With only two days to go until Wonder Woman hits the cinemas, it is a good time to reflect on the paucity of heroine roles in cinema. Whereas on the small screen there are an ever increasing number of strong female characters, from the kick-ass to the cerebral to the Machiavellian, on the big screen female characters continue to support their male leads.
There has always been the, frankly poor, argument of female leads not being able to open films. While it may be true that there are not many women who headline films, making them must-see events, it was not always so. Before the sixties, there is a whole pantheon of female actors who headlined films, from Lillian Gish to Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda.
As films became more actions driven, less dialogue heavy, the men came ever more to the fore. Whereas before, cinema was still pretty much like television, with the dialogue being paramount, it was, perversely, the rise of television that created the need for something bigger.
To give people a reason to leave their homes and invest in seeing a story that is projected on a massive screen, there needed to be more than a film that would look just as impressive on a small screen. There needed to be a spectacle. For a short while, there was a resurgence of the musical, but as great as dancing is, musicals are an aural experience as much as a visual one. Cinema needed something else. The blockbuster was born.
The thing with those early seventies blockbusters is that they were very much old school hero films. Jaws, Towering Inferno, Airport and its sequels, these were films that centred around a man overcoming overwhelming odds or situations to save the day. With this model proving so effective, the everyman blockbuster was set to dominate. In the following decades, there were variations; muscles and martial arts in the eighties, muscles and technology in the nineties, back to muscles and martial arts in the noughties and then the era of superheroes began.
There have of course been many superhero films over the years, though, surprisingly on the big screen at least, few have captured the imagination. One would think that comics would be perfect for translating to screen, after all, they have ready-made storyboards and heroes and villains galore. Unfortunately, the lurid costumes that work so well on a two-dimensional page do not work so well when brought into the real world.
Though the camp television incarnations of Batman and Flash Gordon worked and even the earnest Hulk of Bill Bixby is fondly remembered, on the small screen. It took Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman to get costumes characters any credibility on the big screen. Still, it was not until Tim Burton’s Batman in ’89 and Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man that the genre really began to gather apace.
With the genre being such huge business, the two main comic book players, Marvel and DC, have been vying for top billing in the world of superheroes. The battle has thus far been overwhelmingly dominated and won by Marvel. The DC output, up to this point, has been underwhelming, with only elements of the films under their banner garnering positive feedback.
Up until now, DC have never looked like matching Marvel. Their films have been bloated and humourless, the best version of the Batman was unrelated to their output and they have never managed to capitalise on their superior television output. Wonder Woman could be – someone would say needs to be – the turning point in their fortunes.
Wonder Woman is not only looking like a – if early word is anything to go by – good film, it is looking perfectly timed as well. Both studios have been trying to release a film with a female lead. Both had poor efforts before with Marvel’s anti-heroine, Elektra, best forgotten by any Frank Miller’s Daredevil fan and DC’s truly risible Catwoman, a film of almost indescribable awfulness. After these outputs, both believed that the cinema-going public did not want to see a female superhero.
Both studios have been trying to release a film with a female lead. Both had poor efforts before with Marvel’s anti-heroine, Elektra, best forgotten by any Frank Miller’s Daredevil fan and DC’s truly risible Catwoman, a film of almost indescribable awfulness. After these outputs, both believed that the cinema-going public did not want to see a female superhero.
They were wrong. People, as ever, did not want to see awful films. Marvel, their cinematic universe chugging along successfully, saw no reason to disrupt it with a female lead superhero film, shelving indefinitely a Black Widow/Scarlett Johansson vehicle that had been mooted. They were already ticking a box – ethnic – with Black Panther slated for 2019. DC could not boast the same.
Their films, even though they made money, failed to excite the fans or critics. Their headliner, Batman vs. Superman, failed to bring any excitement to the ailing DC universe. The only glimmer of hope in the film was Wonder Woman.
Gal Gadot, the actor portraying Wonder Woman, was, even before she had donned the costume, having to fight a backlash. She was too skinny, she’s not an Amazon, she’s got a funny accent – the comic book loving, keyboard critics were not pleased. They were calmed a little by the cameo in B vs. S.
Now we are on the brink of the first credible female led superhero film. It not only has a female lead, it is also directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and the word on the street is the wait was worth it. I for one cannot wait to see it. Marvel, DC have stolen a march on you for once in the superhero stakes, what have you got?