The Long, Long Road to the Wonder Woman Movie

Superman: first appearance in comics, 1938 (Action Comics #1). First feature-length film: 1951 (Superman and the Mole-Men).

Batman: first appearance in comics, 1939 (Detective Comics #27). First feature-length film: 1966 (Batman: The Movie).

Wonder Woman: first appearance in comics, 1941 (All Star Comics #8). First feature-length film: 2017 (!!).

Three icons from the Golden Age of comics, and three of the most distinguishable and popular superheroes in the world. Two received full-length movies within a few years of their debut. One took decades. It just so happens that the sole holdout has been the only female superhero among these icons. So, why the delay? And, more to the point, why is it that superheroic icons such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and even the Hulk are breaking record after record at the box office, yet one of the most paradigmatic and recognizable heroes ever to grace the comic pages, namely Wonder Woman, has yet to star in her own blockbuster movie? Why has Wonder Woman not been featured in her own movie for so long?

I’m sure the answer will come as a great shock, but it’s likely the result of sexism.

Certainly no one can question Wonder Woman’s iconic status in American popular culture. She is one of only three superheroes to make it through the Fred Wertham years of the 1950s, when so-called “experts” considered comics to be detrimental to children’s mental well-being and wrongly cited said comics to be the ultimate source of juvenile delinquency, a time when superhero comics all but vanished in America. Only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman survived that era. She is probably the most recognized female superhero of all time. So her exclusion from Hollywood stardom is probably not related to her fame.

Could it be her background? Most heroes that make it big in movies have technological or science based origins; Iron Man’s powers come from his high-tech armor, Batman uses a slew of neat gadgets, Superman is powerful because he’s from another planet, and the Hulk is a monster created by radiation. Wonder Woman’s background is myth- and magic-based; as a member of the Amazons, her strength, agility, toughness, and even her gear and weaponry are gifts from the ancient Greek gods. Perhaps it is this mystical and decidedly non-technological origin that causes Hollywood producers to shy away from funding a movie for her. This might make some sense; yet Thor, the Norse god of thunder and star of his own blockbuster franchise, consistently draws in box office success despite his magical hammer, mythic background, and legendary supporting characters. Dr. Strange, the Marvel Master of Mysticism, recently starred in his own blockbuster film, a movie filled with netherworld demons, magic spells, and powerful mystic artifacts. Even more interesting is that one of the secondary characters in the Thor franchise, namely Lady Sif, the sword goddess, has recently proved popular enough to warrant an up-front appearance on Marvel’s TV series Agents of Shield. So it likely isn’t that.

So what’s going on here? Although other female superheroes are proving popular, such as the Avengers’ Black Widow, the aforementioned Lady Sif, X-Men’s Storm, Jean Grey, and Shadowcat, none of them are featured lead characters. I’m sure it probably comes as a surprise to nobody that Wonder Woman’s difficulty at acquiring her own solo movie has likely been directly related to her gender. Now,  there have been other female comic book heroes that have been given their own solo movies as featured leading characters; in fact, there have been four. Supergirl, starring Helen Slater, Red Sonja, starring Brigitte Nielsen, Catwoman, the sometimes hero, sometimes villain of Batman played by Oscar winner Halle Berry, and Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner. Blockbusters, one and all? Hardly. Take a look at these numbers:

Film (Year): Studio: Production Budget: Global Box Office: Rotten Tomatoes Score:
Supergirl (1984) Tristar $35 million $14 million 7%
Red Sonja (1985) MGM/ UA $18 million $7 million 15%
Catwoman (2004) Warner Bros. $100 million $82 million 9%
Elektra (2005) Fox $43 million $57 million 10%


As you can see, only Elektra recovered its production cost, although if you count its expensive marketing campaign, it too was a flop. The fact that all these films still score poorly on Rotten Tomatoes certainly doesn’t help. Citing these box office failures, Hollywood has likely become very gun-shy regarding female superhero-centered movies.

Of course, superhero movies, like the comic books that spawned them, have always had predominately male audiences, and Hollywood traditionally tailors the movies with this in mind; in 2011, for example, females in the top 100 domestic grossing films comprise only eleven percent of all protagonists. Writers and directors of superhero films are overwhelmingly male, just like writers and illustrators of comic books. All four of the female-led superhero movies noted earlier had male directors and male writers, for instance. Since these writers have a tendency to write two-dimensional characters that likely have trouble engaging female audiences, both comics and superhero films continue to garner mostly male fans. However, this may be starting to change; the first Avengers film, one of the most popular films of all time as gauged by box office receipts, drew nearly 40 percent of its massive audience from the nations’ women. While its screenplay author and director was a man, that man was none other than Joss Whedon, a filmmaker known for producing fare that features strong, interesting female characters, including those in lead roles, as his TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and even Agents of Shield will attest. Whedon was originally attached to the Wonder Woman film in its early incarnation; unfortunately, the arrangement didn’t work out. Might this show that Warner Brothers, the studio that currently owns the cinematic likeness rights of DC characters such as Wonder Woman, is thinking more progressively about this project? The first Wonder Woman movie, opening (finally!) this weekend, features a female director (Patty Jenkins); could it be the times are-a-changin’?

So, exceptionally poor box office performances and critically panned female superhero movies in the past, coupled with a fear to disaffect traditionally male audiences and paired with Wonder Woman’s high stature as a cultural icon, which positively must raise the stakes, has led to a sort of Wonder Woman paralysis among producers. Diane Nelson, head of DC Entertainment at Warner Brothers, said of the character, “We have to get her right. We have to.” If Wonder Woman is not done right, like the failed 2011 TV show produced by David E. Kelley, producers feel it will negatively impact the character to such a degree that audiences will put a moratorium on Wonder Woman films for decades to come. And it is here that Wonder Woman’s gender comes strangely into play. It’s funny that no one has ever said this about male superheroes; “we just have to get him right.” Even if things go wrong with male-centered superhero films, it still will likely make a lot of bank. If not, they can always reboot! The 2006 film Superman Returns didn’t do as well at the box office as many would have liked, yet no one blamed the male hero; the franchise was allowed to continue, and the result was The Man of Steel in 2013. In 2010, DC Entertainment made Jonah Hex, based on the comic book, and it was a huge flop; yet no one even thought to quit making male superhero films. Time after time, the big boys of comics have gotten second, third, and even fourth chances to make it at the box office; in addition to the aforementioned Superman films, Batman has had numerous reboots, despite being featured in the Joel Schumacher tragedies Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, which almost brought superhero films to a standstill in the 1990s, yet the character went on to incredible attainment with the financially successful and critically acclaimed Christopher Nolan trilogy, and will be featured in a new solo film sometime after the upcoming  Justice League movie opens.

Our wait is finally over. Wonder Woman, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, opens this weekend, and audiences are ready for a female-led superhero movie; the huge success of female protagonists in film franchises such as Hunger Games and Divergent, which together have earned nearly $2 billion in ticket sales, testify to that. What better way to shake up the flood of pec-heavy, bicep-bulging male hero stories than to take a chance and offer something a little different, something audiences are almost certainly ready for, something with a touch of estrogen. Filmgoers ARE willing to shell out their hard-earned cash to see a strong, super-powered lead character with two “X” chromosomes. Will Warner Brothers “get her right?” There may be some reason for optimism; the early reviews seem to indicate that the film does the Themysciran Princess proud, with Rotten Tomatoes currently showing the film earning an amazing 94%. Here’s hoping, folks. It’s been a long, long road so far; perhaps we’re finally at the end of it.

Wonder Woman opens nationwide in theaters June 2nd.

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