Reel Women: Why is Making a Wonder Woman Movie So Difficult?
Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, even the Guardians of the Galaxy — all of these superheroes have gotten their own films, but where is Wonder Woman? A character arguably just as iconic as her male peers, Wonder Woman has seemingly been left in the dust. How is it that we live in a world where a superhero movie with an animated, talking, gun-firing raccoon is more believable and relatable than a female superhero? What is wrong with everyone?
It’s time for a Wonder Woman movie — not just because it’s overdue and superhero movies are, like almost anything else, a man’s world, but because Wonder Woman is socially relevant. She always has been. Created in 1942 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was based on Marston’s wife and a woman who lived with the two of them in a polyamorous relationship … in 1942. Talk about progressive. Marston, creator of the systolic blood pressure-measurement apparatus that became crucial in the development of the polygraph test, created Wonder Woman to reflect the unconventional and liberated women of the time. Based partially on the idea that research showed that women were more honest and reliable than men, Wonder Woman was equipped with the Lasso of Truth, which she could rope around her enemies to make them tell the truth.
But it’s not just about gimmicks — Wonder Woman (aka Princess Diana of Themyscira, a land full of fellow Amazon women) is just as powerful and strong as her male counterparts, and while various iterations have bestowed upon her innumerable powers, her Greek-inspired origins saw the young Diana blessed with the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the strength of Hercules, and the speed of Hermes. Like Batman, Superman, and the rest of the superhero stable, Wonder Woman doesn’t kill unless she has absolutely no other option (one time she slit a bad guy’s throat to save Batman and Superman; they turned their backs on her for it) — she is noble, honest, and fights for justice and peace, but unlike her male peers, she also fights for sexual equality.
One story arc in the late 60s almost saw Wonder Woman battling over an abortion clinic (she is pro-choice, of course), but when feminist icon Gloria Steinem caught wind of the recent changes to Wonder Woman’s costume (she had ditched the skirt and started wearing jumpsuits), she led an outcry that put an end to that run of issues — if only she had known the content. And if that’s not feminist and progressive enough for you, consider that our human world is known to Wonder Woman and her people as “Man’s World” or “Patriarch’s World,’ and she’s tasked with fighting our evils and enacting justice. In a world dominated by men, a woman comes to save all of us. She’s kind of amazing.
So, why doesn’t Wonder Woman have her own movie? Perhaps audiences aren’t ready for a female superhero to get her very own film — Black Widow only gets to make appearances in films with other Avengers, Catwoman only gets to show up with Batman, and Pepper Potts, who is at the very least an honorary superhero at this point, still only exists because of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Wonder Woman is from the DC Universe, of course, and only with Chris Nolan’s Batman films and Zack Snyder’s recent ‘Man of Steel’ have DC movies finally earned some respect. And while Marvel certainly has the higher ratio of quality vs. quantity (and somehow manages to put out a couple of films a year), even they haven’t attempted a female-centric superhero film yet.
Audiences have proved in recent years that, when given a good script, great cast, and competent direction, they’ll turn out for female-driven comedies (‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Bad Teacher,’ and this year’s ‘The Heat’), but female-driven dramas remain a hard sell. It’s also likely not helpful that the only female-centric superhero films we’ve seen are ‘Elektra’ and ‘Catwoman’ — both of which were huge flops, critically and financially. And while women are going to the movies just as much (and sometimes more) than men, the box office returns don’t lie: The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that, in 2002, films with female protagonists “or prominent females in an ensemble cast” were given significantly lower budgets than films with male protagonists; the average box office gross for films featuring a female protagonist or women in ensemble roles was little more than half that of films led by men ($54.5 million vs. $101 million).
This great piece over at USA Today about the absence of female superhero films points out that studios are still too scared to gamble on female protagonists — they think women aren’t going to movies and no one wants to see their stories in movies, never mind that women are responsible for the success of young adult franchise films like the ‘The Hunger Games,’ starring Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. The year before that film hit, in 2011, women only accounted for 33% of characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films, and of that 33%, only 11% of those female characters were protagonists — meaning either their characters were antagonists, or that they were supporting accessories for the leading men.
We can’t know if women will be successful at the box office if studios aren’t willing to take a risk on them by giving them strong roles and stories, and what’s stronger than a superhero like Wonder Woman? The issue seems to be that no one wants to take a financial gamble and spend Batman or Superman money (e.g. $100 million or more) on a woman when it’s uncertain if they’ll bank at the box office, much less break even. And yet $190 million was spent on ‘Pacific Rim,’ which only earned $99 million domestically for Warner Bros., home of Batman and Superman. $200 million was spent on Warner Bros.’ ‘Green Lantern,’ which flopped with $116.6 million.
Wonder Woman’s purpose — to fight for justice, peace, and equality– is just as relevant now as it was the day she was created. It’s almost too much to think that Wonder Woman spends her time fighting for these concepts and ideals in a place known to her people as “Man’s World,” and it’s that very patriarchal system that is keeping her from starring in her own film.