Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my frequent Twitter interlocutor Dirk Lester. I asked him to give this a shot after we had a conversation about some of these topics online. All of which is to say if you grab me on Twitter, I will talk back. I’m @alyssarosenberg. But back to the post…
Lemme ask you a question. Have you ever heard that rumor, that back when Johnny Depp was famous for turning down basically every hot Hollywood property and eventually successful action flick in sight, he occasionally did a “commercial” project he knew was sure to bomb as a way to convince his agents and managers that he wasn’t right for big blockbusters? (Sorry about that run on there.) Anyway. I’m remembering that and asking you about that because the odd spectacle of David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman going into production has left me wondering something. If maybe “Hollywood” — writ large — is mounting a similar effort to convince us all that “they” really shouldn’t be in the superwoman business.
Sounds nutty, right? It should. It’s supposed to. I mean, we all know there’s no one smoke filled room where what’s going to be our pop culture gets decided. Except there kind of is and we all know there kind of is. We all remember some seemingly coordinated cultural tipping point … Like say when gay characters on TV and in movies stopped being novelties and started being Will and Graces marketable to social subset-niche. And stepping back and taking a look at “Hollywood’s” record with superwomen left me feeling that my suspicion might just be nutty in that way where nutty equals an inexplicable series of happenings suddenly making perfect sense.
Consider the evidence. And to be fair, consider only the post Le Femme Nikita evidence. Because honestly, thinking about Supergirl isn’t going to do anyone around here any good. Ok so the post Nikita films wherein superwomen are either supporting characters or part of ensemble (Batman Returns to Kick-Ass) appear to offer up a mixed bag of excellent, good, indifferent, bad and just plain awful efforts. But that’s a trick of the light; a scoring error resulting from our natural inclination to grade on a curve. Michelle Pfeiffer‘s Catwoman and Chloë Moretz as Hit-Girl may obscure more than they reveal. Remove them and you’re left with group of portrayals either much worse or little better than Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl. And the films with solo superwomen, (from Barbwire to Æon Flux) are hardly worth mentioning.
Even so, I’d like to zoom in on one of them in particular … 2005’s Elektra. You see, there’s a saying we all know that goes: “Once is happenstance twice is coincidence three times is enemy action,” and from here, perched atop David E. Kelly’s imminent train wreck, Elektra is starting to look a lot like happenstance.
We all know it’s a terrible film but it’s also a terribly boring film for no reason that’s readily apparent. Unlike the producers of Catwoman, they had a truly talented actress with established action chops to work with. For a lead character, the filmmakers literally had thee prototype for basically every action heroine you’re likely to encounter at their disposal. A character with a back-story so cinematic that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan brazenly lifted it for Batman Begins. A character inspired by the same films Tarantino appropriated for Kill Bill. Moreover, a character occupying a sub-genre — the ninja martial arts revenge flick — that hadn’t been tapped in quite a while. By which I only mean to point out that it wasn’t heavy lifting. Originality was not required. No one was expecting Rob Bowman to give them the Elektra Oliver Stone was talking about making. In order to produce an at least entertaining film it was only necessary to do Kiss of the Dragon or The Transporter or Ninja Assassin with a female lead.
That’s it. That’s all. And yet, somehow, the filmmakers failed to do even that. It only had to compare favorably to The Octagon to get a pass … but it didn’t. And that, that is a level of fail that only makes sense as a calculated attempt to sour nerds on the very idea of a superwoman on film. Of course twice is only happenstance and to arrive at a conclusion as outrageous as “Hollywood” suits having collectively decided to pull a Producers on all of us, we’re should probably run through the recent history of attempts to put Wonder Woman on film (or hi-def 3D video … whichever):
Now, as you know, a few years back Warner Brothers hired a well-known feminist urban fantasist named Joss Whedon to tackle the project. And there was much rejoicing. Unfortunately, for reasons Whendon’s yet to discuss, Warner’s decided he wasn’t up to much and gave him the boot. In their defense however, Joss was so clearly under-qualified that Warner’s primary comic book competitor did take several long months to hire him to write and direct their big tent pole uber-epic flick. Right around that same time, Warner’s released an animated Wonder Woman then squelched plans for a sequel citing disappointing DVD sales. But taking a look at the actual DVD unit sales figures as opposed to just Warner’s statement reveals that it’s been one of their best sellers. So what was their actual problem?
Whatever it was, it didn’t keep Warner’s from snapping up a reportedly fabulous Wonder Woman spec script then promptly announcing that they would not in fact be using said script as the basis for any future Wonder Woman project. Now. What didn’t happen next, is probably also worth mentioning. Because Wonder Woman: The Movie did not go through that all too familiar rumors swirling phase where numerous name directors are purportedly attached to a project. I mean, do you recall reading a breathless announcement on Bleeding Cool or IO9 that says Kathryn Bigelow or maybe Neil Marshall was going to be climbing Wonder mountain? Yeah. Neither do I. Which is odd, since those rumors are a standard viral marketing tactic studios employ to keep interest in a project alive during development.
The next piece of real news out of Wonder Woman land was that Ally McBeal’s David E. Kelley had a take that NBC would be taking him up on. Soon after, came news that Legion star Adrianne Palicki would be the titular Princess of the Amazons or the head of a corporation or a personal assistant or maybe all three. It’s unfair to dismiss the show sight unseen on the basis of Kelly’s laughably bad pilot script, NBC’s less than stellar record with heroine fronted action shows, a truly miscast star and a costume design that frankly does not appear to have been designed by professional costume designers. Actually no, it isn’t.
It would be difficult to purposefully assemble a less promising set of creative elements. Seriously, if Warner Brothers were actually trying to produce a Wonder Woman so ridiculously awful that they could safely step away from its demise and answer any and all future questions concerning cross platform plans for the other women of the DC universe with a shrug, a sigh and a: “What we found with Wonder Woman was that today’s marketplace simply isn’t hospitable to superwoman;” could they have done a better job of it? Could Hollywood as a whole show any less interest in getting into the superwoman business? It’s almost as if the suits in that hypothetical smoked filled room are holding a gun to your favorite super powered heroine’s head and saying: “Hey. Quit pestering us about her … or we’ll shoot.”
(Note: Preceding Pun Completely Intended)
Of course I’m joking. We all know there isn’t really a super secret anti super heroine development executive Illuminati with a lair deep beneath the Hollywood hills. And I know, that there isn’t a movie business fraternity of some kind responsible for carefully planning and executing the next superwoman fronted box office flop. But you have to admit, for a group of only tangentially interrelated individuals who have in no way been engaged in a massive decade’s long conspiracy to keep American moviegoers away from female superheroes, Hollywood’s suits have done an excellent impression of an evil sexist cabal that totally has been.