Over the weekend, I saw Iron Man 2.  Apparently I was far from the only woman to do so.  With a 60%/40% male/female audience breakdown for the film’s opening weekend, Iron Man 2 has surprised Paramount studios by attracting a huge number of female viewers.

One distribution exec even commented that these were the kinds of female numbers one might expect for a movie aimed specifically at that demographic, such as Sex and the City 2.  So why did such a theoretically male-targeted film draw so many women?  Or should the real question be: why is the studio so surprised?

Conventional film wisdom says that superhero movies, such as Iron Man 2, are mostly movies for men, particularly men under the age of 35.  The constant explosions, gun battles, and macho heroics of this sort of film are thought of as generally male attractions.  Women might get dragged along to something like Iron Man 2 by a husband or boyfriend or male friend; they might even be happy to go spend a few hours being entertained by big flashes and crashes.  But this isn’t supposed to be the kind of material with which women really connect.

The major tip-off that Iron Man 2 wasn’t really written with the expectation of a large, enthusiastic female audience is the lack of compelling female characters.  Women are pretty much always one-dimensional side characters in superhero and other action films, either beautiful damsels in distress or beautiful seductresses luring men to their doom. 

Iron Man 2 is no different. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is a wimpy and largely ineffectual sidekick to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, floundering when given a major business responsibility and abandoning all of her fully-justified anger at the hero as soon as he pulls her in for a kiss.  Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff gets one rather awesome fight scene, in which she lays waste to several burly goons within a span of about three minutes, but her screen time is minimal and character development practically non-existent. Like Paltrow, Johansson basically ends up serving as just a really hot chick with whom Downey Jr. can flirt.

So then why did so many women see (and judging from the average Cinemascore of A, enjoy) a movie with no relateable female characters?  Maybe in spite of industry thinking that assumes that women can only get truly invested in films with completely female-dominated casts, such as the Sex and the City series, women enjoy “masculine” superhero fantasies just as much as men.  Maybe when women watch Iron Man 2, they don’t try to imagine themselves waiting frantically in the wings like Pepper Potts but flying through the air and saving the day like Tony Stark.  Maybe gender isn’t the huge barrier to enjoyment studios seem to think it is.