14 Pieces of Evidence Supporting the Contention that Someone in Hollywood Isn’t Really On Board with the Whole Notion That Women Can Play Superheroes, Too
1. Catwoman (2004)
No one can deny that superhero comics — and, by extension, movies and TV shows based on superhero comics — are, at heart, adolescent male power fantasies. By that, I mean female comic characters have had a much harder time escaping the rigidly defined roles designed to support the fantasy (namely, one or any combination of oblivious girlfriend/girl Friday/lovelorn team member/simpering hostage). But occasionally a female character claws her way through the four-colored glass ceiling and defines success on her own terms. Take Catwoman, who started out as a brain-damaged femme fatale back in the ’40s (couldn’t have folks back then thinking women might choose to be bad) but later evolved into a brilliantly rendered anti-hero (see Ed Brubaker’s 2002 series for more on that). The creators behind this 2004 popcorn flick would have none of that, instead repackaging her as a mousy woman (Halle Berry) who dies at the hands of an evil cosmetics company executive (Sharon Stone), only to come back to life thanks to a mysterious process of cat-transferral powers involving ancient Egyptian magic. Why? Why not? And of course her new powers (hissing, leaping, surviving falls from great heights, drinking milk from saucers) also come with a newfound respect for stiletto heels (perfect for completing rooftop romps) and ripped leather outfits (perfect for displaying Berry’s shapely thighs and breasts). Fer crissakes, they didn’t even get the name right, dropping “Selina Kyle” in favour of “Patience Phillips” because… well, nothing else about her was remotely like the DC character everyone knew and loved, so why the hell not? Thoroughly derided and ignored, the movie at least gave critics permission to unleash thousands of cat-astrophic puns on the movie-going populace, and was promptly never talked about again.
2. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)
Granted, Pfeiffer’s character wasn’t the most egregious example of a character reinterpretation in Tim Burton’s follow-up to 1989’s Batman; that honor goes to Danny DeVito’s Penguin, who went from being a gentleman’s criminal with a thing for birds to a deformed, slobbering, sewer-dwelling child abductor. Still, hardcore Bat-fans must have been a little disappointed by the changes made to Selina Kyle’s character, particularly in how she only became Catwoman after being pushed out a window by an evil department store owner (what’s with all the evil capitalists in superhero movies?). As we see on screen, she has some kind of psychotic break after her near-death experience and starts dressing like a masked dominatrix while harassing security guards to exact her revenge (where the instant gymnastics and martial-arts training came from, one can only guess). It wasn’t the worst interpretation of the character (for that, see #1 above), but Pfeiffer mostly played her as a woman seriously on the verge of a nervous something for most of the film, and Burton took away a lot of the original character’s power by repackaging her as a brain-damaged victim of a misogynist system. A little insanity is a good thing, sure — but is it too much to ask for a cinematic Catwoman who doesn’t need a near-death experience-slash-mental breakdown to go kick some ass?
3. Birds of Prey (2002)
From this short-lived TV series’ opening narration: “Legend tells of a caped crusader — Batman, guardian of New Gotham — and his one true love, Catwoman, the queen of the criminal underworld. Their passion left behind something extraordinary: a daughter, Huntress. Half metahuman, she has taken up her father’s mantle and fights to protect the innocent and helpless. Joining her in this struggle: Oracle. Once Batman’s protégé, Batgirl, she was caught in the crossfire of the war between Batman and Joker. Now she fights crime a different way, a master of the cyber-realms and trainer to heroes. Together, they have taken in Dinah, a metahuman herself, with powers that she is only beginning to explore. These three are the protectors of New Gotham: the Birds of Prey.” Your assignment: Identify at least five clichés, plot holes, or ill-advised deviations from the highly acclaimed comic series of the same name that explain how this pretty-looking but laughably written series lasted only 13 episodes. Don’t forget to show your work. Bonus points for explaining how the hell anyone can be “half metahuman.” Also, “cyber-realms”…? Who says that?
4. Supergirl (1984)
In his review of this film, critic Roger Ebert praised Helen Slater’s portrayal of the Girl of Steel, noting she shared with Christopher Reeve the rare ability to wear a funny costume and not look ridiculous doing it. But the rest of the movie, he said, trivialized itself with suicidal glee: “We look around her and we see the results of a gag-writer’s convention.” No kidding. The movie’s main villain, an amateur witch portrayed by a way over-the-top Faye Dunaway, is a carnival huckster who lucks into a source of immense power (which implausibly falls into her lap after Supergirl uses her alien civilization’s only source of life-sustaining power as a plaything and loses it through some kind of dimensional rift… no, it doesn’t make any more sense watching it happen, believe me), and the best she can do with it is use it to make her gardener fall in love with her… the same vacuous dude who, of course, has the hots for that new “Linda Lee” girl who just moved into town. That’s right, gang: take away the campy dialogue, the cheap special effects and the excruciatingly unfunny moments of comic relief and you’re left with a drawn-out catfight between two grown women over an unshaven landscaper. Girl power!
