It would be easy to panic in response to the news today that Gal Gadot, a relatively unknown Israeli actress, has been cast as Wonder Woman in the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman, Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s sequel to this year’s Man Of Steel. There are any number of grounds for a freakout: Gadot’s relatively thin resume, the fact that Wonder Woman, the most famous female superhero of them all, getting shoehorned into a movie with two other male superheroes taking top billing rather than getting a feature of her own, or even the prospect that adding Wonder Woman to an already crowded-seeming movies could elbow out Amy Adams as Lois Lane. But as is the case with most casting announcements, it’s probably best to respond to this news with a deep breath.
It’s true that Gadot is much less experienced than most of the actors and actresses who have taken on superhero roles in the last decade. By the time Christian Bale put on Batman’s cowl in 2005, he’d already had a roster of major roles in culturally significant movies, ranging from the relative innocence of Newsies and Little Women, to the terrifying embodiment of hypermasculine capitalism in American Psycho. George Clooney’s resume was richer in television than in film when he assumed the role in Batman and Robin, given his roles in ER, Rosanne, and The Facts Of Life, but he was still a relatively established commodity, such that he was able to rebuild his career after the disaster of that superhero picture. When she was cast as Batgirl, Alicia Silverstone had just anchored Clueless and The Babysitter. Halle Berry had appeared in everything from romantic comedies, to the live-action Flintstones movie, to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever before she donned a white wig and white contacts to play Storm in the X-Men franchise. And Jennifer Garner had an awfully specific reel for her leading role in Elektra based on her work in Alias.
In the U.S., Gadot is primarily known for her work in the Fast and Furious franchise (which has a rather more consistent record on racial diversity than on its gender politics), in which “a woman’s job” includes things like getting a fingerprint off a criminal by letting the gentleman in question get handsy with her and then turning her bikini bottom over for analysis:
Her other credits include an appearance on Entourage, and small roles in Date Night and Knight and Day. Gadot’s resume suggests she’s more than capable of playing sexy and inscrutable, which certainly might be one way to interpret Wonder Woman, given the BDSM undercurrents of some of her early portrayals and comic book stories. But Gadot’s prior work doesn’t give much indication about how she might play out the sort of penetrating psychological backstory that’s been the mode of choice for the current boom in superhero movies, and that guided at least some of Zack Snyder’s approach to Man Of Steel. Given how much time we’ve spent plumbing the psyches of superpowered white guys in their late twenties-to-forties, it would be a disappointment if Wonder Woman’s only function here turned out to be as a kind of higher-functioning Black Widow, rather than as a fully realized person, whose relationships to her powers are inflected by gender, if not dominated by it.
But the truth is we have no idea how Gadot’s casting will turn out until we see her on screen, and until we see what approach Snyder and company are taking to the character. And there are virtues to casting both very famous actors, like Ben Affleck, who will be playing Batman alongside Gadot, and lesser-known performers, as superheroes. For a very famous or very established actor, their existing cultural capital and glamor–a kind of superpower in and of itself–can interact with a superheroic role in a way that’s helpful rather than distracting. Robert Downey Jr. was an excellent choice for Iron Man precisely because of what we knew about his recovery substance abuse and reemergence as a substantive, playful actor. By contrast, Henry Cavill, who’d done some work in American film and television, but was hardly a household name, was effective as a young Clark Kent in Man Of Steel precisely because we didn’t know him extremely well, and we could enjoy his process of self-discovery without being distracted by memories of his previous parts.
The only thing left to do then is to hope for the best. Maybe Gadot has more chops than she’s had an opportunity to show off before, and Batman vs. Superman will provide an illustration of how Hollywood’s wasted her talents. Maybe Snyder, who has a long record of interest in female characters, relishes the opportunity to treat Gadot like an actor rather than the former Miss Israel she is, giving her things to do with her body other than simply being touched by other people. And maybe the power of Wonder Woman’s cultural legacy will shield the character in the same way her gauntlets, forged from Athena’s shield, have protected Diana herself on so many occasions. Getting Wonder Woman right would earn DC an enormous amount of gratitude from female fans, and fans of female superheroes, who feel underserved by Marvel. The company that gave us Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman would be smart to seize that opportunity, rather than to squander it.