The Epic Journey Away From the Super Woman

Kurt Thurber

O, gods of the box-office, why have you forsaken the female superhero lead? Superman, Batman, the Incredible Hulk and now Spiderman have been imagined and re-imagined.  This summer, second-tier comic book characters, Captain America, Thor and the Green Lantern, got their own movie with male leads. Yet, Wonder Woman and Batgirl are at home drinking tea with cotton balls between their toes watching Nights in Rodanthe for the 12th time.

Movies based on comic books, superheroes in general, have the same basic themes. Reluctant heroes, evil vanquished and the eternal struggle to find a “normal” presence in the society they vow to protect. Women have not been headliners in this genre. Sure the Y chromosome has been featured in the foreground of movie posters, Elektra and Catwoman. Both movies bombed in ticket sales (Elektra only making $24.3 million) and cleaned up in Razzie nominations (Catwoman had 7 Golden Razzie nominations). The Tomb Raider raider series, based on a video game, starring Angelina Jolie and Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld trilogy were both critical failures and modest financial successes. Neither is considered in the same pantheon with The Dark Knight or X-Men 2.


History and time are not on women’s side. It was men that formed the first “cop-buddy” movie when Gilgamesh and Enkidu put aside their differences, Tango & Cash style, and stopped the Bull of Heaven (thwarting the goddess Ishtar no less). Men went on epic journeys, while women were just stops along the way. Men later wrote comic books and created a mythos for their characters.


It’s no surprise that modern superheroes are an update of classic heroes from Western civilization. From the Greeks to the Romans, from Sir Galahad to Iron Man, heroines are slim pickings. The fairer sex has been at best arm candy worth fighting over, and at worst, temptresses who muck up the works in the canon of classical literature.


Let’s review. The Illiad, sure Hector and Achilles fight a battle for the ages. However, it is because Helen is so darn pretty and a sap for Paris’ one-liners that the whole thing starts. In the sequel, “How Odysseus got his groove back” or just The Odyssey, Odysseus sexes up with witches and goddesses of all sorts while his wife Penelope waits chastely for her husband to come home. Later, before copyright laws, Virgil created some fan fiction, The Aeneid, based on Homer’s tales, of his own about the founding of Rome. Dido, queen of Carthage, goes crazy about not being able to convince Aenius to start a wedding registry at Macy’s. 


Of course, not all women in Greek mythology lacked superpowers or were shrinking violets. Medusa possessed the power to turn mortal beings into stone and had snakes for hair. She ended up in this predicament because she lost her virginity while being raped as a virgin priestess at the temple of Athena.  She ended up as history’s saddest spinster.


Another problem with female comic book heroes, with comic books in general being the main source material for movies, is that most are knockoffs of established male characters. Supergirl, Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, and Batgirl all came after their male counterparts. Their existence is not organic and they are ancillary characters at best. They do not get the best storylines nor do they battle a dynamic gallery of rogues. Other heroic characters, such as X-men like Storm, Jean Grey or Rogue are part of an ensemble. In the movies, their characters are important.


Then there is Wonder Woman, who has had a successful comic book run over the decades, a television series and a go-to Halloween costume for women of all ages. Gloria Steinman considers her a feminist icon. She is the spandex elephant in the room.


She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, who also invented the polygraph machine, to show that women have not only the potential to be equal to men but in other ways superior. Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace.  She does not possess any weapons that are destructive, while having the requisite superhuman strength and speed. She has indestructible bracelets to deflect, namely bullets, and a lasso of truth that causes anyone caught in it to tell the truth. Wonder Woman, like Superman, is an omnipotent being. Hollywood players from writer David E. Kelly to producer Joel Silver and science fiction maven Joss Whedon have all attempted to bring Wonder Woman to television and the silver screen. These efforts have not been realized while other lesser male superheroes fly past onto celluloid. If Wonder Woman, a top comic book character of all time, cannot get a movie, then it seems no woman will.


It will take a writer/director/producer team, female or male, who can encapsulate a woman with all the heroic qualities and flaws an audience expects. Wonder Woman may need to get dirty, roughed up, show something other than noble intentions that an audience of both genders can relate to. Another super heroine, who has not been drawn or imagined, will need an original origin story of their own. She will need to be independent and isolated from society. Perhaps she will be defending her kids or her superpowers are marginalized by being pregnant. She will need to walk the edge between justice and vigilance. The ‘super woman’ to succeed in print and carry a movie franchise will need extraordinary powers and with the exploration of ordinary human frailty.  Just don’t forget the fighting, the explosions, impractical costumes, and topnotch over-the-top villains.


Author Bio:

Kurt Thurber grew up in Caroline County, the only landlocked county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After matriculating through the public school system with no distinctive accomplishments whatsoever, he attended Mary Washington College, graduate school at Villanova University and completed a successful apprenticeship as a masked vigilante crime-fighter. He is ready for a "highbrow" discourse on any number of subjects. Did Han Solo shoot first? Heck and yes. What was MacGyver's first name? Angus. Can anyone put baby in a corner? Yes, Patrick Swayze from heaven. Read more of Kurt Thurber's musings at his blog

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