Super heroines fly into glass ceiling

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At one Hollywood studio, a comedy called "Super Ex-Girlfriend" is in production with Uma Thurman playing a superhero who falls in love with regular guy Luke Wilson. When he dumps her, she turns her superpowers against him. High jinks ensue.

The movie, set for release next year, is a parody of the female- superhero stories that quickly became a fad and just as quickly burned themselves out. The most recent evidence is the tepid opening of Paramount Pictures' "Aeon Flux" at $12.6 million.

"There's been overkill with these latex-wearing females in computer-enhanced action movies that hit the same cheesy notes," said Brandon Gray, president of movie-tracking site Boxofficemojo.com. "When there are parodies on the horizon, that proves it's dead as a subgenre."

There have been a string of flops, including Warner Bros.' "Catwoman" and Fox's "Daredevil" spinoff "Elektra." The sequel to the moneymaking "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" did so poorly that Paramount hasn't committed to any more films in the series.

Good in a group

Studio executives stop short of saying that female superheroes aren't bankable, but recent movies have shown that they work only in ensemble casts and not by themselves. That knowledge, cemented by "Aeon Flux," could cause Hollywood to turn away from such projects in the future.

"They'd have to be rethinking any movie like that in development," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co.

They keep trying, though, because these movies have something that Hollywood desperately needs: awareness. As it becomes tougher to build buzz for a movie in the cluttered and fragmented media marketplace, a property with some name recognition can give a vital head start. "Aeon Flux" was based on a comic book and an MTV series of the same name. "Catwoman" was inspired by the character from the "Batman" franchise, and "Elektra" came from Marvel Comics, though their prior lives didn't boost their box office.

Studios also know that comic book and sci-fi fans are devout and likely to be a continuing source of revenue if they latch onto a property. They will see the movie, buy the DVD, licensed merchandise and other add-ons, but only if they really connect with the project out of the gate.

That's one reason why Warner Bros. has a big-screen version of "Wonder Woman" in development with well-known producer Joel Silver and writer/director Joss Whedon, who created the successful girl-empowerment TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." There's no start date yet for the film, though, and it's already been in the pipeline as a concept for quite some time.

News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox has a "Fantastic Four" sequel in the works, with Jessica Alba set to return as one of the comic book-inspired crime-fighters, as well as another "X-Men" movie for next summer that will feature at least a few female superheroes.

TV and video games have been fertile ground for such characters over the years-"Resident Evil" and "Dark Angel" are among the successes-but films with a female superhero lead have generally fallen flat. Some Hollywood-watchers say that may have more to do with the way the characters are translated to movies than with audiences' reluctance to accept strong females in butt-kicking roles.

Turn-offs

"It could be the sci-fi, futuristic settings they're put in that turns a lot of people off," said Mr. Dergarabedian. "If it's a more contemporary relatable scenario, people will buy it."

Audiences have embraced strong female characters in "Terminator" and the "Alien" series, as well as more recent movies like "Kill Bill" and "House of Flying Daggers," even though they all require some suspension of disbelief.

The lack of response to female superhero movies could also be because there have been so many heavily-armed, gymnastic, black-clad women in movies ranging from "Underworld" and "The Matrix" series to "Blade: Trinity" and "Resident Evil."

Movies like "Aeon Flux" have trouble crossing over to female audiences in particular, perhaps because they're fantasy versions of women, Mr. Gray said. "They're the classic staples of the fan-boy mentality," Mr. Gray said. "It's pseudo-feminist."

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