Marvel's most powerful character ever is a woman, and about to become Hollywood's next billion-dollar star

  • Disney's Marvel Studios is set to introduce its first female superhero lead, with actress Brie Larson starring as Captain Marvel.
  • A Marvel executive described the character as being 'more powerful' than any other superhero introduced so far by the blockbuster movie franchise maker.
  • DC Comics' 'Wonder Woman' grossed more than $800 million at the box office in 2017, and Hollywood studios have gotten the message that representation of women and minorities is one of the key ingredients for continued box-office success.

Last Tuesday, Disney's Marvel Studios released the much-anticipated trailer for 2019's "Captain Marvel," and it is a big deal: It is the first female superhero-led franchise for Marvel's cinematic universe. The film stars Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in the starring role, with supporting roles for Samuel L. Jackson and Jude Law.

Marvel Studios' president, Kevin Feige, recently told Entertainment Weekly, "She is more powerful than any character we've introduced thus far."

Fans and military personnel surround Brie Larson (center) at launch event on Sept. 18 at the National Air & Space Museum for Marvel Studios' first film with a female superhero lead, 'Captain Marvel.'  
Kris Connor | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Fans and military personnel surround Brie Larson (center) at launch event on Sept. 18 at the National Air & Space Museum for Marvel Studios' first film with a female superhero lead, 'Captain Marvel.'  

The film, which also features Marvel's first female director, Anna Boden — working with her directing partner Ryan Fleck — will undoubtedly be woven into the fabric of Marvel's next wave of blockbuster films, said Karie Bible, a box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, a movie consulting firm.

For starters, Feige said Captain Marvel is supposed to connect the dots to next May's untitled "Avengers 4."

And at a time when Hollywood studios are dealing with greater competition from streaming video services and some signs of fatigue at the box office, the message has come through loud and clear that representation of women and minorities is key for the continued success of big movies.

"Wonder Woman," directed by Patty Jenkins in 2017, grossed $821 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, and has a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes' "Tomatometer." Its sequel, "Wonder Woman:1984," comes out November 2019.

Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman symbolize something far greater for the future of cinematography than just being box-office successes. They represent the next wave of Hollywood blockbusters.

"It's all about consistency when studios are talking about world-building franchises. Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman are the indisputable foundation of the current DC movie universe," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com.

Marvel Studios has several franchises concluding, like "Iron Man" and "Captain America," and an uncertain future awaits another major box-office draw after controversial tweets by "Guardians of the Galaxy" director James Gun led to his firing.

DC also has more riding on "Wonder Woman" than ever before. It has been reported that "Man of Steel" actor Henry Cavill will be stepping down as Superman, while Ben Affleck could be replaced as Batman due to his public struggles with alcohol. These headlines follow failures by DC to turn its DC Extended Universe into recurring box-office hits in which superhero characters share films. It is the once overshadowed starred that is now shining: Israeli actress Gal Gadot and her "Wonder Woman"franchise.

DC did not respond to a request for comment.

Source: Warner Bros.

"Female superheroes should be a consistent presence going forward. As the stunning success of 'Black Panther' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' has taught us, representation matters," Bible said. "Women want to see themselves reflected on screen and empowered. Why should the men get to have all the fun?"

The recent success of female-led films across genres is encouraging studios to try a new version of what they do best: Stick to a winning formula.

"They're reading the temperature of the room," Robbins said. "Slowly but surely, the industry is moving toward equal representation in terms of who runs the studios, who makes the movies and whose faces we see on the big screen."

Female superheroes face big challenges

Despite the success and potential for this new wave of Hollywood content, the challenges that surround female superhero films still need to be considered. They will be under an ever larger microscope than male-led superhero films.

"If they aren't successful, it will give studio executives and industry pundits reason to believe that female superheroes or action films don't make money and won't in the future. Men are allowed to fail, but women are given fewer chances and the stakes seem higher. There is little margin for error," Bible said.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, the first female superhero lead for Disney's blockbuster comic book movie business, and 'the most powerful character' Marvel has come up with yet, according to the company's president. 
Marvel Studios
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, the first female superhero lead for Disney's blockbuster comic book movie business, and 'the most powerful character' Marvel has come up with yet, according to the company's president. 

There is evidence that more female superhero movies are on the way.

"With ['Ant-Man and the Wasp'] and now with 'Captain Marvel' and many movies to be announced in the near future, I'm anxious for the time where it's not a novelty that there is a female-led superhero movie but it is a norm," Feige told Entertainment Weekly.

Evangeline Lilly starred as The Wasp alongside Paul Rudd in the latest Ant-Man movie, and while she shared star-billing, some considered that to be the first female-lead in Marvel history.

Bible pointed to rumors about a "Black Panther" spinoff featuring the powerful women warriors of Wakanda, the fictional nation where "Black Panther" is set. Scarlett Johansson has been in six Marvel movies as Black Widow, but she has never played the lead. There has been talk of a "Black Widow" movie, but it hasn't happened yet, Bible said.

On Friday, Marvel Studios announced that it had hired Chloé Zhao, director of indie cowboy film hit "The Rider" to direct "The Eternals" for Marvel, based on a comic book about superpower near-god beings The Celestials and their villainous adversaries, the Deviants, in a war set millions of years ago. DC also recently signed Cathy Yan to direct a superhero movie based on the comic "Birds of Prey," which features multiple female leads and will star Margot Robbie, reprising an anti-heroine role she initiated in "Suicide Squad." And DC is in talks to produce a "Supergirl" film.

"Realistically, there is still a segment of culture represented by vocal dissenters," Robbins said. "The latter kind of thought is fading with each generation, though, and frankly, not nearly as strong as the demand for good movies starring characters of all genders, colors and backgrounds."

Donovan Russo, special to CNBC.com