The latest potential casting development in the controversial saga of Zack Snyder’s “Batman vs. Superman” film materialized yesterday with rumors that Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to tackle the role of the Man of Steel’s ultimate nemesis, Lex Luthor.
If the rumors are confirmed, they’re likely to be met with the passionate debate and perhaps even outrage sparked by the news that Ben Affleck will don the Caped Crusader’s cowl in DC’s epic superhero face-off. That event, which almost blew up the Internet, was followed by more fan consternation when it was announced that Gal Gadot, a Miss Universe contestant featured in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, will appear in the movie as Wonder Woman.
Some have hailed DC Comics’ decision to quietly sandwich Wonder Woman into the “Man of Steel” sequel as a smart move. After several notorious botched attempts to bring the Amazonian princess to the big and small screens, this is a sneaky way to introduce the classic comic book character to moviegoers without the risk of investing in an expensive film that would rest solely on her muscular shoulders. It also appears to be part of a strategy to quickly introduce multiple characters from the DC universe to facilitate an inevitable Justice League movie.
DC is all too aware that it lags behind Marvel in its attempts to build its stable of superheroes into a formidable collective box office force, a la “The Avengers.” If moviegoers respond positively to Gadot in “Batman vs. Superman,” the studio can breathe a sigh of relief and plow ahead with a Wonder Woman spin-off. It they don’t, DC can shrug it off and move on. This may be shrewd strategizing from a business perspective, but to me it feels like a defeat.
The fuss over Snyder’s perplexing “Batman vs. Superman” casting selections is merely a distraction from the real outrage brought to light by the sequel: the fact that DC repeatedly failed to produce a Wonder Woman movie and has, for the moment, abandoned all efforts to do so. The marginalization of Wonder Woman is also a potent reminder that Hollywood has failed to bring us even one successful comic book movie headlined by a female superhero.
Over the past few decades, Hollywood has made a few weak attempts to bring superheroes who are women to the big screen. There was 1984’s “Supergirl,” the 2005 Jennifer Garner vehicle “Elektra” and, of course, 2004’s much ridiculed “Catwoman,” featuring Halle Berry as the feline supervillain. The dismal reception of these films could be considered evidence that comic book movies starring women don’t sell, but that would be disregarding the fact that these projects were ill conceived, poorly written and sloppily executed. You can’t blame audiences for rejecting them.
In today’s cinematic landscape, superhero movies have become so lucrative that Marvel and DC are constantly mining their archives for new properties. It’s not just about pop cultural juggernauts like Batman and Spider-Man and Superman anymore. Less familiar crusaders, like Iron Man and Thor, have emerged from the pages of comics to astounding success. And the studios are planning to mine even more obscure properties in the near future, including Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy.
There’s no excusing that women in comic book movies are still largely relegated to the role of sidekick. There are strongly scripted female roles to be found in the most successful franchises: Anne Hathaway’s smart, slinky Catwoman, Gwyneth Paltrow’s no-nonsense Pepper Potts, the powerful female mutants of “X-Men,” Scarlett Johansson’s conflicted Black Widow in “The Avengers.” But despite Johansson’s tough portrayal of the redheaded Russian spy, the focus on the character too often comes down to how great the actress looks in her tight, black bodysuit. And consider the recent “Thor: The Dark World,” in which astrophysicist Jane Foster is relegated for much of the movie to a simpering damsel in distress.
The sad fact is there has never been a better time for a film studio to step up and take a risk on a female-driven superhero movie, a time when women are proving themselves to be hot commodities at the box office as never before.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as the bow-and-arrow-wielding Katniss Everdeen, recently grossed a staggering $700 million worldwide, while Sandra Bullock led the outer space thriller “Gravity” to an unexpected $640 million in global ticket sales. The upcoming “Divergent,” based on a dystopian book trilogy that revolves around a butt-kicking heroine named Tris, is expected by some analysts to outperform even “The Hunger Games.” Many of Disney’s recent animated hits are princess flicks -– think “Brave” and “Frozen” — with considerable girl power that nonetheless appeal to boys and girls alike. Even the comedy genre is currently dominated by women, from “Bridesmaids,” to “Pitch Perfect,” to “The Heat.”
My friend, Kristy Rivas, an avid comic book reader who enjoys such titles as Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, dreams of the day when girl power at the box office finally translates into a movie featuring a heroine as mighty as the Caped Crusader or the Man of Steel.
“I absolutely love Tris and Katniss,” she said during a recent text exchange on the subject. “They are reluctant heroes though. It would be nice to have a true ‘hero’ role model for girls. Batman and Superman chose the life of a hero as did Batgirl and Wonder Woman.”
It’s high time Hollywood let such a hero emerge.