For years there were rumors of a Wonder Woman movie. As far back as the mid-2000s, a pre-Avengers Joss Whedon was attached to write and direct the Amazing Amazon for the mainstream viewer. I, for one, was ecstatic; if anyone could bring Diana to life it was Lord Joss. Unfortunately, the project didn’t even get as far as the casting stage, and the idea was quietly shelved.
Admittedly, movie companies are just trying to make money, and putting a female in a high grade action film does not always return profits. They are quick to point out the box office bombs of Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), and Supergirl (1984). But I’d like to point out that the reason those films did so poorly was because they were terrible, not because they were about a girl, and that there are plenty of male-driven comic book films that did just as badly, if not worse. (Although I will admit that I have a soft spot for Supergirl, a childhood favorite I still watch—strictly for nostalgia, of course.)
In fact — up until tomorrow, when Wonder Woman FINALLY hits theaters — there have only been five theatrical comic book adaptations released in Hollywood featuring female leads: the aforementioned three, plus Tank Girl (1995) and Barb Wire (1996). That means there will be more movies based on comic books released this year than have ever been released centering around a female hero.
As recently as 2013, we were living in a world in which comic-based films starred living plants and alien raccoons, but the most iconic female in comics hadn’t even received an on-screen mention. And that didn’t even happen until last year. (And was unquestionably the best part of Batman VS Superman.)
But it is not just Wonder Woman who has long been neglected by Hollywood. The X-Men series is a true testament to how much movie companies have traditionally shied away from strong female characters. Of course, the X-Men series is a) nothing like the comics and b) could easily be called The Wolverine Saga. Rogue (Anna Paquin), my favorite member of the X-Men, is downgraded in the original film trilogy to a whiny teenager moping about how she can’t touch people. Storm (Halle Berry), the strong African queen/weather witch is barely in the first two films, and is completely overshadowed by every other character. Finally, there’s Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), one of the most powerful beings not just in Marvel but in all of comicdom: she spends the first two films setting up a love triangle with Cyclops (James Marsters) and Wolverine and in the awful, awful third film, X-Men: The Last Stand, her Phoenix powers kick in. In the comics Phoenix is a nigh-on invulnerable, planet-swallowing super being; in the film she’s just an angry-looking Famke Janssen who is easily manipulated by Magneto.
The prequel X-Men: First Class doesn’t do females any more justice. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) spends the entire movie shucking from male to male, and is obsessed with her looks. The moral of her tale is to love yourself for who you are, especially when you’re a hot naked chick covered in blue paint. This movie also introduced a lot of people to the character of Angel (Zoë Kravitz) – because apparently some chick who was not Warren Worthington used that name also – and the first time we meet her she takes off her top before showing Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) that she can fly, because that makes total sense.
As much as people try, a black leather catsuit does not equal superpowers.
The Fantastic Four films are much the same way, being that they’re terrible and Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm is mostly eye candy and is never allowed to upstage her male teammates. (The less said about the woefully used Kate Mara as Sue in 2015’s Fan4Stick, the better.) And I love The Avengers. It was comedic, sad, action-filled with great effects, and, above all, fun. But even that film couldn’t give audiences a strong female superhero, because as much as people try, a black leather catsuit does not equal superpowers. There are so many great female Avengers – Ms. Marvel was even their leader at one point – and this 5:1 men-to-women ratio simply has to be addressed. (The ratio holds even after Wanda joins the crew in Captain America: Civil War, with the likewise additions of Ant-Man, Vision, Falcon, War Machine and Spider-Man.)
But DC Comics has also, time and time again, utterly failed to showcase a strong female hero. Yes, Faora (Antje Traue) was badass in Man of Steel, and Amy Adams was a delightful Lois Lane, yet a proper female hero has been nowhere to be found. (Again: until BvS.) Perhaps the worst example of a DC film ignoring our gender was 2011’s Green Lantern. The Green Lantern Corps is spread throughout the entire galaxy, and there are some great female Lanterns in the comics, but in the live action version they just don’t exist. Neither I nor anyone else have even spotted a glimpse of a female Lantern in any part of the movie, including in a giant pan showing thousands of the Corps.
Let’s not forget the Batman films. The only females that have ever appeared as major characters have been love interests for Bruce Wayne (Nicole Kidman, Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal) or villains (Poison Ivy, every incarnation of Catwoman), or a hopelessly misjudged attempt at Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) in Batman and Robin. Plus, Batman and Robin is so horrible in every aspect that it being the only film to feature Batgirl is insulting.
To recap: females in comics usually come in one of four categories: the family member (Ma Kent, Aunt May), the love interest (Lois Lane, Carol Ferris, every girl Peter Parker meets), the villain (Mystique, Faora, Catwoman), or the hero. The problem with those that actually make it into a film in the hero role is that they are usually a) wearing a revealing outfit, and are defined by it; b) are still a love interest, and/or c) are nowhere near as powerful as they are in the comics, and must never be allowed to outshine their male team members, even when they both could and should. (cf. Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.)
The saddest part, the part that has always angered me the most, is that every comic book movie that comes out without a good female hero in the lead is another slap in the face to our whole gender–but especially to young girls. The impression that movie companies are giving off is that they do not care about us, do not consider us heroic on our own merits, and that girls, especially young girls, do not deserve a female hero to look up to and to inspire them. Especially when they won’t even give what few female characters there are proper action figures. (Because apparently girls don’t like to play with dolls.)
Has all of this changed for the better? Will the success of Wonder Woman — and it will be a success; the DCEU needs this — pave the way for more women in the lead? Things are already heading in that direction, with 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2019’s Captain Marvel, and the next X-Men movie having been announced as yet another Dark Phoenix tale. But in many ways, it is simply too little, too late. We waded through two Swamp Thing movies, three Punisher movies and Jonah freaking Hex before Wonder Woman made it to the big screen. They made Hellboy, and Spawn and Howard the Duck before the Amazing Amazon — one of comics’ most legendary superheroes — was deemed worthy of a film of her very own.
And still, she’s not wearing very much. But baby steps, right?