Fight Like A Girl: How Wonder Woman And The Wasp Are Changing Superhero Movies
Words by Marcel Mellor Hutchings
Like most things in this world, comic books have been male-dominated since production. Screen adaptions have reflected this, but they are also the instigator of change. Two female superheroes, Wonder Woman of DC comics, and The Wasp of Marvel Comics, have been the first women of their respective companies to lead their respective films to critical acclaim and commercial success. This begs the question: why has this taken so long? To answer that we have to understand the history of women in comics first.
The first superhero in a comic book, The Clock, appeared in 1936, while the first superheroine, Fantomah, appeared in 1940 as a minor role in her own comic strip. Despite that, comic book heroes have been a boys club since the Golden Age of comic books. There have been strong female heroines like Captain Marvel, Black Widow and The Wasp (Marvel Comics) as well as Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Black Canary (DC Comics). The issue is not the numbers per se; it’s also the portrayal.
Female characters in comics have mainly been love interests to their male counterparts. There are often two types of women: hopeless damsel or sex symbol. Sometimes they can be both. Sometimes it’s tokenistic, such as the case of Batgirl, who was initially added in 1961 because audiences thought there was a homoerotic subtext between Batman and Robin. Even when women take the superhero role, they wear a costume not unlike a bathing suit – while their male counterparts wear full fitted, sometimes even armoured costumes (with the exception of Robin). Superheroines are often drawn as overly busty and they are scantily clad at all times. This is not a criticism of the female form but more a criticism of the lack of range of different body shapes and types throughout the range of comic book characters. Apart from being pointlessly oversexual it also defeats the purpose of a costume as a form of protection.
So why are Wonder Woman and the Wasp different from this well-established female representation?
Superhero movies are different in production to comic books for several obvious reasons. The major one of them is that they work off large-scale box office and therefore only go with ideas and heroes that will work on a commercial level. Historically, this has resulted in primarily male-led films with female characters acting mainly as love interests but rarely as superheroines. And while female-led comic books are common, female-led movies are not. Wonder Woman has been the only female superhero to be the main character in a film for several decades. Other examples are the commercially and financially disastrous Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005). Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) was the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s first female-led superhero film. Wonder Woman (2017) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) were both commercial and critical successes with respective Rotten Tomatoes scores of 92% and 88% and respective global box office grosses of $821 Million and $403 Million (as of 3 August, as the latter is still in cinemas.
How do they compare to their respective cinematic universes?
Wonder Woman (2017) is the jewel in the rusting crown that is the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The Rotten Tomatoes scores for the other films are as follows: Man of Steel (2013) – 55%, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – 27%, Suicide Squad (2016) – 27%, and Justice League (2017) – 40%.
Wonder Woman (2017) was done differently. It had a female director, many actresses playing the Amazon warriors and a strong storyline with the romantic subplot taking only a small portion of the story. Wonder Woman featured in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and was hailed as one of the best features of the film. She is the saviour of whatever is yet to come of this unevenly paced and rushed cinematic universe.
The Wasp, on the other hand, has had a different role in the MCU. There is no such pacing issue across films or ratings. Movies in the MCU perform well above budget and are rated positively. The first included female superhero was Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (2008). She was compared by the refreshingly competent love interest Patricia ‘Pepper’ Potts. Black Widow served as more of a babysitter to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but anyone who knows Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal knows how most characters around him do some babysitting work.
The Wasp is the skilled and highly trained fighter opposite Ant-Man. Her character is the strong female type, but the interesting aspect is how she is portrayed. She is a hero who plays a role irrelevant of gender. She’s not a skilled fighter due to her being a woman – it’s due to her being a hero. Interestingly enough this is the way most men are portrayed as heroes – they represent ideals instead of masculinity and the Wasp is created just like that. The romantic subplot is minimal and hilariously broken up by Michael Douglas’ grumpy dad figure of Hank Pym. The Wasp represents a new development in the MCU, with the upcoming Captain Marvel movie and a possible Black Widow centred film on the way – there is a definite change in favour of women.
I believe that DC will learn from Wonder Woman (2017) on how to make different movies with more cultural impact and skill to give the children of today more female heroes to have as role models. And with The Wasp representing a new wave of movies showcasing strong female superheroes and characters, maybe in the future, our world may not achieve gender balance quite yet – but at least our heroes will.