The news that Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman broke under the predictable scrutiny of the comic community this week, with geeks quickly scurrying to tag, list, and authorize the lovely dark-eyed Israeli actress's various body parts as acceptable as the avatar of the Amazonian princess. Overwhelming a great deal of criticism was focused on her frame, slender and runway model ready, with the word 'petite' becoming the consensus adjective for why she was questionably right for the part. But amongst the clamor, the accusations of anti-women casting, and quick IMDBing of Gadot's filmography, my reaction was a bit more simple. My first thought was 'oh no, there's going to be a Wonder Woman in Man of Steel 2'.
It's a dreadful choice that may have far-reaching consequences in the future of comic media. I'd hoped that Snyder and Nolan would be comfortable with dragging the Dark Knight into their cold mirthless muck, leaving Wonder Woman as a post credits tease for the inevitable Justice League film that is building up (wait, is it even still 'Man of Steel 2'?). It would leave Wonder Woman's film debut until after the (somewhat unlikely) female Captain Marvel movie that Disney has been kicking around. However, it looks like DC, out of sheer desperation from their embarrassing cinematic choices thus far, decided to beat Marvel to the first significant female superhero of the modern movie age, and that is a very bad thing.
Let's start with some geek bubble bursting; it doesn't matter who they cast as Wonder Woman physically. That said I understand the hesitation when considering Ms. Gadot, as I've always been in the Frank Cho/Adam Hughes camp of depicting Wonder Woman as athletic and firmly built, more Lolo Jones than Megan Fox. However, this year saw a spectacular performance from Ellen Page in the game 'Beyond: Two Souls' that saw the 5' 1” actress believably become an itty-bitty combat machine, a genuine and complex performance that came packaged with the capability to deliver crushing ass-whoopings. I am unfamiliar with Gadot's career; maybe she's a dreadfully mundane actress, but I'm assuming most of my fellow nerds are as ignorant of her credentials as I am and judging her ability to play Diana based on whether the length of her toes is Amazonian enough for them. No, the one name that stands between me and this choice is Zack Snyder.
It's important to reinforce why the decision to depict Wonder Woman in film is important. This year at Charlotte Heroes Convention I helped staff the Pross Comics booth, where along with selling the studio's books we sold prints based on Marvel and DC characters drawn by the Pross team. Heroes Con is a family friendly show, so we had a lot of kids coming by, wide-eyed at the brightly colored offerings of Iron Man, Thor, and the Ninja Turtles. We also had little girls, and it became obvious very quickly the pattern of the prints they were interested in. Black Widow, Zatanna, characters that had recently been featured in movies or cartoon TV shows. That little girls would be interested in Natasha Romanov, rather nondescript with her generic black jumpsuit and firearms in place of superpowers, shows their primary method of absorbing comic culture is films and TV rather than comics, and that with the major deficit of women to pick from, anyone that shows up on the big screen will do. The trip was deeply educational and more than a little disheartening.
Now picture that the man responsible for the first major addition to that canon of heroes for these young girls is Zack Snyder.
Zack Snyder is arguably worse in his portrayal of female characters than Micheal 'let's-say-bitch-in-a-kid's-film' Bay, though arguably out of flat ignorance rather than Bay's adolescent misogyny. '300' was the first film he had a hand in writing as well as directing, featuring the proud queen of the Spartans making a deal with a sleazy corrupt politician by allowing him to anally rape her, which he sadistically promised she would 'not enjoy'. Adding tasteful insult to injury, the politician reigns on his promise, meaning the anal rape trade didn't even contribute to the story, only an amateurish attempt to solidify the moustache twirling villainy of the character. Furthermore, it wasn't in the original comic, during the scripting process they had to go out of their way to make the queen's storyline happen, an unnecessary addition that undermined any virtues of the expanded female role by pointlessly debasing her. Forget that '300' was the Axe Body Spray commercial of comic book movies, the queen's arc was the foremost element that left me annoyed at its widespread acclaim amongst geeks.
