On June 2nd, Warner Bros’ new superhero film will enter theaters. It bears a particular distinction, one that gives it a great deal more import than the average comic book movie in terms of the pop cultural conversation. It’s a moment of truth for both audiences and the major studios in Hollywood, lurking overhead to await the fate of this picture.
It is, of course, Wonder Woman.
Diana Prince has a lot on her plate; arguably, the basic stakes of whether or not Warner Bros’ Justice League shared universe will deliver (it won’t) in the same way Marvel’s cinematic universe has continued to produce hit after hit. Beyond that goal, however, it has to be recognized that Wonder Woman is the first major superhero film whose title character is female.
One would think that in 2017 we might be beyond the notion that this is a hurdle to clear, a glass ceiling to break – but the silver screen has its rules and traditions, and so far nobody has dared challenge them. Marvel is lining up its own outing down the line for Captain Marvel, but no female character can hold a candle to the name recognition of Wonder Woman. Arguably even moreso than Supergirl, she is Superman’s distaff counterpart in the popular consciousness. Like it or not, Wonder Woman is going to be the standard-bearer for female-led superhero films.
Is this an opportunity, or an albatross? We’re coming in a bit rough with this one: Zack Snyder, the producer and co-writer tapped to be the creative visionary behind the Justice League properties, is known for the uninspired and colorless Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Gal Godot is a relative unknown rather than a big-name actress (though she remains the brightest part of the prior lackluster film). An admittedly talented supporting cast brings little name recognition to a blockbuster film outside of Chris Pine, whose prominence may threaten to eclipse Godot’s leading role.
Structurally, there continue to be other issues that plague female leads, not just in comic book movies but generally. Does anyone really expect Godot’s Wonder Woman to deliver the wily quips of Iron Man, the good-natured fish-out-of-water cluelessness of Thor, or any of the oddball humor of the (male) Guardians of the Galaxy? One can argue that Wonder Woman isn’t intended to be a quippy or humorous character, but banal stoicism doesn’t do anything to endear a character to audiences. That’s not to say the role of the straight (wo)man needs to be unengaging – Chris Evans delivers an earnest and likeable Captain America – but the risk is there, exacerbated by Zack Snyder’s track record (compare Henry Cavill’s dour take on Superman).
Without that kind of spark, Godot may well be fighting an uphill battle against the writing of her own movie, effectively at risk of being reduced to a humorless love interest for a more dynamic male character. Wonder Woman will need to demonstrate more character development than merely coming around to see Steve Trevor’s way of looking at the world; the bar needs to be set much higher than clearing the Bechdel Test via Hippolyta and Etta Candy. With any luck, those involved in the movie will have learned the lessons of Black Widow and Gamora.
I hate Zack Snyder’s DC films; I think his creative vision was dredged from a New Jersey culvert and his understanding of the classic characters at his disposal appears to stem from particularly trite fanfiction. Nevertheless, I intend to see this movie, and I go in with a certain amount of hope. If Wonder Woman resonates with audiences and critics, she may well pave the way for Black Widow, for Raven, for Scarlet Witch. If not, she may presage the postponement or cancellation of her Marvel opposite’s already-announced film, and send the wrong message to a studio system concerned with the bottom line and unafraid to read the wrong lessons from their failures .
The worst-case scenario, of course, is that it won’t be the wrong lesson, that audiences really do fail to warm to a female superhero. If there’s anything we’ve grown beyond by 2017, I’d like to think it’s that. Wonder Woman is the superheroine we need right now. Let’s hope she can deliver.