CBS’s Supergirl premiere this week was a test pilot project not only for comic book heroes and heroines, especially those of Marvel/Disney and DC Comics/Warner Bros., but all media outlets. Does anyone care about strong female leads outside of rom-coms, sensational reality shows, and family dramas? Fans say yes, but are they willing to buy tickets, download, and tune in to prove it? That’s what every studio wants to figure out right now.
Supergirl is not the property that these questions rest on, but an opening salvo towards the slated 2017 feature, Wonder Woman. Rather, the show is a proverbial toe in the water to determine how well a female lead in capes and boots – again, like Wonder Woman – will do before the studios get behind larger projects. Warner Bros. is inevitably trying to work out any problems with the blonde heroine, to run interference, and observe how other female-driven stories will play out before they put a larger project like Wonder Woman in theaters. Later this month, Jessica Jones will premiere on Netflix. Which one will audiences respond to more, the buoyant teenager in her cousin’s super shadow or the gritty, sexualized noir of Jones?
Female superheroes have historically been a tightrope walk. Most of the criticism directed at last summer’s blockbuster Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, for example, rested on the fact that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was not given a stronger presence in the film. Once again, the only woman on the team practically vanished in an overwhelming display of heroic manhood. That’s the best women in superhero films can hope for these days – being the victim that men rescue or serving as window dressing to their displays of maleness. This is not a new frustration. Other properties based on source materials with strong heroines like X-men or the Fantastic Four experienced similar problems in how to handle women. “Action movies are for guys” is the prevailing thought. Women serve as vehicles for the men they idolize (or eventually satisfy with sex). It’s a standard trope than many fans – male and female – are tired of seeing play out.
Black Widow’s backstory? Couched behind three Iron Man movies, two Captain Americas, a Hulk, two group-photo films, even a lackluster Ant-Man. Widow’s presence in the film can be summed by “teammates” Jeremy Renner (“Hawkeye”) and Chris Evans (“Captain America”) who joyfully called the character “a slut,” insinuating that she had slept with all of the men on the team. All of this, on screen as much as off, inevitably sends the message that the real heroes are men and a woman’s place with a superteam is on her knees to “assist” a man’s heroic efforts. Who she is and what she fights for are not important. The Widow’s new teammate Scarlet Witch, who can literally bend reality around her? A cipher to feel sadness when her brother (an underdeveloped “red shirt”) sacrifices himself for the good of the team. Jean Grey, infused with unrivaled power in X-men: The Last Stand (2006) that could destroy an entire world? She glowers at the X-men for 104 minutes. That’s it. That’s how she chooses to use the super powers everyone in the film has been told to fear; all bitch, nothing substantial to back it up. Susan Storm in the latest version of The Fantastic Four (2015) suffers the same fate. She spends most of the movie alone, silent and insulated. When she finally steps forward, she is a cipher to feel disappointment towards her ex-boyfriend, her brother, her father, even her current romantic interest. What kind of ideal does all of this amount to for girls? To stand on the sideline and scowl? That’s what these characters and their “unique” superpowers amount to, what they bring to their teams – sex, a few tears to help us feel something, a show of frigid disappointment, and otherwise sidelined with headphones on, listening to some music. No wonder Susan’s field name is “The Invisible Woman.”
Fans were so angry with the way Black Widow was depicted in Avengers 2 that Joss Whedon, the director of the film, resigned from Twitter and said he was no longer going to be a part of the Marvel projects scheduled to continue through 2020. Whedon has historically been a supporter of strong women in media, namely Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related projects, Dollhouse, Firefly, and Alien:Resurrection. Even his early work as a writer on Roseanne was pro-women. Whedon’s entire working portfolio is a testament to his support of a strong female presence in storytelling; so what was behind his resignation? The best guess at Comic-Con and on all forms of social media is that studios simply do not believe in leading roles for women in superhero movies. Which is strange since, again, we’ve grown up with Ripley in the Alien franchise, Kill Bill, several Miyazaki films, Sarah Conner in the Terminator franchise, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Oh, and those small indie franchises The Hunger Games, Charlie’s Angels, and Underworld. All of this Disney and Marvel are surely aware of since the House of Mouse has a pretty strong record of anchoring their animated features around a female lead.
