9 Reasons Often Offered For Why It’s So Damn Hard To Get a Wonder Woman Movie Off the Ground (and 9 Rebuttals Explaining Why Each One of Those Reasons is Hogwash)
1. “She’s just not, you know, iconic enough.”
So the news out of Hollywood is that finally, finally, Wonder Woman is going to appear in a big-budget movie… just not her own. Former model and Miss Universe contestant Gal Gadot (of the Fast and Furious films) has been cast to appear next to Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck in the upcoming Batman/Superman team-up flick, and more than a few Internet wags are seeing Wonder Woman’s inclusion in the festivities as (a) about damn time and (b) a sneaky way for Warner Bros. to gauge interest in a Wonder Woman movie without risking another Green Lantern-sized bomb. Either way, the question must be asked: why is it so damned hard to get this gal a movie? One possible reason that’s been offered is that while comic-book movies based on A-list names (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man) have done very well, there are a whole slew of movies featuring less-famous characters (Green Lantern, Daredevil, Watchmen) that failed to connect with audience members who aren’t die-hard comic fans. With all the money riding these days on launching successful film franchises, Hollywood can’t afford to take a chance on a character that can’t guarantee bums in seats.
But we know this is hogwash because… Two words: Iron. Man. No sane person would have argued, prior to 2008, that Iron Man enjoyed the same high profile among non-comic fans as a Batman or a Spider-Man, but here we are today, three top-grossing movies and star billing in another hugely popular film franchise later. Plus, this is Wonder freakin’ Woman we’re talking about, the most recognized female superhero in the history of the world, and 99 times out of 100 the name most people will go with if asked to name a single female superhero (sorry, Black Widow). To even suggest she’s not “iconic” enough (whatever that means) to hold down a movie is simply ludicrous. It’s also completely ignorant of the impact she has had on the pop-culture scene in the 70-plus continuous years she has been fighting for our rights — a stretch of time that very few other fictional characters in any medium can claim.
2. “Sorry, but it’s simple Hollywood math. To make the big bucks, you’ve got to aim your movie at the teenage boys, and teenage boys don’t want to see a movie where a woman kicks ass.”
The logic here goes something like this: because Hollywood wants to make a lot of money, it needs to produce movies that appeals to the widest possible audience. Specifically, in this opening-gross-obsessed, torrent-deluging age we live in, it needs to pump out movies that audiences won’t mind paying premium opening-weekend ticket prices to see. And since older movie fans aren’t going out to movie theatres in numbers like they used to (preferring to wait until the film is available via a more reasonably priced channel, like DVDs or a streaming service), film studios have to grab the audiences most likely to part with their disposable incomes to see the latest blockbuster. That means teenagers and young adults. And why young men in particular? Because it’s easier to sell mayhem and spectacle (two things Hollywood excels at) to a young man than it is to sell it to a young woman. Plus, foreign markets (which make up a significant chunk of movie revenues these days, to the point where Hollywood movies are edited specifically to goose sales in certain foreign markets) are more interested in Hollywood’s easy-to-dub action flicks than any other genre, and — gosh darn it — films with strong female leads don’t earn as much money in those markets. Don’t blame us; it’s the invisible hand, folks.
But we know this is hogwash because… First off, I can’t believe no one in Hollywood is up to the challenge of selling teenage boys on the merits of watching a woman kick ass; I’m pretty sure a good portion of Angelina Jolie’s bank account would beg to differ. Second — sure, let’s blame cold, hard economics and unenlightened foreign audiences for the dearth of movies starring strong women, because it almost certainly has nothing to do with the fact that women accounted for only 9% of directors, 15% of writers, 25% of producers, 20% of editors and 2% of cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic-grossing films in 2012. Not that I’m saying a sudden 50-50 gender parity in all Hollywood studios will solve everything; I’m just pointing out how convenient it is for all the young, action-loving male directors and executives currently in control of Hollywood to push the idea that young, action-loving males are the default audience that every film franchise should be targeting. And while there’s not much we can do about audience tastes overseas, I’m pretty sure we have a few people in North America who would be interested in watching a female heroic type kick ass — at least, that’s what the line-up I saw outside The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seems to suggest. And someone out there watched the adventures of Buffy, Xena and Captain Janeway in the ’90s; you’re trying to tell me those women didn’t grow up and have daughters of their own they might want to take out to a movie starring a strong woman?
