Is Wonder Woman a ‘Tricky’ Character, and Why Have There Been No Good Female-led Comic Book Films?

As you may have heard, DC Entertainment announced at Comic-Con a Superman/Batman team-up film for 2015, followed by a Flash film in 2016, which all leads to a Justice League film in 2017. Have you heard of the Flash? Unless you read comics, or watch cartoons, you probably haven’t. While I usually have no issue with lesser-known characters being given a chance to shine, it does seem odd that a guy who goes really fast has trumped the most famous woman in comics. Why would DC choose not to make a Wonder Woman film, and what does that indicate about Hollywood attitudes to female led superhero films, and action films as a whole? Read on, and I’ll let you know.

The frequent message is that Wonder Woman is a uniquely hard character to write. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, DC Comics President Diane Nelson argued that Wonder Woman:

doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes…She has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.

Is Wonder Woman tricky? Adam Kessler made a great video arguing how a Wonder Woman film would both be great to see and simple to make. Besides, it is hard to believe that she is any trickier than an alien Norse Thunder God, a wife-beater, or a talking raccoon with a gun. None of that stopped Marvel, who now have the third most successful film of all time thanks to this boldness, along with the wonderful and ever-growing asset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I also criticise Marvel for having not planned a female led film yet, however they do not have a female character as distinctive or well known as Wonder Woman. Also, some of their most famous women, such as Storm and Jean Grey, are members of the X-men, and as such the rights are with Fox.

There is an argument that the BDSM roots of Wonder Woman make her impossible to adapt for a mainstream audience. However, characters change, characters evolve. Early Batman used a gun, and even killed people. The original idea for Superman was that he would be a bald, telepathic villain who wanted to take over the world. When a character has been written by so many authors, and changed so much over time, it makes no sense to think that they have to be defined by the original vision for them, and nothing else.

Elsewhere in the interview, Nelson says that of the characters DC are considering how to adapt, “Sandman is right on top. I think it could be as rich as the Harry Potter universe.” The Mary Sue rather wonderfully (excuse the pun) argued that, while it may be great, Sandman is certainly not a “single, clear…story”, and is instead:

a dense, mythologically packed work where many subtle plot threads are gradually woven into an inevitable climax, and it demands the reader have read widely, broadly, and carefully to fully appreciate all of its themes and elements…and there’s one other thing: nobody outside of the comics world knows who Sandman is, and Wonder Woman has been an American icon for more than seventy years.

The only reason Wonder Woman would be tricky is if she is made to be tricky. It would be incredibly arrogant to say that I knew how to write a Wonder Woman film. However, Gail Simone, who wrote the fantastic Wonder Woman storyline The Circle, and is writing some of the best stuff in comics at the moment, might have an idea. She recently took to Twitter to explain that:

I have had MANY producers call me and ask what should be done with a Wonder Woman film. I tell them the same things every time…Make her story a journey. Use the princess formula, but put some WARRIOR in it. Instead, they do the same gender war stuff, EVERY TIME.

There has in fact already been a Wonder Woman film, albeit an animated one. It did very well critically, and was fairly close to Simone’s idea for the character. Although it did not do as well as animated Superman and Batman films, declaring it a flop would be a mistake. Plenty do make that mistake though; the ‘conventional wisdom’ in Hollywood is that female led action films don’t work. Now, not only does this ignore the success of the Alien franchise, the success of Hunger Games, the Resident Evil franchise, or the popularity of Helen Mirren in the Red franchise. It is also the conventional wisdom that makes flops such as John Carter and The Lone Ranger, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

It is true that the female-led super hero films released so far have failed, and that they are used as proof that such films don’t work. Before I address that, I ask ‘Why wasn’t Daredevil seen as proof that male-led super hero films can’t work?’ The answer is provided for me by the great sci-fi author Chuck Wendig, who tweeted that ‘Women in entertainment are seen as edge-case, which is gonzo bonkers batshit given that they comprise half (or more!) of the population’.

So, why did all those female-led super hero films fail? Well, to quote Gail Simone again, ‘The people that made Elektra and Catwoman, from the actors to the directors, clearly didn’t give a shit about those characters.’ Too often, they’re nothing more than a pile of embarrassingly stereotypical tropes, and have to face challenges and enemies also defined by these tropes. Batman never has to fight evil Viagra companies, so it seems ridiculous that Catwoman had to fight an evil make-up company.

The Supergirl film seemed embarrassed to exist, with a flimsy plot and uncaring creators making the late great film critic Roger Ebert ask ‘Why even go to the trouble of making a movie that feels like it’s laughing at itself?’ She was given nowhere near the amount of respect that Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve gave her more famous cousin.

As for Elektra, the film is tonally all over the place. The plot is weak, the action dull, and one is left wondering why one of Frank Miller’s most deadly characters is in a PG-13. A large part of the problem comes from these films trying to make us objectify these protagonists, rather than identify with them. Particularly with Elektra and Catwoman, far too many shots are there to show off the main characters bodies, rather than to help get us into their heads.

The trouble is that the female-led super hero films make so far have not been given the same level of attention and care as their male equivalents. Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Zatanna, the Birds of Prey, and many others are all great characters, and cinema would benefit to have them. It would be upsetting to see them given the poor treatment that Elektra and Catwoman received, which would be worse than them not having a film. However, these characters can be done right, and Wonder Woman, the most famous woman in comics, deserves such most of all.

Do you think Wonder Woman is ‘tricky’? Would you like to see more female-led comic-book films? Any other thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

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