So why do I say everything really is leading to 2017’s Wonder Woman? Because I genuinely feel that Wonder Woman is the film the zeitgeist is waiting for. She is the queen of comicbook heroines – the first, greatest, and most enduring of them all. While Lynda Carter’s 1975 depiction of the character on television was just a few years before my time, I can remember my cousins watching reruns and shooing me out of the living room, insisting “This is our show.” My mom swears to this day that she is not a Feminist, but certainly raised me to be one. She told me the reason my cousins acted that way was because “girls don’t really have a superhero to look up to.” By kindergarten, my mom replaced not one, not two, but four Wonder Woman action figures “because it’s important to know women can be heroes too.” The reason I kept losing or breaking them? Because I believed what my mom said. Wonder Woman was a staple in my toy lineup – Superman and Batman, in my imaginary world, could not solve a crime unless Wonder Woman helped them. Their work was incomplete without her. She was my favorite toy, the first choice among playthings that went everywhere with me and, through overuse, kept getting lost, broken, or stolen. I stopped playing with superhero figurines after that because it wasn’t as fun or adventurous without Wonder Woman involved. That is the legacy that anyone stepping into her Amazonian boots will have to deal with – generations of dreamers who believed in friendship, family loyalty, fighting fair, standing up for truth and justice, and looking damn good while they do it.
Which is why it’s kind of surprising that Warner Bros. picked Gal Gadot, an Israeli model, to play Wonder Woman on the screen – it gives hope to girls, especially Jewish girls, at a time when global women’s issues are predominantly concerned with access to reproductive rights and Jews worldwide are dealing with new waves of Anti-Semitism. But Warner Bros. made a miscalculation that is being scrutinized by fans. As carefully intentional as their decision may have been to go with Gadot (and not, say, Rachel McAdams or the latest tween musician-turned-actress), the world will be introduced to a big-screen Wonder Woman as the filling to a Superman/Batman sandwich. She is cast, like so many other strong heroines, as “filler” for a male-driven and male-centralized story instead of her own film.
Of course, there have been female superhero projects before. Warner Bros.’ 1984 project, Supergirl, earned a modest $14 million. 1995’s Tank Girl earned $4 million. In 2002, the awful Catwoman made $82 million and the following year Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner, made $56 million. To be fair, these are not great numbers. Together, these four films earned only half of the first Superman movie’s $300 million – and that was in 1978 at the height of the Carter recession. From Hollywood’s perspective, women are supporting characters. You could argue that the dark V For Vendetta (2006), based on the work of an Alan Moore, was a female-lead hero film. It earned $132.5 million. But in perspective, of the 127 superhero films made since Supergirl (1984), only five were female-lead projects. That’s 4% of all superhero projects since 1984 and that shamefully dismal percentage drops precipitously once we start adding up all of the hero films before 1984. It’s hard to make an argument for the success of women in hero films when they’re not really given anything close to adequate representation. The “women are supporting characters” argument is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.
What remains clear is that at no point – given the success of the 1975 television show, given the success of Wonder Woman on animated projects like Super-Friends or The Justice League, given the high degree of cultural awareness of Wonder Woman, given the strong wave of popularity for her character the current redesign of the DC Universe in The New 52, DC Comics and Warner Bros. are still focus-grouping female heroes. This is 2015, for god’s sake. Is Supergirl living in the shadow of her cousin’s cape and a gritty psycho-sexual noir the best Hollywood can do? Granted, I’ll take it. I’m really looking forward to seeing Jessica Jones later this month. But I’m apprehensive. Superhero projects involving women continue to be terrible (what the hell was Catwoman?) and that is hardly surprising when studios won’t get behind them. Put another way, we’ve had four Transformers movies. And we still don’t have a Wonder Wonder. Studios continue to demur and get it wrong, despite fans demanding better representation of their favorite female characters. It’s not like there is an absence of suggestions from fans who want to see it done right. Meanwhile, a blockbuster like The Avengers is capped by undisguised chauvinism, locker-room jokery, and slut-shaming. At every turn, the cultural gatekeepers of Hollywood are either dismissive, disrespectful, or show how little they understand women. And we still don’t have a Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman is the biggest and best chance to finally get it right, to usher in a new era of film and show the world that yes, women can be heroes too. A woman can punch and kick, wield a sword, even fly as well as any man. Wonder Woman is a chance for a new generation of daughters to say “this is our show” – to feel like the ideals of equality, honesty, strength, and beauty are achievable.