3. “We’ve already tried female superhero movies and they bombed big time. So why bother?”
Over at Box Office Mojo, where you can pull up a list of movies based on comic books, it’s not looking good for the ladies. If you exclude ensemble movies based on superhero teams (Avengers, X-Men), the highest-grossing superhero movie starring a woman is (no joke) Catwoman, a critically reviled film that pulled in just over $40 million on a $100 million budget. There’s a long, sad list of movies and TV shows starring female superheroes that didn’t set the world on fire, which suggests to some people there’s just no market for that kind of movie, so there’s no point in throwing good money after bad with yet another attempt to corner a market that doesn’t exist.
But we know this is hogwash because… Saying there’s no market for a Wonder Woman movie based on the reviews for a movie like Catwoman is like someone saying in 1986 that a Batman movie will never work because that Howard the Duck movie proved there’s no market for comic-based movies. You simply can’t compare a movie with a character with very limited exposure outside the comic pages to a project starring one of the most recognized heroes on the planet (see “iconic” above). And those other projects starring female heroes — Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman, Tank Girl, Barb Wire — didn’t bomb because they starred female heroes; they bombed because, for one reason or another, they were bad movies. Slight difference.
4. “Her origin story isn’t simple to tell, like Spider-Man’s or Batman’s.”
The best heroes tend to be the ones with simple origin stories. Infant rocketed from a dying planet lands in small-town America and fights for truth and justice. Young boy vows revenge on the criminals who killed his parents. Young lad learns the awesome burden of responsibility that comes with having great powers. By comparison, Wonder Woman’s origins are a little more… um, complicated. She’s a princess… from a race of immortal women… who were created by the gods to teach the rest of the world how to live in peace… but they live on a secret island that’s hidden from the human race… and then one day she decides to come to “Man’s World” and preach peace and love while beating up super-villains. Oh, and she was born when her mother made a baby out of clay and asked the gods to give it life. Sure. Uh huh. Try putting all that in an opening-credits montage.
But we know this is hogwash because… There’s no getting around the fact Wonder Woman’s origins are a little on the far-fetched side, but I always find it amusing that “raised on a mythical island full of warrior women” is just too crazy out there for some people while “born on a distant planet and rocketed to Earth as a baby” is a perfectly fine way to start a story. For sure, some elements of her backstory need to be ditched for the sake of time or plot, but think of all the classic tropes that Wonder Woman and Superman share: outsiders with fantastic gifts, forever caught between two worlds, symbols of justice and hope, blessed with the power to force change on others and the wisdom to know change isn’t something that can be forced. Plus: who says Wonder Woman’s movie has to start at the beginning? A good screenplay is one that tells a good story; it’s up to the writer to decide how much of Wonder Woman’s wonder years is an essential part of that story. Personally, I think there’s potential in a story where Wonder Woman shows up out of the blue and no one is really sure if all the “gods and Amazons” stuff she tells them is true, but she clearly has super-powers that came from somewhere, so…
5. “Because her creator was a bit of a strange duck, and you can’t get away from all the kinky stuff he put into the character.”
Anyone familiar with Wonder Woman’s history knows that her creator, William Moulton Marston, was not your typical Golden Age comic writer. Already well into his 40s when he came up with Wonder Woman, the psychologist and feminist theorist was a big proponent of submission to female authority as a way of making the world a better place, and he was not shy about bringing his theories into the stories he wrote, introducing enough bondage scenes to make an S&M enthusiast blush. Oh, and he was involved in a polyamorous domestic relationship with two women, so what’s that all about, huh? Clearly, any movie starring Wonder Woman is just going to reflect his weirdo outlook on life.
But we know this is hogwash because… It’s funny how, in discussing the suitability of comic-book characters for the big screen, no one ever brings up, say, Superman creator Joe Shuster’s side profession as a fetish artist, or Batman creator Bob Kane’s shameless swiping of other artists’ work, or the questionable acts of other early comic creators who were outright frauds and con artists. So let’s all agree Moulton was a bit off his nut, acknowledge the many writers and artists who have worked on Wonder Woman over the decades, and move on. As for the bondage stuff: yes, pointing out the bondage imagery in early Wonder Woman comics is a bit like pointing out the Christ imagery in The Passion of the Christ. But the operative word here is “early.” She’s been around continuously since 1942. She’s been a warrior, a military servicewoman, an ambassador, a clothing shop owner, a secret agent, a foundation figurehead, an actual no-fooling goddess… we’ve got a lot of material to work with here without having to go back to her original and admittedly goofy stories. And as for the people who giggle at the sight of magic lassos — there’s not much you can do about that except own it and make sure the lassoing doesn’t devolve into self-referential camp like Schumacher’s Bat-nipple-palooza.
