Woman. In terms of character popularity and name recognition, DC's famed Amazon warrior dwarfs Black Widow many times over. In fact, Wonder Woman stands as the most visible female in the pantheon of superheroes.
Actress Gal Gadot (most known for her work in the "Fast and the Furious" series) has been contracted to play Wonder Woman in at least three films. The first of these will be the still untitled and recently delayed Batman vs. Superman project. After this introduction, the character is set to play a big role in 2017's Justice League and receive solo film treatment.
A battle of dames, names, and timeframes
Scarlett Johansson is certainly a bigger name than Gal Gadot, but that does not mean that a Black Widow film would outperform Warner's superwoman. Both Catwoman and Elektra featured leading ladies near the peak of their fame and both films cratered miserably. Disney's Widow project enjoys an edge over the lasso-wielding Justice Leaguer because the "Avengers" universe has already been successfully established. With Batman vs. Superman pushed into 2016, Warner will at least have more time to get Wonder Woman right. The studio will need it.
A question of tone
Producers and scriptwriters have struggled with bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen for decades. Invisible jets and magic lassos may be right at home on comic book pages or in animated movies, but live-action adaptations are much trickier. The traditional image and character of Wonder Woman don't seem to be an immediate fit for director Zach Snyder's dark and gritty Superman universe. Meanwhile, Johannsson's Black Widow has already been introduced as a natural and integral component of the Avengers.
Stick it to the man
These solo superwoman projects carry high degrees of risk and reward for their makers. Both movies might seem like surefire hits, but lackluster films would damage multiple brands and once again raise doubts about the viability of female-led superhero films. On the other hand, the first studio to successfully launch a comic book heroine on the big screen will achieve a milestone and open up the possibility for big things to come. It would be a particularly notable achievement for Warner, a company not long removed from the days of Jeff Robinov and his much criticized greenlighting criteria.
Wonder Woman is Warner's X-factor
With the right lead in and marketing, Wonder Woman films have the potential to become billion-dollar earners while also strengthening the draw of Justice League outings. There is less of this explosive potential in Black Widow, but underestimating Marvel films has proven to be a fool's errand. It's also worth noting that a bad Wonder Woman film would do more damage to Warner's Justice League ambitions than a poor Black Widow film would do to The Avengers property.
Who would you want in your corner?
Which super project winds up being more successful will likely hinge on two factors: strength of brand and quality of product. The successful track record of films in the "Avengers" universe suggests that Black Widow would have a better chance of being an audience pleaser. That said, even with the substantial groundwork laid by films in the "Avengers" series, there's more potential in the Wonder Woman character. If Warner can deliver an engaging film, it should have a big hit on its hands.
The moment is right for superheroine epics, and Wonder Woman looks to score bonus points if she can beat Black Widow to the punch.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.