This summer will be remembered for, among other things, the fact that male superheroes and male non superheroes were practically all the we saw onscreen. For all the box office fatigue — AKA films that stunk — that plagued films towards the end of summer, it will turn out to be all right for the studios since the box office looks to be going over the $4 billion mark again.
But just because some of the studios are happy and not all of them had to take a write down of $100 million like Disney does with The Lone Ranger does it mean it was a good summer for moviegoers — especially those who care about seeing women onscreen? And what does the fact that studios seem to be deeply committed to these types of movies which is very troublesome for the future of women onscreen.
In May, June and July the only people we saw on multiplex screens were superhero dudes, except for The Heat which is now at $155 million and as of this writing is number 10 on the box office list for the year. On the one hand the good news is that none of the women’s movies flopped enough to take the whole gender down with them, on the other hand the bad news is that none of the movies that starred women or were directed by women except for the aforementioned The Heat opened on enough screens to make anyone outside of the major cities take notice.
Then yesterday the news breaks that Ben Affleck is now going to get into Batman’s tights for the next superhero extravaganza Man of Steel or Batman and Superman or whatever the hell they decide to call the movie. Affleck clearly is not resting on his laurels of being the director of Oscar winning films (Argo) or of being cast in the male lead of Gone Girl (did you notice that they made a bigger deal of him getting cast than the actual lead which will be Rosamund Pike?), but now he’s gone and done the big deed of men in Hollywood — he’s become a superhero. ( I kind of remember that he already played a superhero, albeit a minor one, in Daredevil.)
Since we were overwhelmed with male superheroes, there has been much talk and writing this summer about the lack of female superheroes onscreen — and mostly about why the hell no one can a movie made that stars Wonder Woman. There are so many reasons why Wonder Woman has not yet come to the screen and they are emblematic of the problems we have with getting strong female characters onscreen at all.
I’m going to digress a moment and get into the conversation about strong female characters because there have been several pieces written about this issue most notably Sophia McDougall’s very good piece in the New Statesman: I Hate Strong Women Characters. What I got out of her piece is that strong has now become the default and also an apology for a lack of nuance and depth for females characters. It’s like we should be happy with the crumbs we are thrown when a princess gets to kick some ass, but then the story makes sure that she still needs to be rescued at the end of the story. Sophia is right. We shouldn’t only be happy with strong female characters. We should demand more, but we have been so bereft for so long that strong is better than weak and we take the crumbs because that is all we get.
Many people grew up watching the TV show about Wonder Woman and are surprised and incensed that while we have had multiple incarnations of the male superheroes we grew up with we still can’t get Wonder Woman onscreen. Quite frankly part of the problem is expectations. Without many other female superheroes, we have all our beans in the Wonder Woman can. Hollywood is very wary of the female superhero film even with Wonder Woman because the other movies with females in these types of leads have sucked. Let’s be honest, they have sucked and they have sucked because they were throw aways. The studios never invested in them in the way they have done the male superheroes.
The head of DC comics Diane Nelson addressed the Wonder Woman issue in an interview earlier this summer. She said: “We have to get her right.” Damn right. And she also said that one of the problems is that “She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes.” To me, that is just an excuse. That’s why you have writers. Writers can come up with a storyline that works. She has a vibrant backstory and there are multiple comic books from a variety of authors written about Wonder Woman. So just do it. All this dithering is ridiculous.
I had a real world experience yesterday the showed me how far we still have to go on this issue of female superheroes. I was with my four year old nephew who is obsessed with The Avengers. He only wears Avengers t-shirts and knows all the characters even though he has never seen any of the movies. But that’s the culture. These male superheroes are everywhere and kids pick up on it. We were in a book store and had lots of time. We made our way to picture books with superheroes on the cover. He immediately pointed at the Batman and Superman books. Right next to those books was a book on Wonder Woman. I said do you know about Wonder Woman? And he said no. He had never heard of her. We sat down and read the story and he was really into it. He thought it was cool that she had a magic lasso and also the book ended with Wonder Woman and Superman rescuing someone together so he got to see that she was a real superhero and could keep up with Superman.
I am relaying this story because I am sure there are boys all over the country and the world being exposed to only male superheroes because that is what our mass consumer culture allows us to see. While it would be great for us to have a Wonder Woman film and that would be a great start it will not be enough. That’s the problem with the lack of critical mass we have in our female stories. They are all still in a world of one-offs. That’s why we never got the next Bridesmaids and we may never get the next The Heat.
Hollywood doesn’t provide for us something basic — seeing fully realized female characters of all types, shapes and colors onscreen. That’s the goal. We have to keep pushing for that.
Wonder Woman Can’t Have it All (The Atlantic)
The Biggest Challenges Facing a Wonder Woman Movie (Film School Rejects)
Grant Morrison: why I’m resurrecting Wonder Woman (The Guardian)