6. “That costume? It would never work in real life.”
This one goes something like this: “She’s a princess from a land of immortal Greek women, and she prances around in star-spangled shorts, red-and-white-striped high heels and a bustier with an eagle spread across the chest. That’s just a little too silly to transfer to a live-action movie, and God help the poor woman who’s tapped to wear that kind of outfit.”
But we know this is hogwash because… I dunno, I always thought Lynda Carter pulled it off nicely. Very nicely, even. And how exactly is Wonder Woman’s outfit a deal-breaker here? When they put the X-Men in a movie, nobody raised a fuss about how Wolverine wasn’t wearing yellow Spandex or boots with pointy caps. Sure, comic fans can get a little wound up over some costumer’s choices (see also: the kerfuffle over Kal-El’s suit in last summer’s Man of Steel and actual discussions over whether Cavill could play the “real” Superman without the red shorts), I think most people watching superhero movies aren’t really that invested in how closely the character’s costume adheres to what it’s “supposed” to look like. As for Wonder Woman’s outfit: nobody says the stars and stripes have to stay (although I thought the explanation write/artist George Perez put forward in his 1980s reboot of the character was an ingenious way of explaining the American iconography in Wonder Woman’s outfit), and there have been plenty of variations on her outfit over the years for us to choose from. Just don’t choose the one from that David E. Kelley-produced TV pilot that never aired; that was simply ridiculous.
7. “She doesn’t have any iconic villains in her books, like a Lex Luthor or a Joker. It’s hard to write a good movie without a good villain.”
You can write a long list — as some people already have (cough cough) — of the many lame and forgettable villains that Wonder Woman has had to deal with over the years. Monsters, misogynists, Nazis, Nazi misogynist monsters — she’s faced them all, with only half of them falling in love with her. But what she hasn’t come up against is an arch-nemesis who can claim the same name recognition as a Joker or a Lex Luthor or a Doctor Doom — and since superhero movies sink or swim on the strength of their villains, it’s tough to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground because one of the first things audiences are going to ask is who’s the villain — and “the forces of oppression in Man’s World that keep all women from achieving their full potential” is going to be a little hard to capture on a Burger King cup.
But we know this is hogwash because… well, let’s be honest: yes, Wonder Woman got shafted on the memorable super-villain front. But it would take a serious comic fan to name more than one super-nemesis for someone like Ghost Rider or the Punisher, and that didn’t stop them from getting a shot at stardom (plus, the bad guy in the first Iron Man film was an evil industrialist that only fans of Iron Man comics from the ’80s had ever heard of). Instead of focusing on what Wonder Woman doesn’t have, let’s look at what she does have — or rather what she represents:
- She’s a warrior with close links to the Greek myths, and I’m led to believe there are a few gods and monsters that could fit the bill quite nicely (Ares, Circe, Zeus, The First Born from the current Wonder Woman comic).
- She’s a woman in “Man’s World” preaching peace and equality — two things that would be bad for business for a lot of people who like the non-equality status quo just fine, thank you (think of a Lex Luthor/Veronica Cale tycoon type, or a man who has serious issues with women, like an updated Doctor Psycho).
- She’s a hero who was literally born to greatness, both as a princess and as someone receiving the blessings of the gods, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with someone who lets their envy motivate them to take aim at her (Cheetah would work nicely here, as a vain woman who mutilates her body because she couldn’t stand the idea of a Wonder Woman reminding her of a model of perfection she could never attain on her own).
I’m saying the villain question, like the costume thing, isn’t a deal-breaker here. All we need is someone with the resources to post a serious threat to Wonder Woman, and someone with a credible reason for going up against her.
8. “The Wonder Woman show from the 1970s is just too engrained in peoples’ minds; they’re not going to accept another take on the character.”
