Jun 1, 2017

Why "Wonder Woman" Could Be an Important Moment in Superhero Cinema History

Gal Gadot
This Friday marks the release of the latest superhero movie, director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman. The common reaction is to roll your eyes and say "Ugh, another one?" It's true that the market is over-saturated with comic book adaptations that do little but complicate casual fans who don't want cinematic universes. But what's more frustrating is the fact that Wonder Woman isn't the umpteenth live action female lead superhero movie of this year, decade, or even (so far) this millennium. It's only the third after Catwoman and Elektra. If you open it up to the dawn of cinema, there's not even 10. This means that there's been more big screen Batman movies than every film with a female superhero lead. It's disconcerting, but helps to explain why Wonder Woman's success is long overdue, and will hopefully right some wrongs when it comes to movie spectacle.
Before going deeper, it should be noted that this article isn't to suggest that there haven't been great female superheroes in movies. It is more to point out the disparity between male and female roles. For instance, the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe has characters such as Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, and Doctor Strange's The Ancient One that are crucial to the story and have legitimate roles. However, it's dispiriting that the first to feature a woman free of the role of sidekick or mentor to the male protagonist isn't coming until 2019's Captain Marvel, which is 11 years after this franchise started. They have gone to space and back in that time, had talking raccoons and trees that were considered a risky gamble, but female superheroes leading movies is still too sketchy for them.
It also isn't to suggest that female superheroes haven't had great prominent roles in pop culture. Most recently, Supergirl has done an excellent job in mixing fantasy action with topical commentary. In other places, Marvel has shows like Agent Carter and Jessica Jones that show awesome women being awesome. Speaking as TV is more of a commitment to any one story, it doesn't make sense why one medium has flourished more prominently and longer in representing female lead superhero stories. Even then, it raises the question as to why movies are so behind. Why did it take this long to even tackle the first female superhero in her own movie that didn't involve being some man's sidekick? Some could even go so far as to argue that Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman stole the show in her brief screen time in Batman v. Superman, which was largely masculine and brooding otherwise. She more than deserves some vanity project.

Halle Berry in Catwoman
But the bigger question comes down to fan service. As long as there have been superheroes, there have been little girls who idolize them. Seeing Wonder Woman fight crime with her lasso of truth is a great symbol of truth beating corruption. It's no different than a boy watching Batman or Captain America: The First Avenger and wanting to don the costume to create justice. These heroes inspire positive change, at least in the right circumstances (thanks to authors like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Batman's become largely a grey area). So it would make sense that there would be female lead superhero movies for women to like, especially as they make up part of the demographic. It's as much an issue with sexism as it is with proper projection. There's no argument that women can't identify with male heroes, but it's become increasingly blasphemous to keep men from identifying with female heroes and thus breaking traditional sexist viewpoints. This can even be seen in one theater's recent decision to have an all-female screening of Wonder Woman, only to have a select group of men protest the exclusivity. 
To put it bluntly, Wonder Woman shouldn't be as much of a potential triumph for women in cinema as it should be. However, Hollywood hasn't exactly given them much option to be more than sidekicks. Some have had greater roles, but all of them are secondary to whatever the male protagonist's conflict is. There is a support and almost belief that they can't be their own leader. It's not a great message to send, even if there's plenty of empowering moments to pull from these films. It's unspoken, but the lack of faith in a female superhero leading a successful franchise film is disappointing, if not based in some sort of truth. After all, there was controversy around The Avengers: Age of Ultron when a toy company refused to make Black Widow figures because boys wouldn't play with them. It's going to take plenty of muscle to shift the tide and recognize women's worth as heroes, and Wonder Woman as a result feels like a loud calling card to change.

Scene from Elektra
It doesn't help that another factor for Wonder Woman being seen as a potential turn towards progressiveness is that it is the first female lead superhero movie since 2005. Besides having a gap of 12 years, it does feel embarrassing to admit that this movie, itself also a spin-off, was Elektra: a movie that was critically panned and considered one of the worst movies of all time. It didn't help that Jennifer Garner's red sultry outfit made her look less like a superhero and more like a model. It could be that it was just a bad movie, but considering that it was on the heels of D.C.'s most recent previous female lead superhero movie Catwoman, it became an indictment of why women can't lead superhero movies (never mind how many bad male lead movies there had been, including Elektra's source material Daredevil). The millennium before 2017 had a 100% failure rate with female lead superhero movies, as both Catwoman and Elektra COMBINED failed to earn even 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 
Because these two movies bombed, there's still something misconstrued about female superheroes. Their movies are bad. Their stories are uninspired. Their costumes are closer to S&M fetishes than triumphant symbols of hope. What exactly can women grasp onto since everything seems tailored to suggest that they can't lead a movie and have it be successful? Of course, this wouldn't be an issue if the ratio was more even with male counterparts, but it isn't. There's been good female superheroes on screen and TV, just not in their own movie. There's no beacon of hope for a girl wanting to escape on a Saturday afternoon and watch a movie geared directly at her. Wonder Woman at least looks like it's going for that, and that's more than inspiring when compared to the other options. Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn is in talks of getting her own movie, amid unfortunate a back story that includes domestic abuse. It could be good, but we should be able to look at these movies and not think strictly about them being greater than the bombs. Marvel has that formula worked out, but hopefully it won't involve Captain Marvel in two years.

Scene from Wonder Woman
So if you see a little girl cheering that Wonder Woman is fighting against injustice, let her have this moment. Even if you don't like the movie for personal reasons, let her have this moment It's hopefully the first of many special moments where the tide turns and she sees empowering female superheroes represented. They deserve to have their heroes, especially when the other options are considered in a negative light. Hopefully by the time they are old enough to make films, the issue of women leading successful blockbusters is more than a faux pas. It will be a norm. It may never excuse that Wonder Woman is only the third female lead superhero live action movie of this millennium (equal to how many Spider-Man incarnations there have been), but it will hopefully correct the course just a little to making cinema realize how foolish it was to ignore part of their demographic so pointlessly. 

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