Four years ago, just as beefy, formerly bankable action stars like Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were getting a little grayer, a little slower, and a whole lot less popular at the Cineplex, Hollywood rediscovered women. After years of casting actresses as perky love interests and weepy crime victims, movie studios finally realized that women can kick butt. Literally. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie's Angels, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all vaulted, jabbed, and roundhouse-kicked their way well past the $100-million benchmark of a cinema blockbuster. Male audiences, it turned out, didn't mind seeing the ladies on top, watching kick-boxing action babes such as Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie whirl their way through fight scenes (studio estimates show Charlie's Angels's audience was 45 percent male; Tomb Raider's was 55 percent); the fact that the heroines were also visually knockouts--and occasionally danced around in their underwear--didn't hurt. And women not only watched the films, they also cranked up the soundtracks, stormed cardio-kickboxing classes at the gym, and hoped that the next Star Wars film would star Queen Amidala wielding a wicked uppercut.
Then, as so often happens, Hollywood overreached. Studios didn't pause to figure out why audiences loved action heroines. Instead, they rolled out a formula that pandered to all of the wrong instincts: Trot out hot bodies in tight costumes, choreograph some fight scenes, and wait for the profits to roll in. The result has been a string of box-office bloopers, sequels that upped the titillation factor but lost audiences. Charlie's Angels 2 didn't rouse ticket sales by sending the girls to wrestle a bikini-clad villainess. Tomb Raider 2 added a sex scene and an intentional wardrobe malfunction (see-through silver scuba suit), yet grossed barely half what the original movie had made. The stars of last year's Catwoman and Elektra both donned Victoria's Secret-inspired costumes, but ticket sales went kersplat even before the Barbie-doll spin-offs hit the shelves. Catwoman earned barely $40 million; Elektra, which fell out of the top 10 in its third week, is unlikely even to hit that mark.
What Hollywood didn't seem to realize is that the first crop of warrior women won a following because they were strong, smart, and successful in addition to being sexy. Men wanted them, and women wanted to be them. Lara Croft may have originated as pure male fantasy--a buxom video game character with impossible proportions--but on the big screen, she became erudite, well-traveled, a working photojournalist, and went home at night to a house worthy of Architectural Digest. On the other hand, Elektra, another comic-book adaptation, might turn heads in her tight-laced scarlet bustier, but her personal magnetism doesn't measure up: She's a gloomy assassin who suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and OCD. Plus she hates her job but can't--or won't--figure out what else to do with her life. You're not likely going to see a bunch of little girls arguing about who gets to play her.
Female action stars have always had it harder than the guys. A few win mass appeal and become icons of female aspiration--Wonder Woman first graced the cover of Ms. magazine in 1972--but most flounder for fans beyond adolescent male comic-book readers. It might seem that tightrope-walking between Amazonian strength and femme-fatale status does requires a golden lasso and invisible plane.
But the good news for Hollywood--and audiences--is that there is an enduring formula that works. Superheroines since the 1970s--from Wonder Woman to Princess Leia, Charlie's Angels to Lara Croft, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Alias's" Sydney Bristow--have all followed a few simple rules to find success on the big and little screen. And every would-be action babe who has flopped has broken at least one of them. So what's the secret?
1. Do fight demons. Don't fight only inner demons.
2. Do play well with others. Don't shun human society.
3. Do exhibit self-control. Don't exhibit mental disorders.
4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don't wear fetish clothes.
5. Do embrace girl power. Don't cling to man hatred.
6. Do help hapless men. Don't try to kill your boyfriend.
7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don't look perpetually sullen.
In other words, it might be wise to sidestep Catwoman's decision to latch onto a female mentor who lives alone with three dozen cats and complains, "I was a professor for 20 years, until I was denied tenure--male academia." Or to follow her lead in shrinking from society, telling your beau, "You're a good man, Tom, but you live in a world that has no place for someone like me."
Look, everyone understands that the life of a supernaturally-gifted screen idol is tough. Spiderman, Harry Potter, Batman, Lara Croft, Charlie's Angels' Dylan all lost parents. But for Elektra, the loss of her mother seems to have left her irrevocably troubled, full of undirected rage, and popping insomnia pills. She's not dark in the same way as was Bruce Wayne or Lara Croft, slightly aloof billionaires who fight crime as a way to work through their grief. Instead Elektra spends as much screen time running as fighting, worrying that "I have nowhere to go" and inspiring the teenage girl who looks up to her with such wisdom as, "Everybody lies, Abby, nobody tells the truth about themselves," and "I don't want you to be like me."
Compare that to the first scene in Charlie's Angels, which ends with the three women riding in a motorboat, their arms linked, wind blowing through their hair, grinning at how brilliantly they just foiled a plane hijacking. They're friends, they're beautiful, they have great jobs, and even if they weren't part of an elite crime-fighting squad backed by an anonymous billionaire, there are plenty of other things they could do for a living. The woman-searching-for-herself trope might work in other genres, but it's a bad fit with superheroes. For female fans, the superheroine saga is a fantasy about being in control. Successful heroines defy everyday restraints: They cheat gravity, physically overpower men, and reflect bullets with silver bracelets. The last thing women want to see is Supergirl whining about her boss, suffering through a mid-life career crisis, and being served divorce papers by Superman.