Some of us are old enough to remember back when Tim Burton’s first Batman film was in production, and how everyone had an opinion on everything about it: “Beetlejuice as the Dark Knight? Are those guys insane?” One big opinion that a few media pundits put forth: it doesn’t matter how “dark and gritty” some comics like The Dark Knight Returns get, what most people think of when they hear the word “Batman” is the BAM! OOOF! KAPOW! of the 1960s TV show. To them, live-action superhero films were irretrievably linked to the intentional campiness of shows like Batman, and the makers behind a Wonder Woman film are going to either disappoint the TV show fans by going dark and gritty, or disappoint everyone else by going too campy with the ironic nods to the TV show.
But we know this is hogwash because… Personally, I think this is the weakest argument for why a Wonder Woman movie won’t work. It’s 2013, we’ve seen a trilogy of Batman films succeed very well despite the campiness of the Batman TV show (and the Schumacher films), and no one grumped about how Man of Steel wasn’t true to the playful spirit of that 1950s Superman show starring George Reeves (if anything, it needed more of that, but that’s a rant for another day). Besides, ironic nods to the past are pretty much what audiences demand these days, like the scene in Ang Lee’s Hulk where Stan Lee and Lou Ferigno walk by Eric Bana dressed as security guards. So why not please the fans of the TV show by giving Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner some fun cameos in a Wonder Woman film?
9. “There are just way too many fans who will expect nothing less than the perfect movie starring Wonder Woman, and God help any director or screenwriter who doesn’t get it right. No wonder Hollywood is so nervous; they know the fans and the feminists will riot if the character isn’t handled right. And who needs that kind of headache?”
This is kind of the counterpoint to the “she’s not iconic enough” argument at the top, basically saying that she’s too iconic for anyone who thinks they can get away with doing a half-assed job of getting her up on the screen. Joss Whedon alluded to this back in 2006 when he was trying to complete a Wonder Woman screenplay for Warner Bros.:
“Batman has it made — he’s got the greatest rogues gallery ever, he’s got Gotham City. The Bat writes himself. With Wonder Woman, you’re writing from whole cloth, but trying to make it feel like you didn’t. To make it feel like it’s existed for 60 years, even though you’re making it up as you go along. But who she, and what the movie, is about, thematically, has never been a problem for me. But the steps along the way, it could be so easy for them to feel wrong. I won’t settle. She wouldn’t let me settle.”
He eventually left the project citing script differences with the studio, and stories like that suggest the immense pressure that would be on anyone who tries to put her story up on the screen. With those kinds of expectations, self-imposed or otherwise, who wouldn’t be a little daunted by the job of bringing Wonder Woman to life?
But we know this is hogwash because… Actually, I can sort of buy this one; Wonder Woman is a character that’s more than just a comic-book superhero in many peoples’ eyes, and the task of making her relevant in today’s movie marketplace — while also staying true to the idealized image many people have of her — would be a lot of pressure for anyone to handle. (It’s a shame Whedon’s vision never came to light; the man has a solid track record for creating smart, strong, and self-reliant female characters, and if anyone among Hollywood’s current ranks could have pulled off the perfect script for our Amazon, it’s him.)
That said, I have to agree with Melissa Silverstein, a Forbes contributor who recently wrote about the reasons why it’s so hard to get Wonder Woman into a movie:
“Why is there is this ominous sense that you can’t mess up Wonder Woman? Maybe it has to do with the studios lack of trust in movies that star women and their bizarre fixation that men won’t go see them.”
Bingo. Let’s say Warner Bros. greenlights this project. How do we approach it so that we don’t allow ourselves to be weighed down by heightened expectations? I say this is where the marketing people come into play; get someone with a proven track record like Whedon to work on a script, and get someone in the director’s chair who can quell any complaints about a Wonder Woman movie getting turned into another mindless action flick-slash-peepshow. A female director isn’t mandatory, but it wouldn’t hurt; someone like Kathryn Bigelow, who’s proven she knows how to film a fight scene, would come in handy here.
Next, start at the grassroots. Instead of working against the “feminist icon” thing, own it by working with groups that mentor girls (like Girls Inc. or charities that focus on getting more girls interesting in filmmaking) to promote the film. Connect with comic shops and organize “Wonder Women” days to promote the film and highlight the many superheroines waiting for young readers. Use social media to your advantage, leaking photos from the set to stoke interest and gauge audience response.
Or you could just find whoever produced this fan-made trailer and get them to do the whole thing. Because… damn. If something this good can be made on the presumably small budget these guys had, imagine what they could do with a modest $100 million: