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'Supergirl': Has a wave of female-led superhero stories finally begun?

TV shows 'Supergirl' and 'Jessica Jones' are set to debut, while movies about Wonder Woman and the female Captain Marvel are in the pipeline for the next several years.

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'Supergirl' stars Melissa Benoist.

Darren Michaels/CBS Entertainment/AP

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a female superhero, something that we haven’t seen a lot of recently. 

On Oct. 26, CBS premieres its new show “Supergirl,” a program that centers on Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin. The program stars Melissa Benoist as the caped heroine as well as David Harewood, Chyler Leigh, Calista Flockhart, Jeremy Jordan, and Mehcad Brooks.

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In the show’s story, Kara went to Earth to make sure her cousin was safe. She works as an assistant at a media company, where she struggles with her powers and with her attraction to Superman’s sidekick, Jimmy Olsen (Brooks).

“Supergirl” arrives in a pop culture that’s ruled by superheroes but decidedly lacking in superheroines.

In the hero-glutted box office, female superheroes are occasionally members of a team, like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif, but they haven’t gotten their own stories.

Black Widow, one of the most high-profile, is part of Marvel’s Avengers team. She popped up in the “Iron Man” and “Captain America” film series as well as the “Avengers” movies, but she hasn't gotten a solo movie yet.

“Hulk” star Mark Ruffalo, one of the “Avengers” co-stars, recently complained that he found it difficult to find Black Widow merchandise for his female relatives.

And some fans objected to a plotline in the most recent “Avengers” film, this summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in which Black Widow revealed she is unable to have children.

Elsewhere in the Marvel universe, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve agency and can also hold her own in combat, is the center of ABC’s show “Agent Carter.”

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But on many other comic book TV shows on networks and streaming media, including “Daredevil,” “Gotham,” “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and the recently canceled “Constantine,” male characters are the focus of the story. 

More female protagonists will soon get screentime in comic book stories both on TV and at the multiplex. Netflix’s “Jessica Jones,” which debuts next month, is the story of the super-powered character of the same name, and after Wonder Woman makes an appearance in this March’s “Batman v. Superman,” she’s scheduled to star in her own movie in 2017.

The Marvel superheroine Captain Marvel will star in a movie, too – eventually. Originally scheduled for 2018, her film is now slated for a 2019 release, possibly because a new “Ant-Man” movie was just announced by Marvel for 2018. It’s titled “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and the Wasp is usually a female character in comic book lore. 

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says, “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more [female-led superhero stories]. The time is not only ripe for this but way overdue.” 

Though Hollywood's conventional wisdom maintains that only men like comic books, Mr. Thompson sees no reason that male viewers wouldn’t tune in to a comic book movie or TV show about a female superhero. And that thinking of only men watching comic book stories is flawed, anyway, says Thompson – he points to the box office grosses of Marvel films and movie series like the “Dark Knight” Batman movies.

If only men were going to see these movies, he says, they wouldn’t reach the same grosses. “The math doesn’t work on that,” he says. Gender demographics for the opening weekend of this summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” were almost even, with about 59 percent of the audience being male.

Whether “Supergirl” succeeds or fails will “be a matter of execution,” he says.