COMMENTARY

Superhero movies have gender gap

At some point, Wonder Woman will get her due

5/6/2013
BY RICH HELDENFELS
AKRON BEACON JOURNAL
Jennifer Garner starred as Elektra, a warrior who stands in the center of the ultimate battle between good and evil in 'Elektra.'
Jennifer Garner starred as Elektra, a warrior who stands in the center of the ultimate battle between good and evil in 'Elektra.'

Maybe it’s the hair.

Not too long ago, I was watching Elektra, the 2005 big-screen superhero adventure starring Jennifer Garner as the title character. During scenes where I was supposed to be admiring her villain-kicking skills, I was instead marveling over the makeup — and the lush mass of hair framing her face even after strenuous activity. It was a shampoo commercial waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, it was also an absurd moment in a ridiculous movie. But it did provide a peek into reasons there hasn’t been a big, successful, live-action superhero movie with the woman as the lead.

To be sure, superhero movies can also be found wanting on ethnic grounds. But the gender gap is even more glaring because the attempts to make female-superhero movies have been rare and mostly awful, even as male-centric movies have become more ambitious and character-driven.

It is a question that has dogged superhero movies for decades without real change — and it’s good time to bring it up again.

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, and superhero movies spring from comic books. This summer, your local cineplex will have not only the just-opened Iron Man 3 but new looks at Superman and Wolverine. Also, while this year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman, one comics blogger noted that also makes it the 75th anniversary of Lois Lane.

So if, for example, Wolverine can be spun out of X-Men not once but twice (with the second Hugh Jackman movie due in late July), why hasn’t there been a feature starring one of X-Men’s women?

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was more than a little impressive in Iron Man 2, returned for The Avengers super-gang and is part of the upcoming Captain America sequel. But while Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all had their own movies before Avengers, where’s the Black Widow stand-alone feature?

Wonder Woman has been talked about for movie treatment for years, but it may be more years before it actually happens. David Goyer, the screenwriter whose credits include the new Man of Steel and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, said in one of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything interviews that “Wonder Woman is a very difficult character to crack.

“More difficult than Superman, who is also more difficult than Batman. Also, a lot of people in Hollywood believe that it’s hard to do a big action movie with a female lead. I happen to disagree with that. But that tends to be the prevailing wisdom.”

And should we be optimistic if those movies actually get made? On those infrequent occasions when women superheroes have taken center stage, the result is as disappointing as Elektra or the even worse Supergirl (1984).

The latter movie, attempting to match the success of the Christopher Reeve super-flicks, was reviled in its day and looks even worse on re-examination; there’s an early scene where I was riveted by how atrocious a background extra was while just trying to walk through a scene.

Then there’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), whose title alone should tell that it’s not taking superhero-ness seriously.

TV has not been much better. Its Wonder Woman is a live-action cartoon, but not in a good way. The Bionic Woman? Coolly acted by Lindsay Wagner but, as was often pointed out, somehow less strong than The Six Million Dollar Man even though both had bionics.

There have been more effective superhero women in prime-time shows like Birds of Prey and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Birds lasted a single season, and Buffy’s powerful-women message takes place in a world that critic Christina Rowley once said is “dominated by patriarchal values.” Another critic, Mary Magoulick, said Buffy and her TV contemporaries Xena and La Femme Nikita “present male fantasies and project the status quo more than they fulfill feminist hopes.”

And that begins to get at the problem facing women superheroes.

In short, they’re working in Boys’ Town.

Men still dominate the studios.

Men, especially young men, are the target audience for action movies, and superhero movies doubly ignore women because they spring from comic books, which also for the most part target men.

Which brings us to the hair. Even if male superheroes have been to varying degrees freshly sliced beefcake, they are still allowed to get mussed up some now and then. Women are expected to be beautiful, well-coiffed, and garbed in ways that accentuate what (the horndogs in the audience consider) their positives. So you get tight or revealing costumes, and carefully groomed looks — all of which make any kind of fight scene seem less credible, even silly.

You might expect a strong, central-character, female superhero to dominate men — but that might not sit well with the young men in the audience. (Similarly, angst-ridden young men want to see brooding male characters — but also non-angsty women who are drawn to those men.) Iron Man 3 pays some tribute to strong women, but the title character is still a man.