Wonder women: when will we get a new female-superhero movie?

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How long have comic-book movie fans been crying out for a new film centred around a female superhero?

The debate seems to have been raging for the best part of a decade. Back in 2007, Joss Whedon's attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen were knocked into the long grass by the bigwigs at Warner Bros, only for the film-maker to jump ship to Marvel Studios and oversee the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, The Avengers. Meanwhile, the new generation of female action heroes – Angelina Jolie in Salt, Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games – are making the Expendables brigade look like the knackered old tough guys they have become.

These movies have taken nearly $2bn (£1.19bn) worldwide and rewritten the action movie zeitgeist, yet the best studios can currently offer is the odd supporting part for Johansson in Marvel films. Executives no doubt fear a return to the bad old days of Halle Berry's Catwoman and Jennifer Garner's Elektra, but those films belong to a time when 75% of superhero efforts were poorly conceived, scripted and cast. Marvel has since proved that, with the right director and creative support, it is possible to churn out two new superhero movies each year without exhausting filmgoers' patience. The real question Hollywood should be asking in 2014 is not, "shall we take the risk?", but "can we afford to be the final one out of the blocks?"

That last conundrum was compounded this week after Sony, ostensibly poor relation of the Hollywood superhero industry with screen rights only to Spider-Man and associated characters, revealed plans for a movie about a Spidey-related female superhero in 2017. While the studio hasn't revealed many details, this is the first confirmed film of its kind in the new era and could see Sony beating Disney-Marvel and Warner Bros-DC to the punch – even though the latter pair own the rights to dozens of well-known female characters.

In particular, Warner's failure to announce a release date for its proposed Wonder Woman movie starring Israeli actor Gal Gadot, who will first appear in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and its sequel, Justice League, smacks of the studio's usual timidity in this arena. A bunch of dates for future movies starring unnamed characters, which we do have as of this week, just do not cut it.

Marvel appears to be in the same boat. While the Disney-owned studio has restored its credibility this year following back-to-back successes with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, it has not even got close to announcing a movie based on a female protagonist. We all know that Whedon is busy, and there now seem to be doubts about whether he will even remain part of the Marvel setup beyond The Avengers: Age of Ultron. But what a lost opportunity it would be if the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were not tied down to delivering at least one great female superhero movie before moving on to pastures new. Anyone who saw the first, Whedon-scripted episode of Agents of SHIELD – the show unfortunately crashed downhill after that – will be aware that he has hardly lost his touch in this area. Chloe Bennet's Skye was shaping up to be one of the all-time sassy tomboy heroines before Joss was pulled away to carry on polishing Ultron.

A prequel showing how Johansson's Black Widow came to leave the KGB and join SHIELD would be one way to go, with an established character and a bona fide movie star on board who would surely relish the chance to headline her own gig. Natasha Romanoff could then bring her newfound cachet to future Avengers movies without so much as a blip. Mind you, given the real-life shadowy USSR secret service was disbanded in 1991, when Johansson was only seven, some work might need to be done on the shift from Marvel Comics' original heroine to the big-screen version.

Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman sparked speculation about a Black Widow film in a recent interview, but later tweeted that she was no longer actively working on it. There might also be room for a film based on The Wasp, since Marvel's controversial Ant-Man movie seems determined to kill the (comic book) Avengers founder off before anyone has seen her on the big screen. (If you read this, you'll understand why.) What better way for the studio to resurrect a superhero who has suffered at the hands of her male lover Hank Pym in various comic-book iterations over the years than to reinvent her on film as a symbol of feminine strength?

With Sony's new Amazing Spider-Man saga struggling to repeat the success of the earlier, Sam Raimi-led trilogy, its clear why the studio is delving into its catalogue of wallcrawler-related heroines such as Spider-Woman, Black Cat and Silver Sable. These superheroes may not be all that well known, but if Marvel's success in recent years has taught us anything it's that comic book hierarchies do not necessarily carry over from print to screen. Just look at the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Whoever takes the leap of faith required to pioneer the debut female-led superhero movie of the modern era has a huge chance to reap the rewards of setting a high bar. When the best Hollywood can come up with seems to be vague plans to retool the Ghostbusters as ladies who cross streams, never mind Sly Stallone's appallingly titled "Expendabelles" concept, it's hard to see how they can go far wrong.

• Scarlett Johansson calls for Black Widow spin-off movie
• Fast & Furious star Gal Gadot to play Wonder Woman

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Child, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th August 2014 15.54 Europe/London

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