This photo provide by Disney shows Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in a scene from Marvel's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." 

This photo provide by Disney shows Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in a scene from Marvel's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." 

Jay Maidment/AP

Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. Ant-Man.

The list of male superheroes starring in their own big-screen escapades is bigger than Tony Stark's ego, and the billions of dollars these films have generated rival the fortunes of the well-off tinkerer. However, despite Hollywood's continued fascination with supermen, a new surge of female power could finally electrify the genre and more closely resemble the audiences of comic book adaptations.

That's the apparent takeaway from Marvel Studios' latest release, Ant-Man. The film concludes with - spoiler alert - Evangeline Lilly's character, Hope Van Dyne, being bestowed with her late mother's prototype superhero suit and alter ego. When she spots the ensemble, she satisfyingly informs her inventor father, "It's about damn time." It likely is, considering 42 percent of Ant-Man ticket buyers on opening weekend were women.

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"It was always intentional to end the movie that way with Hope saying she's going to be suited up in future adventures," said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. "Over the year since we shot that, it's taken on a greater meaning out there in the fan community. It's more relevant now than it's ever been."

Over the past seven years of interconnected Marvel superhero movies, female characters who are not code-named Black Widow have mostly been relegated to the sidelines as love interests, sidekicks, damsels in distress or all of the above, making Hope's parting words resonate beyond the screen for viewers who've long been dissatisfied with the lack of female superheroes in movies, despite their decades-long histories in comics.

Scarlett Johansson's shadowy agent Black Widow is no longer the sole Marvel movie heroine following the introduction of Zoe Saldana's alien assassin Gamora in last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Olsen's mind-bending Scarlet Witch earlier this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Lilly's winged Wasp at the end of Ant-Man.

"Their intentions are in the right place," Lilly said. "They just have to get there. They're breaking new ground. I'm really honored and excited to be part of that, to be one of the pioneering women within the superhero realm, to represent strong women and put more of a female presence into these movies."

Andrea Letamendi, a psychologist and comic book expert who recently participated in a talk, "Building the Modern (Super)Heroine," at San Diego Comic-Con, was disappointed that the filmmakers stopped short of having Lilly's character actually don the Wasp's get-up and help save the day alongside Ant-Man.

"When women don't see ourselves represented in an important role, for instance as a superhero, we begin to question our value in society," said Letamendi. "It's surprising that we're still considering that, but it's very true. The clinical term for it is symbolic annihilation, and it has a damaging effect, especially on younger audiences."

Letamendi commended Marvel for including smart, savvy female characters, such as Thor's astrophysicist girlfriend Jane Foster and Tony Stark's CEO significant other Pepper Potts, in past films, although she said it would be more socially beneficial for viewers to see women serve as actual superheroes or - better yet - lead the charge against all those killer robots and aliens.

Financially, solely focusing on female superheroes has never boosted the bottom line for movie studios. Supergirl, Elektra and Catwoman each failed to dazzle audiences or critics, but that was more than a decade ago before the current superhero boom.

This image provided by CBS/Warner Bros. Entertainment shows, Melissa Benoist, left, as Kara Zor-El, and, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen, in a scene from the pilot for “Supergirl.

This image provided by CBS/Warner Bros. Entertainment shows, Melissa Benoist, left, as Kara Zor-El, and, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen, in a scene from the pilot for “Supergirl.

Framegrab/AP

Since then, the young-adult, female-led adaptations of The Hunger Games and Divergent series rocketed to the top of the box office, and - as with Ant-Man - women accounted for more than 40 percent of the opening weekend crowds for Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Regardless of the recent boost of womankind in Marvel's superhero movie line-up and among theatergoers, the Disney-owned studio isn't planning to release a film centered on a singular female superhero until 2018's Captain Marvel. In the comics, the character is portrayed as a female fighter pilot who lands superpowers after an extraterrestrial accident.

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Warner Bros. will actually beat Marvel to punch a year earlier with a Wonder Woman film starring Gal Gadot in 2017. She'll first pop up as the DC Comics character in next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The demigod will later join several male superheroes for a two-part Justice League film series.

The forthcoming cinematic take on DC Comics' superpowered population is expected to be just as dominated by characters with XY chromosomes as the Marvelverse, unless the likes of Batgirl, Black Canary or Hawkgirl swoop in.

The scenario is similar for Fox's Fantastic Four, out Friday. The reboot features a lone lady: Kate Mara's Invisible Woman. Conversely, the movie studio's mutant-filled X-Men franchise has always featured a mix of male and female characters over the past 15 years, and next year's X-Men: Apocalypse edition will star the most diverse cast yet.

The question of just how female superheroes can fare on their own with modern audiences will be tested later this year not in theaters but on small screens. CBS' Supergirl and Netflix's Jessica Jones debut in the fall. If those serialized DC and Marvel adaptations soar on television, perhaps their superhero sisters will on the big screen as well.

The Associated Press

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