5. Elektra (2005)
No one can deny that Jennifer Garner is easy on the eyes and a half-decent actor when cast in the right project (see early seasons of Alias for more on that). But a cold-blooded, emotionless assassin? Especially one that rises from the dead in one movie to battle anew, OCD tendencies be damned, in another? Asking any woman to take on a role that originated in a Frank Miller comic is a tall order (OK, Sin City was all right), and Garner was clearly out of her depth trying to find her character in both this 2005 film and 2003’s Daredevil. Still, the decision to cast Garner as an amoral assassin of Greek heritage isn’t the biggest blunder in this film, which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a straight-up action movie, martial-arts film, tongue-in-cheek satire of superhero conventions, or heart-tugging tale of a grown-up little lost girl trying to save an actual little lost girl from the big mean world. Plus, it’s hard to get invested in a movie where evil ninjas appear and disappear in a puff of smoke, a slumming Terence Stamp pays for his poolhouse by mumbling a few lines of mystical mumbo-jumbo, and a climactic battle in a room with hanging white sheets ends up looking more like Garner is taking her frustrations out on her laundry.
6. Barb Wire (1996)
Wow, talk about shooting fish in a barrel. Any movie starring the buxom Pamela Anderson and based on a comic about a bounty hunter who poses as strippers and prostitutes to bag her prey is not exactly designed to woo members of the Academy, but come on, people — even camp has to aim for some level of coherence. It’s 2017, the U.S. is in the middle of its second civil war, and Barb Wire (yes, that’s her name) is a nightclub owner in a city where she has a friendly arrangement with a corrupt but generally cool police chief. A couple of honest folk come through her place in search of safe passage to Canada… why, yes, now that you mention it, there is more than a passing resemblance to Casablanca, but it’s fair to say Bogart never once sported a rack like that. Based on the Dark Horse comic series of the same name, Barb Wire was supposed to be the movie that launched the Baywatch beauty’s film career… but it didn’t quite work out that way. The film has since amassed a sizable cult audience whose members presumably include businessmen who instruct their dominatrices to purr “Don’t call me babe” before spankings.
7. Invisible Woman, Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Put aside, if you can, any opinions you may have about Jessica Alba as a thespian. That she was massively miscast in the role of Susan Richards is not her fault, and her inability to make the best of her role is not at issue here; what is at issue is how the writers behind the FF films clearly had no idea how to deal with the distaff member of the Fantastic Four. While no one in the team come off as particularly well-rounded (Thing sad! Torch horny! Reed guilt-ridden! Torch horny!) in either of the two films, the plot in both films routinely made Susan Richards out to be the peacemaker, the wet blanket, the disapproving mother hen, the scold demanding that Reed choose between their love and saving the world — in other words, all the fun character traits that defined her back in 1962. Except back then, the writers couldn’t get away with inserting “hilarious” scenes like the one where her clothes accidentally turned invisible during an appropriately embarrassing time.
8. Wonder Woman (2007)
In the mid-2000s, around about the time the Justice League cartoons came off the air, Warner Bros. released a series of direct-to-DVD animated films starring DC superheroes in PG-13 adventures. Often adapting popular storylines like “The Death of Superman,” these grimmer-‘n’-grittier DVDs weren’t terrible, just lacking that deft touch that Bruce Timm & Co. brought to DC’s televised offerings. Case in point: The Wonder Woman in the Justice League cartoons would sometimesbe disappointed by the customs of “Man’s World,” but it never came across as out-and-out misandry. Here, the heroine depicted in the comics and TV cartoons as an ambassador and pacifist is taking every opportunity to remind anyone who listens just how much men suck (of course, it doesn’t help when the hero of the piece, Steve Trevor, is recast as a real guy’s guy who can’t stop wisecracking and acting like a big ol’ horndog when confronted with an island of Amazon warriors). Then of course there’s the heart-tugging scene where the writers have her help a young girl who’s sobbing because (brace yourselves) she wants to play with some boys that don’t include her in their wooden swordfight games. Because saving all of Washington, D.C., from hell’s infernal legions just has to wait while the scourge of playground inequality is settled once and for all.
