What's the formula for a successful female superhero movie? Director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry," "Carrie") thinks the studios already have it figured out -- they're just a little gun shy.
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While Hollywood has all but perfected the art of making huge hits starring muscled, brooding, smart-mouthed male superheroes (Iron Man, Superman, Batman, etc.), their female super-colleagues have hit a glass ceiling of sorts, resigned to co-starring roles in which they share the screen as fellow X-Men, a Fantastic, or the enemy-slash-love interest. While the trend may be frustrating to some filmmakers, it's not entirely for lack of trying.
Studios have struggled to execute a critically and commercially successful female superhero movie for years. Remember the less-than-stellar "Elektra," starring Jennifer Garner, back in 2005? And then there was Halle Berry's notorious 2004 box-office bomb "Catwoman." (Like Berry, we're trying to forget that one, too.) Both movies built on the existing mythology and popularity of their characters but were clearly missing some key ingredients (A sense of humor? Coherent storytelling? Realistic special effects?) to make them hits, a point reflected by poor ticket sales and abysmal reviews ("Elektra" earned a 10 percent Fresh rating, while "Catwoman" scored a 9 percent).
But Peirce, whom we spoke to while she was promoting her new movie, "Carrie," believes that Hollywood already has a female superhero formula that works -- and it's one that we've actually been watching play out for years.
"...[Male superheroes] are endowed with some kind of power, in the world that made them not a powerful person. They then have an opportunity to use the power, so you go through a period when they discover what it is," Peirce explained. "And then they go through a period when they have to make a choice of how to use that power, and generally they use it for the good. But when they're using it for the good, they're beset with the dilemma of responsibility. Well, they can't really have a lover. They can't have a wife. They can't have a normal life -- all that stuff. That's kind of the classic story that we get. Well, I think you just need to apply that to a woman."
Sounds simple, right? While Peirce argues that this formula could theoretically be applied to a female character, she understands Hollywood's reluctance to give Wonder Woman -- or any superheroine -- her shining moment on the silver screen.
"I think that there's infinite opportunity for [a female superhero movie]," Peirce added. "I just think what's happened is -- look, male superheroes have made a lot of money for the studios; they've done well. People love them. So why tamper with a [good] thing?"
Peirce, who studied superhero mythology in preparing to bring "Carrie" back to the big screen, also sees a lot of what makes a comic-book hero successful in the popular female-driven action movies of recent years, adding that part of their appeal comes from the very fact that women are at the center of the story.
"Why did they make ['Salt'] a woman? It actually had been [written for] a man. They made it a woman because, well, we've seen a man do it for a while. A man is still going to be a good idea, but a woman is a new idea. And there's Angelina Jolie, who can carry any movie. So put her in that. Why is 'The Hunger Games' working? Could that be a boy? Sure, it could have been a boy. But it's interesting that it's a woman because maybe that's a little bit different."
When the time comes, Peirce is ready to get in on the action, arguing that -- box office success aside -- audiences are growing tired of the same old story.
"I am so ready to make a female action hero / female superhero origin story," Peirce revealed. "I think we're ready, and I think you're seeing -- whether it's more stories of people of color, whether it's stories with women -- we've seen a certain kind of story and people are looking for something different."
And if making that female superhero origin story means taking on the next "Harry Potter" or "The Hunger Games," then so be it. Peirce "would love to do a big franchise," but only if she's "in love with the character" and it's more than just a spectacle-driven, special-effects bonanza.
"I don't want to do big for big," she added. "But big for good is good."
Tim Hayne (@tim_hayne) is Editor in Chief of Moviefone.