In a bit of genius framing and smart re-appropriation of what’s already proven to be one of their most commercially-viable properties, the folks at Archie Comics have announced that they’re going to make a live-action Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie. And rather than the close-to-the-comics format of the cartoon show which debuted in 1970 and ran for four seasons, or the sweetly comic movie and seven-season live action series that starred Melissa Joan Hart, they’re doing something just as smart as their Archie Gets Married series or the introduction of gay character Kevin Keller. They’re turning Sabrina into a superhero, and giving her an origin story that’s meant to function like a Spider-Man Story. Even if you’re not into Archie Comics, you should be excited about this development.
The thing that’s fascinating about Sabrina is that, like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or to a lesser extent, HBO’s Girls, which premieres this weekend, it’s a world in which women are central and men, to a certain extent, just don’t matter very much. Sure, there’s Sabrina’s non-magical boyfriend, and she has male and female friends in the form of the Archie gang, but the absolute core of the franchise and the thing that’s most fun about is Sabrina hanging around with her wacky aunts and figure out what it means to be a witch. It’s almost a total inversion from superhero movies in which talented young men are mentored by skillful older men, where women serve as consciences before hanging from things or get burned to death by villains. Even when we see extremely powerful women in pop culture, they get mentored by men: Buffy has Giles, Katniss has Haymitch, The Bride has Pai Mei. The idea of a superheroine who gets to be mentored by other women is essentially unprecedented in the last decade of cinema, and it lends an entirely new dynamic to the trope, one that’s less about the transfer of power possessed by men to a lone women and more about the idea that there are specifically feminine means of power.
This is particularly important given that becoming a teenager, and discovering you have power, do tend to mean different things for boys and girls. It’s easy, for example, to make jokes about Peter Parker and his uncontrollable webs in his early days as Spider-Man. But ultimately, the narrative for dorky dudes who acquire super-powers is pretty simple: the weakling acquires a compensatory strength or skill, whether it’s web-slinging or a U.S. Government-issue physique, takes up a man’s work, and is rewarded with the girl. If you’re a woman, things are more complicated: getting power means not just using it but managing it, and the way people respond to your possession of it. And if you get that power as a teenage girl, you get it at a time when you have to manage a whole host of other things that are not unique to boys but are intensified for girls—your looks, your clothes, your brain, and the way people treat whatever combination of them you’re manifesting. That’s complicated, but that complexity is precisely what makes it unfortunate that Marvel or DC hasn’t tried to tell these stories. No matter what you may think of their core content, the folks at Archie are fast proving themselves hugely nimble, creative, and forward-looking.