9. Wonder Woman (the film in perpetual development hell)
Perhaps now is the time to deal with one of the bigger myths that DC seems hellbent on perpetuating despite all evidence to the contrary; namely, that Wonder Woman is one-third of an A-list trinity that places her on equal footing with Superman and Batman. It’s a nice thought and certainly appeals to the feminist in all of us, but the facts don’t support it — or at least, Warner’s own actions don’t. For starters, if the character is truly perceived as a corporate asset on par with Batman or Superman, then she wouldn’t have a grand total of zero live-action films under her belt compared to Supe’s five (and counting) and Bat’s six (and counting). Rumors about an upcoming WW film have been circulating for years, with every actress in Hollywood in possession of a decent set of gams reportedly attached to the role at one point or another, but so far nothing concrete or confirmed has happenese. IMDb notes a Wonder Woman film is “in development” and slated for a 2013 release… but don’t hold your breath.
10-11. Rogue and Storm, the X-Men trilogy
With any large ensemble, it’s always a challenge ensuring everyone gets a chance to shine, and the X-Men movies, with their plethora of starring and supporting characters, are no exceptions. Reviews of all three films (well, the first two) were generally positive, though some critics took issue with the impact of the growing cast size on the storyline; for example, with most of the first movie devoted to Wolverine’s journey and Magneto’s half-assed plan to make mutants out of world leaders, some of the other characters had no choice but to make the most of their extremely limited screen time. Storm, one of the most visually striking and fully developed characters in the comic series (if not all superhero comics), is reduced to spending all three movies yelling “go get the plane!” and other non-vitally important pieces of dialogue. (And that whole “know what happens to a toad” line? Not as clever as the writers thought.) Similarly, Rogue — depicted in the books as a good ol’ Southern girl with attitude and a serious chip on her shoulder re: the whole “never knowing another a man’s touch” thing — is, as portrayed by Anna Paquin, a screaming, self-pitying plot device for the entire first film. Sure, nearly sucking the life out of your first boyfriend would be a traumatic experience for anyone, but is it too much to expect a little of the comic character’s sassiness to shine through?
12. Red Sonja (1985)
Hey, did you hear there’s a new Red Sonja movie coming out in 2012? Let’s hope they do a better job of it than the people behind this shlockfest, which saw the statuesque Brigitte Neilsen heaving a magic sword and fighting the evil Queen Gedren. Imposing as she was in her metal mini-skirt, the Swedish model was no actor, and you know a movie’s in trouble when a slumming Arnold Schwarzenegger has the best chance of snagging an Oscar nomination. While a comic book about a scantily clad barbarian she-warrior who can only sleep with men after they conquer her in battle may makes an episode of Jersey Shore look like A Room of One’s Own by comparison, at least it…. uh… you know what? I got nothin’. As bad and sexist as the comic could be, though, at least it never committed the sin of being a big pile of boring.
13. Tank Girl (1995)
Pop quiz: Name the 1995 movie based on a British cult comic and set in a dystopian future that tanked at the box office and nearly ruined the film career of the lead actor. Did you say Judge Dredd? Excellent guess! But no, it’s Tank Girl, probably the first and only comic to prominently feature mutant kangaroo commandos among its supporting characters. That anyone thought the anarchic comic was even filmable is a minor miracle; its horrible showing at the box office ($25 million to make, $4 million in U.S. ticket sales) pretty much shut the door on any other comic-based “grrl power” movies for the rest of the decade. Lori Petty is the best (probably only) reason to see Tank Girl, but her character never gets a chance to live up to the image of the woman promised in Devo’s ”Girl U Want” (which played over the film’s opening credits). That is to say, instead of giving us a truly saucy superwoman who’s taking charge in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, viewers got a squeaky-voiced tomboy who, as one reviewer noted, would rather be cute as she drives through the desert in her tank. And who the hell wants that?
14. Batgirl, Batman and Robin
Granted, singling out Alicia Silverstone’s character in this 1997 clusterfudge of a film doesn’t seem entirely fair — not when there are many, many other reasons why this movie ranks among the worst superhero films ever produced (though Silverstone did earn a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie for her efforts). Still, one has to wonder what the screenwriters were thinking; no longer Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara Wilson is presented as Alfred’s niece, an Oxford college student with a “bad girl” streak who makes a surprise visit to Wayne Manor just in time to learn of her beloved uncle’s terminal illness. So of course she ends up discovering the Batcave and gets her own crimefighting costume thanks to a computer simulation of her dying uncle (??!?) and goes up against super-villains with all kinds of neat fighting moves and spouts platitudes about girl power and the importance of family and shut up and pay for your ticket already. “Chicks like you give women a bad name,” she hisses at Poison Ivy at one point, and… yeah, you just can’t make up that kind of irony.