A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I managed to get out sans baby and see XMen: First Class. In brief, I thought that it was two movies, one very good, one mediocre, attempting to co-exist. Michael Fassbender was absolutely incredible as Magneto, and James McAvoy was also brilliant (if a lot more subtle) as Xavier, and their chemistry together was fantastic. Kevin Bacon was very good, but somewhat underutilized. The story and effects were good, and not too overdone, in my opinion. All of the other actors, though? Kind of lousy. I get that we had to have “the kids” subplot, and there were parts of it that I enjoyed, but overall I was unimpressed; particularly with the female leads. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence was so-so, but the other three women featured (Rose Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, and especially January Jones) were, let’s face it, pretty lousy. And that’s all I have to say about that.
About a week or so ago, my husband sort of randomly asked the following question: “So, they’re making all these superhero movies, right? But where is The Flash?” My response? “Forget The Flash; where the !@*#& is Wonder Woman??”
Seriously, Hollywood, what gives? Where are the good female superheroes in movies? The starring vehicles for a comic book heroine have been really, really bad (see: Supergirl, Catwoman, Elektra), and there are notably few of them, particularly when you consider the recent spate of comic book movies. And frankly, the heroines featured in ensemble movies have not fared a whole lot better. The earlier X-Men movies were decent, but clearly focused on the male characters (mainly Wolverine). Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen, got a chance to shine in the third installment, but the movie overall was not as well-received as its predecessors. The Fantastic Four movies were bad all around, but that still doesn’t mean we should give Jessica Alba a pass. Honestly, the only really good female comic book movie character of note from the last 20 years or so (that’s a long time) that springs to mind is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. She was campy, sure, but she still held her own. I had some hope for Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but she ended up being relegated largely to standing around looking “sexy” and gazing dreamily at Robert Downey, Jr. (and who can blame her?), with only one scene showing off her abilities. As a result, I don’t have a lot of optimism with regard to her doing much in The Avengers when it comes out next year.
It seems to me that there are two major problems with female superheroes in movies these days. The first is that they are not casting good people. Sure, Halle Berry’s an Oscar winner. But do I need to remind you of how she famously showed up to collect her Razzie for Catwoman? Let’s go back to X:Men first class for a minute. Now, Jennifer Lawrence was cast prior to her Oscar nomination, so I can’t exactly blame stunt-casting, here. But let’s talk about January Jones. Mad Men is a very popular show, currently, and when their original choice (supposedly Alice Eve) didn’t pan out, I bet somebody said “Hey, you know who’s big right now? Betty Draper. And she’s a blonde!” My point is this: instead of going for solid actors, when it comes to the female characters, it seems as though casting agents are going mainly for looks. As a result, the characters are not represented fairly. I don’t have a good answer for why they are not casting actresses comparable to Fassbender or Downey in these movies. Maybe they do ask, and get turned down. I wonder, honestly, if they don’t consider most of the major actresses to be “too old,” which I find to be unfair. Kate Winslet is sort of the youngest of the “serious actresses” at 35, and she would have freaking rocked Emma Frost. But we all know that there’s an age disparity in Hollywood between men and women, so maybe that’s the issue. There are some strong younger actresses out there, like Cary Mulligan or Dakota Fanning. I can’t see either of them as Wonder Woman, necessarily, but you still see my point, I hope. Let’s raise our expectations a little. I know what you’re going to say: “But look at women in comic books! They’re all boobs and skimpy outfits!” While that is true, I would argue that they are also often extremely powerful and are sometimes even the equals of their male counterparts. They don’t just stand around whining about how people don’t think they’re pretty, or looking bored … they’re out there fighting; doing awesome things with their cool powers! Just like the boys.
But that is apparently not what audiences want to see, and that is the second big problem. Based on the movies we’re being given to watch, what we want to see is the men doing all the heavy lifting, and the women standing around looking hot, whether or not they are capable of wreaking their own havoc. Ms. Jones as Emma Frost is a prime example of this in that her character is tremendously powerful, but we only get the slightest sense of that. It’s more about her standing around in lingerie, and honestly, she’s not even that sexy doing that. And for those of you who want to tell me I can’t have it both ways, I will again point to XMen: First Class. Fassbender and McAvoy are very good actors who also happen to be quite easy on the eyes, and between them, they elevated an otherwise mediocre movie to greater heights. And do you really want to have this argument with me when all I have to say is “Iron Man”? I didn’t think so. I think that, for the most part, the women (superhero or not) featured in comic book movies are not the equal of their male counterparts. In the case of the male superheroes and their damsels in distress, that’s ok, I guess (Pepper Potts still rules), but when a chick can fly by herself, why should she be worried about whether or not Wolverine noticed her new outfit? That’s ridiculous.
And so, where is Wonder Woman? There’s been talk of a feature film forever, but nothing concrete has ever come close to panning out. Additionally, every starlet of the day has been “cast” in the lead role, again with what seems to me very little concern for whether or not she might be capable of doing a good job. (Side note: here’s my casting of Wonder Woman. It is brilliant, and perfect, and nobody will ever convince me otherwise. You ready? Here goes. SANDRA BULLOCK. I know. Perfect. Anyway.) This is probably taking the importance of entertainment way too far, but it seems to me that we have done some back-sliding in terms of our attitudes toward women these days. Back in the seventies, when “women’s lib” was still a catchphrase, there was the successful Wonder Woman television show, starring Lynda Carter. I have only vague memories of seeing it, but I recall her being strong and central and doing plenty of superhero-y type stuff. There was supposedly going to be a new Wonder Woman television show premiering this fall, but the only buzz it really generated was about how ridiculous her costume looked, and it got canceled before it even aired.
I’m not saying that we’re just totally doomed when it comes to the equality of women as superheroes. The interesting thing is that the comic books are still there, and still have women kicking butt (as far as I know). Similarly, in the realm of animated film, Wonder Woman has always been rather successful. I’d also point to The Incredibles as a positive example of female superhero-dom. Not animated, but made for kids, too, the movie Sky High (2005) gives a lot more weight to the female characters. That movie’s adorable, by the way, if you haven’t seen it. Outside of the superhero genre, maybe children’s movies in general are a bit more liberated than entertainment for adults these days. Look at How to Train Your Dragon, where Astrid, though still something of a love interest, is actually the best warrior of the young trainees. And to give Pixar another nod, they’ve got that movie Brave coming up, in which the main character is a Scottish princess (with a blatantly Spanish name, but let’s not get into that).
I don’t have any solutions to this problem. For the most part, the comic book movie of today is wildly successful. Sometimes they are solid entertainment with good acting, script-writing, and so forth, and sometimes they’re just big and shiny. Either way, I don’t think that women are being represented fairly in them, particularly where the female “superhero” is concerned. Will we eventually see a “good” Wonder Woman movie? Hard to say. Sadly, to get back to the point of age issues, the excellent choices like Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Connelly (I really should be a casting agent) aren’t getting any younger, and we’ll likely end up with Kristen Stewart (whom I have not seen in anything, and therefore can’t really speak about). But even if the lead can’t be Meryl Streep, I’d still like to see the idea taken seriously. So listen up, Hollywood. Women kick ass too. Let’s work on that, shall we?