In this guest post, Andrew Daar makes a strong argument for a Wonder Woman movie.
It’s no secret that superhero films are all the rage right now. Movies featuring characters whose popularity transcends their comic book origins – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – make hundreds of millions of dollars in their opening weekends, while many films featuring characters less universally known are also drawing huge crowds. Iron Man 3 earned almost $400 million in the United States alone, and The Avengers – which featured heroes who, prior to the release of their stand-alone films in the preceding years, had nowhere near the recognition of the likes of Superman or Spider-Man – was the highest grossing film of 2012. But despite this popularity, one doesn’t even need two hands to count how many theatrically released superhero films have featured women in the starring role. (Of course, sadly, this lack of women at the center of films isn’t limited to the superhero genre. NPR’s Linda Holmes points out that, right now, it is nearly impossible to find films in cinemas that feature women in the starring roles, and calculated that the number of showtimes in her area for Man of Steel was over six times greater than the number showtimes of all female-centric films combined.) And on top of that, there has yet to be a theatrical film featuring Wonder Woman, arguably the most iconic female superhero in existence.
What gives? Why have there been so few movies starring female superheroes, and why hasn’t the female superhero received her own big screen adventure yet? Superman has had six films, Batman has had seven. Recently, executives greenlit two additional Spider-Man films to add to his (soon-to-be) five. Why can’t Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel or Black Canary or Jessica Jones get a film of her own? And why has every female superhero-centered film that has been made been a colossal let-down? (No, that isn’t hyperbole. As I will note later, literally every superhero movie that has a woman in the lead role has been pretty terrible.)
Let’s start with Wonder Woman. First introduced in All Star Comics #8 in December, 1941, she had her own title within six months. She became the first female member of the Justice Society of America, and was a founding member of the Justice League. Wonder Woman is one of DC Comics’ three most famous superhero characters, the other two being Superman and Batman. And she is a rarity among female superheroes in that she is a famous character who is neither (1) a distaff counterpart to a male hero nor (2) primarily known for being part of a team. Wonder Woman is not a derivation of a male superhero. Unlike Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, or She-Hulk, there was not a “Wonder Man” upon whom Wonder Woman was based. (There is a male hero named Wonder Man who predates Wonder Woman, but has no relation to her. He was a Superman rip-off sued out of existence by DC Comics.) And although there are plenty of female heroes who are not derivations of male heroes, many of them are primarily known for being part of a team. Jean Grey, Storm, and Rogue are all primarily associated with the X-Men. Susan Storm was introduced as a member of the Fantastic Four. Black Widow, who has received a popularity boost after being played by Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, was introduced as a villain, and once she became a hero, she immediately joined up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers.
Despite her lofty status, Wonder Woman still has not been the subject of a live-action, theatrically released film. Not that Warner Bros. hasn’t tried. In 2001, Warner Bros. began looking for people to write a feature film for the character. Eventually, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was hired to write and direct the film, but that ultimately fell apart. Since then, there have not been any noted attempts to finish a Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman has been depicted in media aside from comic books throughout the years. In 2009, Warner Bros. released a direct-to-video animated Wonder Woman film, featuring the voices of Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion. In the 70s, Lynda Carter starred as Wonder Woman on a series of the same name that ran for three years (one year on ABC, two years on CBS).
A few years ago, NBC commissioned a pilot for a new Wonder Woman TV series from David E. Kelley, but the result was so bad that the series was not picked up. (I’ve seen the pilot. It was truly awful, but in a very entertaining way. But considering how the series interpreted the Wonder Woman character, it’s certainly for the best that the show did not go to series. Wonder Woman was portrayed as a violent killer who sneered at the rule of law. In her secret identity life, she was a meek woman trying to “make it.” Her only Facebook friend was her cat.) And she has appeared in multiple animated series based on the Justice League. But at a time when characters like Iron Man, Thor, the Green Lantern, and Ant-Man (Ant-Man!) are all getting big budget films, the lack of a Wonder Woman film is all the more perplexing. And let it never be forgotten that Howard the Duck, a relatively obscure Marvel Comics character, got a movie before Wonder Woman did.