Snyder had no hand in writing 'Watchmen', though it also notably featured a significant plot point involving rape or an attempted rape. However, he did write the spectacular failure 'Sucker Punch', which beyond being generally abysmal also featured a hilariously inept attempt at writing a pro-women superhero movie while actually creating the opposite. If you're lucky enough to have not seen it, basically an innocent girl is committed to a criminal insane asylum for woman, where pervy wealthy men treat it as some kind of brothel/strip club, though it's never explicitly explained. To escape the asylum the lead character Baby Doll (yup) goes into a sort of hallucinogenic trance when she dances for the men, entering a fantasy world where she and her fellow prisoners wear 'Sexy Halloween' costumes and fight steam punk soldiers and robot samurai. Beyond the kinky fetishized action that was clearly designed with a male audience in mind, the insane asylum treats gender politics with the subtly of 'I Spit On Your Grave', where women are delicate flowers abused by leering sweaty sexual monsters and transformed to commit violence as an evolution from 'feminine helplessness'. Confusing, uneducated, and startlingly in it's contradiction, 'Sucker Punch' was so frustratingly incompetent in its approach to gender I had to eventually succumb to the wisdom of Bill Hick's wonderful review for Verhoven's 'Basic Instinct': “Don't get caught up in that fevered hype phoney fucking debate about that piece of shit movie. "Is it too sexist? And what about the movies, are they becoming too …" You're just confused, you've forgotten how to judge correctly. Take a deep breath … look at it again. "Oh, it's a piece of shit!"
I'd complain about the female characters in 'Man of Steel' as well, but that's part of a bigger problem with Hollywood's complete inability to handle women in superhero films. I personally loved 'Iron Man 3', and until it's overblown under-thought finale it actually ranked higher for me than 'The Avengers', but another significant disappointment for me was the treatment of Pepper Potts. More so than any of the previous two films we see Pepper as a potentially independent character. I actually was surprised when Pepper and Dr. Maya Hansen had a couple of conversations together, alone, motivating a part of the plot absent male characters. It was so alien feeling. Women! Advancing plot! In a superhero movie! Novel! It felt great, but of course it had to be ruined by plotlessly killing Maya and turning Pepper into a generic girlfriend hostage. Scratch that. The script actually refers to her as a trophy. In the last few minutes Pepper has her much-complained-about Extremis fight scene, where she is briefly turned into redheaded NinjaHulk, but in terms of empowerment it felt like a clichéd band-aid for a film that explicitly sold out its female characters, more condescending than genuine. Even Pepper immediately wants to get rid of her new superpowers, because heaven knows we wouldn't want to lose her damsel capability.
Ironically, one of the few people to get female characters right in superhero movies was a man denied the chance to make a Wonder Woman movie, Joss Whedon. In 'The Avengers' he gave Black Widow arguably more to do than Captain America, featuring asides about her phobia of the Hulk and the haunting 'red ledger' over her past. It wasn't a statement, Whedon just treated her as an equal member of the team and figured out how she fit into the narrative, utilizing her strengths and making her actions relevant to the plot. Shocking that this basic example of elementary screenwriting is one of the closest things I have as a shining example of writing for women in superhero film.
The landscape is starting to shift however. Disney ordered unnecessary additional scenes featuring Loki to be shot for 'Thor: The Dark World', presumably after realizing the significant enthusiastic female fanbase the character had. As I mentioned before, Captain Marvel is Marvel Studio's big idea for their first female lead film, one I sincerely hope they jump onboard. This year has been equally important to the visibility of female geeks, both as fans and creators, from attacking the Fake Geek Girl stereotype to challenges of industry leaders on the grounds of industry sexism. A new generation is being aggressively fought for on the convention and publisher floor, one that has a healthier, more inclusive relationship with the women that are both their fans and clientele.
And now the most iconic female superhero in our history is getting her first ever cinematic appearance at the hands of Zack Snyder.
Who knows, maybe he'll mess up and make a good movie by accident. Or maybe Christopher Nolan will exert his quiet British influence; I mean he was perceptive enough to realize that Anne Hathaway would make a pretty good Catwoman. But despite it being nearly 2014 we still have to cross our fingers and toes to get chances at big steps for female characters in mainstream geek fiction. Depictions of comic characters in film matter, not because it validates geek adults and our hours spent updating Wikipedia on the history of the West Coast Avengers, but because it serves as a touchstone for up and coming adolescent geeks who the books have gotten too complex and too plainly adult for them to relate to. I want a Wonder Woman I can feel proud to see those little girls gazing at reverently at cons, not a scantily clad mechanism of sexual strife for the newly minted Supercouple. The appropriateness of the new Wonder Woman has nothing to do with her waistline and everything to do with the person entrusted to create a potential model for movie super-heroines for the next ten years.
We aren't ready for Wonder Woman. Not like this. We apparently don't have the respect, a clear picture of our responsibility, or the pedigree of creators to tackle the simple task of bringing her to the big screen unmangled. This isn't an excuse to dismiss female characters to the TBD future, rather it should serve as incentive to us, the geeks who feel passionate and responsible for the quality of our culture to find some way to turn this into an ultimatum.
This needs to change. Now.