CBS's Supergirl is a great addition to primetime, but it is clearly a test pilot project. Given the lackluster attitude of the studios towards female super-projects, Supergirl is an opening salvo towards Warner Bros.' slated 2017 feature, Wonder Woman as they try to figure out how to package a female lead. The show is a proverbial toe in the water to determine how well a female lead in capes and boots - again, like Wonder Woman - will do before the studios get behind larger projects.
Warner Bros. is inevitably trying to work out any problems with the blonde heroine, to run interference, and observe how other female-driven stories will play out before they put a larger project in theaters. Later this month, Jessica Jones will premiere on Netflix. Which one will audiences respond to more? The buoyant teenager in her cousin's super shadow or the gritty, sexualized noir of Jones?
Female superheroes have historically been a tightrope walk. Most of the criticism directed at last summer's blockbuster Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, for example, rested on the fact that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow was not given a stronger presence in the film. Once again, the only woman on the team practically vanished in an overwhelming display of heroic manhood. That's the best women in superhero films can hope for these days - being the victim that men rescue or serving as window dressing to their displays of maleness. This is not a new frustration. Other properties based on source materials with strong heroines like X-men or the Fantastic Four experienced similar problems in how to handle women. "Action movies are for guys" is the prevailing thought. Women serve as vehicles for the men they idolize (or eventually satisfy with sex). It's a standard trope than many fans - male and female - are tired of seeing play out.
I genuinely feel that Wonder Woman is the film the zeitgeist is waiting for. She is the queen of comicbook heroines - the first, greatest, and most enduring of them all. While Lynda Carter's 1975 depiction of the character on television was just a few years before my time, I can remember my cousins watching reruns and shooing me out of the living room, insisting "This is our show." My mom swears to this day that she is not a feminist, but certainly raised me to be one. She told me the reason my cousins acted that way was because "girls don't really have a superhero to look up to."
Wonder Woman was a staple in my toy lineup - Superman and Batman, in my imaginary world, could not solve a crime unless Wonder Woman helped them. Their work was incomplete without her. She was the first choice among playthings and went everywhere with me. That is the legacy that anyone stepping into her Amazonian boots will have to deal with - generations of dreamers who believed in friendship, family loyalty, fighting fair, standing up for truth and justice, and looking damn good while they do it.
Of course, there have been female superhero projects before. Warner Bros.' 1984 project, Supergirl, earned a modest $14 million. 1995's Tank Girl earned $4 million. In 2002, the awful Catwoman made $82 million and the following year Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner, made $56 million. To be fair, these are not great numbers. Together, these four films earned only half of the first Superman movie's $300 million - and that was in 1978 at the height of the Carter recession.
From Hollywood's perspective, women are supporting characters. You could argue that the dark V For Vendetta (2006), based on the work of an Alan Moore, was a female-lead hero film. It earned $132.5 million. But in perspective, of the 127 superhero films made since Supergirl (1984), only five were female-lead projects. That's 4% of all superhero projects since 1984 and that shamefully dismal percentage drops precipitously once we start adding up all of the hero films before 1984. It's hard to make an argument for the success of women in hero films when they're not really given anything close to adequate representation. The "women are supporting characters" argument is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.
What remains clear is that at no point - given the success of the 1975 television show, given the success of Wonder Woman on animated projects like Super-Friends or The Justice League, given the high degree of cultural awareness of Wonder Woman, given the strong wave of popularity for her character the current redesign of the DC Universe in The New 52, DC Comics and Warner Bros. are still focus-grouping female heroes. This is 2015, for god's sake. Is Supergirl the best Hollywood can do?
Granted, I'm really looking forward to seeing Jessica Jones later this month. But I'm apprehensive. Superhero projects involving women continue to be terrible and that is hardly surprising when studios won't get behind them. Put another way, we've had four Transformers movies. Think about that. Four of them. And we still don't have a Wonder Woman. Studios continue to demur and get it wrong, despite fans demanding better representation of their favorite female characters. It's not like there is an absence of suggestions from fans who want to see it done right. Meanwhile, a blockbuster like The Avengers is capped by undisguised chauvinism, locker-room jokery, and slut-shaming. At every turn, the cultural gatekeepers of Hollywood are either dismissive, disrespectful, or show how little they understand women.
Wonder Woman is the biggest and best chance to finally get it right, to usher in a new era of film and show the world that yes, women can be heroes too. A woman can punch and kick, wield a sword, even fly as well as any man. Wonder Woman is a chance for a new generation of daughters, nieces, sisters or cousins (and yes, the inner child of 33yo male writers) to say "this is our show" - to feel like the ideals of equality, honesty, strength, and beauty are achievable.