After Man of Steel made over $125 million and broke the record for the highest opening in the month of June, Warner Bros.’ desire and drive to make a Justice League movie has been reinvigorated. If the Justice League makes it to the silver screen, Wonder Woman will almost certainly be included. But this raises an interesting question: will there be a stand-alone Wonder Woman film before Justice League is released, or will Wonder Woman’s first theatrical appearance be in a team movie (or, as io9.’s Charlie Jane Anders speculates, as a supporting character in a male hero’s solo movie, similar to how Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man 2)? Personally, I find the idea of a character of Wonder Woman’s stature serving as a supporting character in her first cinematic appearance unfortunate. For one thing, we need more films of all genres featuring women in lead roles. But as I alluded to earlier, my research has revealed only five superhero films that feature female superheroes in the title role (rather than as being part of a team). And Wonder Woman is a culturally important character. As Gloria Steinem wrote in the introduction to a 1972 book about the character:
“Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life: a diminishing both of “masculine” aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.”
Steinem even chose Wonder Woman to appear on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine (above).
It feels insulting that the exploitative Barb Wire (based on a Dark Horse Comics character) exists, while we are still without a big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, Barb Wire’s existence is probably partly to blame for the lack of a Wonder Woman movie. My research turned up five films featuring female superheroes in lead roles. They are, in chronological order of release date: Supergirl, Tank Girl, Barb Wire, Catwoman, and Elektra. Not a one was either critically or commercially successful. (For an in-depth look at why each one failed, Lindsay “Nostalgia Chick” Ellis has a great video ranking them from least awful to most awful.) And the two most recent, Catwoman and Elektra, had rather large budgets ($100 million and $43 million, respectively). It’s not a stretch to think that studio executives see this “pattern” and conclude that female-led superhero movies are doomed to failure. After all, these films have a 100% failure rate.
But introduce even the slightest bit of logic, and this conclusion falls apart. For one thing, there are plenty of bad male-led and team-based superhero films. The third and fourth Superman films (prior to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) were not well-received, and Superman IV did not recoup its budget. Joel Schumacher, the director of Batman & Robin, actually apologized for the movie on the DVD commentary track. And The Punisher received mostly negative reviews and did only moderately well at the box office (it recouped its budget, but throughout its entire theatrical run made less than half of what movies like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight made in their opening weekends). That didn’t stop Lionsgate from producing a reboot four years later.
To take a different tack, there have been plenty of female-led television series that reinforce that there is a market for stories led by kickass women (some of whom have superpowers, some of whom do not, but all kick ass in their own way). See: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Veronica Mars, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The Legend of Korra. And although Katniss Everdeen isn’t a “superhero,” The Hunger Games made over eight times its budget and showed that there is a huge audience for female-led, big budget ($78 million) films. Finally, consider that characters like Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Catwoman, Supergirl, Black Canary, Ms. Marvel, Shadowcat, and so on have endured for decades in the comics. Bad movies have been made about great characters, and to blame a movie’s failure on the gender of its lead requires a horrifying lack of perspective/abundance of sexism.
Things may change soon. There have been talks about giving Black Widow her own film, and it seems unlikely that Wonder Woman will not eventually get her own film, even if it’s after being introduced in a different movie. But with such a diverse group of characters to choose from, it remains perplexing that there hasn’t been a single worthwhile woman-driven superhero film. And other than Black Widow and Wonder Woman, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about giving solo films to female heroes. How many more great films and TV shows featuring women in the lead role will it take to convince Hollywood that the time is right – and has been right ever since Richard Donner’s Superman – for Wonder Woman to get her own movie? How many more failures like Green Lantern will it take for Hollywood to realize that it’s not the gender of the lead, it’s the quality of the story that counts?
Special thanks to Sean Bennett, Ryan Carey, Chris Dole, Nick Enquist, and Noel Kirkpatrick for their assistance in researching.