Wonder Woman, who is not only the world’s most famous female superhero but one of the best known heroic characters of any kind, is finally starring in her own theatrical motion picture for the first time. Starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman enjoyed its Hollywood premiere last week with a June 2 wide release on its way, and the early reviews are promising. If this proves to be a box office sensation, it will be a triumph for superheroines in film.
But it’s taken a long time for America to become open to female superheroes. Less than a decade after women in America got the right to vote in 1920, Dr. William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman in 1941, wrote about a growing men’s rights movement that wanted women to remain subservient. Similarly named movements would grow during the 1970s and again in the 21st century, each time waxing and waning in reaction to progress in women’s rights. This fear of powerful women was one of the main factors preventing a Wonder Woman movie from arriving years ago.
Also influencing studios’ fear of a major female superhero movie was the failure of 1984’s Supergirl, which made less than half at the box office of what it cost to make. But that was over 30 years ago. What took so long for Hollywood to take another shot?
Admittedly, no superheroes other than Superman and Batman carried blockbuster motion pictures before 2000’s X-Men, and by then even those two franchises had faded into limbo. The comic book superhero boom of the 21st century did not include any rush to shoot films with women in the title roles. Back-to-back failures of Catwoman in 2004 and Elektra in 2005, films featuring criminal antiheroes, made studio executives afraid, with some saying outright that superheroine movies would never work.
The logic of basing the potential success of female superhero movies on a few poorly conceived failures has always been flawed. Ellen Ripley of Alien, Sarah Connor of Terminator, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, and many other action heroines have proven to be both popular and profitable. Underworld and Resident Evil, both of which feature female heroes, keep yielding sequel after sequel. These characters, while not superheroes in the traditional meaning of the term, may have paved the way for movie studios to experiment with a big-budget female superhero movie again.
It’s also possible that Hollywood finally learned that experimentation is what made superheroes succeed in the first place. Michael Uslan, executive producer of every Batman movie since the 1980s, has often expressed the concern that studio executives may have learned the wrong lesson from that franchise’s success, making them think all superhero movies “must be contemporary, dark, gritty, and violent.” After years of seeing one superhero origin story after another, fans have complained about the lack of variety in superhero movie stories, and some filmmakers are listening. Some have gone as far as to put a raccoon and a talking tree in a movie about a group of comic book characters most of the public had never previously heard of, and out came the hit Guardians of the Galaxy. And now they’ve finally garnered the courage to place Wonder Woman in a title role.
How Wonder Woman affects the future of film depends on what lessons studio executives learn this time. Will they make the common mistake of copying specific elements of what they see on screen, or will they appreciate innovation, character development, and the importance of telling a good story? Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra might not have delayed Wonder Woman for so long had they not been such poor movies. Hollywood now has a chance to redeem itself by making Wonder Woman movies that are not only profitable, but enjoyable to watch.
Travis Langley is editor of Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth.