Love it or hate it, we are living in the age of superheroes. They have burst from the pages and the fringes to cement themselves at the forefront of mainstream entertainment, and they show no sign of folding up their capes and flying out of town anytime soon. Having been alive to witness the emergence of the genre with the original Superman films of the late 70’s and their embarrassing sequels in the 80’s, the brutal slog of the zero-budget Cannon oeuvre (anybody remember the original Captain America?), and the long drought in the 90’s when all we had were Blade and a series of progressively awful Batman sequels, one can recall when superheroes were a fool’s investment; now studios and producers can’t snap up the properties fast enough. Gone too are the days when you could write off the entire genre as mindless frivolity for the kiddies. Serious talent goes into the production of these things now, and there are enough of them of sufficiently varied quality and targeted appeal that it becomes increasingly difficult to paint them all with the same ink brush.
At least, that’s what you’d hope. Regrettably, the Powers That Be are still gun shy at the notion of a leading female superhero. As Marvel takes heat from fans over the nonexistent Black Widow solo movie, a leaked memo from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter shows him citing the box office failures of Elektra, Catwoman and the original 1984 Supergirl as justification for a lack of development on female-led titles. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in a most staggering example of sexism, no one postulated that the failure of the terrible Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie in 2011 meant the death knell of male-driven superhero movies, and Reynolds is getting another shot at a lead superhero role in Deadpool. By contrast, no one eager to keep their plum Hollywood executive job would dare bankroll Jennifer Garner in, say, Zatanna. (Marvel has announced the female Captain Marvel for release in 2018 – after DC, slower out of the gate with their own franchises, releases the Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman in 2017). And while it is not as though we haven’t seen any female superheroes in the modern era, they still bear the scars of creative types being not entirely sure what to do with them. Elektra and Catwoman didn’t fail because they starred women, they failed because they were bad films with leads written as caricatures designed to appeal to teenage boys rather than as fully developed and actualized women. Gods as characters are hard to write with the best of intentions, and it would seem that crafting compelling stories for goddesses is even more of a Sisyphean task. The challenge is to create wants for them that are believable and relatable, and obstacles that require more than a numbing million-dollar-a-minute visual effects budget to overcome.
The X-Men films had Storm and Jean Grey, and while the former was woefully underused and somewhat de-powered for the sake of plot, the latter was reduced to a mishmash of ethereal love interest-turned-psychotic murder goddess who had to be killed to save the rest of humanity. Black Widow has no special abilities other than her basic combat skills and is shoehorned into the sidekick/partner role in whatever Marvel film seems convenient (and we won’t go in to the controversy about her revelation about her backstory in her most recent appearance). While it was nice to see a truly superpowered woman emerge in Avengers: Age of Ultron in the person of the Scarlet Witch, the movie was so cramped with characters all requiring their own beats that we never got a chance to find out much about what made her tick, and again, she suffered the same problem as Storm in that her presence was limited to prevent the audience from dwelling on the extent of her powers lest they wonder why she doesn’t just do X and Y in order to stop the bad guys and save the world.
The original Supergirl movie tried to duplicate the formula that made Superman such a smash in 1978: a cast of Hollywood stars surrounding a compelling unknown, and enough money thrown at the screen to try to give the audience a memorable effects-heavy spectacle. Unfortunately, the weak story and the excessive focus on the campy villainess (and the refusal of the journeyman director to rein in Faye Dunaway’s gluttonous gobbling of the scenery) undermined a game performance by lead Helen Slater and conspired to sink the entire effort and by extension confine the notion of a female superhero movie into the vault for 20 years. Superman himself went into hibernation around then as well, and has only recently emerged, though in two wildly uneven outings, the first of which (2006’s Superman Returns) turned him into a creepy super-stalker absentee father, while the second (2013’s Man of Steel) was a grim, violent, tonally wrong orgiastic CGI smash-em-up. It has fallen to television, and producer Greg Berlanti, on the heels of his other superhero ratings successes Arrow and The Flash, to try and get Supergirl right – as cinema screens prepare to unleash the spectacle no one asked for of Batman and Superman beating the crap out of each other with Wonder Woman looking on and presumably shaking her tiara’d head in next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The extended Supergirl trailer that debuted a few weeks ago was more than a breath of fresh air, it was a positively endearing gale-force blast. As essayed by the immediately appealing Melissa Benoist, this sunny, optimistic Supergirl is utterly free of angst, and actually excited about exploring her abilities instead of viewing them and the corresponding duty to fight crime as a relentless curse – thus separating her from almost every single other caped crusader out there. I’m not sure where the rule came from that superheroes have to brood constantly about their lot in life instead of finding joy in being exceptional; it smacks to me of writers worrying that this is the only way the average audience member will be able to relate to gods – by delivering the subconscious message that “yeah, Wolverine’s claws and healing factor are cool and all, but trust us, you wouldn’t really want to be like him.”
In the 1984 Supergirl there was a deleted scene early in the movie nicknamed the “aerial ballet” of her gliding through the air about a forest and beaming with delight as she discovered what she could do – snipped after a test screening for the sake of pacing, or perhaps the fear that an expected mostly-male audience simply wouldn’t want to watch a woman reveling in her awakening. Ask yourself these many years later what the most popular scene in Frozen was, and the answer is Elsa’s “Let It Go” transformation, so, a haughty pshaw to that notion. In the TV Supergirl trailer we see her take to the skies with a huge smile on her face, and a determination in her heart to be something more than she is – to be the hero she knows it is within her to become. She does not want to run from who she is, she wants to shout it from the tops of the tall buildings that she’s leaping over in a single bound.
This, to me, is what modern superhero filmed fiction is sorely lacking, especially when it comes to female superheroes: a sense of hope, which, if you think about it, is why young boys and girls read comic books in the first place. The sense of powerlessness that youth can instill when one is not the popular kid, or has a rotten home life, or just feels that nothing ever goes his or her way, is what we turn to those stories to heal. As kids and even adults we gravitate to the notion that we too might be able to put on a cape and soar, and find that triumph that is lacking in our own mundane lives. That’s not what we’re getting from the movies that are all the rage right now. The Marvel collection, despite their quippy, colorful tone, still operate from a sense of profound cynicism about the world and its people. (For all the deserved feminist accolades for Marvel guru Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s core premise was that high school and by extension the world was a hell to be fought constantly, and Whedon’s chronic tendency to pad his drama by refusing to allow his characters any semblance of long-term happiness often resulted in a frustrating and pessimism-inducing viewing experience. This approach to storytelling has carried over to his films and filtered through the non-Whedon Marvel movies as well.) The DC movies are simply morose, packaged by bean-counting committees obsessed with finding a way to differentiate themselves from the comparatively lighter Marvel. The obsession with shoehorning “dark and edgy” content into absolutely everything is stripping these stories of their reason for being. We need to reconnect with the inspiration at the heart of these tales. We need some hope back. Girls and women will welcome a genuine, powerful superhero in whom they can see their hopes and dreams reflected, whose aspirations they can share, and whose triumphs they can celebrate, without feeling as though they are being pandered to with a male-gaze camera leering on shots of her shapely costumed figure.
This is why I am crossing my fingers very tightly for Supergirl. Given how it has introduced itself to the world, and fair or not, more is riding on its success than its creators probably realize. Done right, the show can tap into the same hunger for goodwill and optimism and compelling, complex female characters that made Frozen such a worldwide phenomenon and still lingers out there waiting to be embraced again. It can deliver the message that not only can women lead a superhero franchise, but that they don’t have to do so by adopting the same gritty, troubled persona as the menfolk. And it would be wonderful indeed to see some of that optimism permeate the other superhero stories that are flooding our screens instead of condemning us to a parade of furrowed brows and punching for the next ten years. Let’s have something that leaves us happy and renewed instead of forcing us to ruminate on the bleak existentialist wasteland that is life.
If the show doesn’t work, if it falls back into the cheeseball antics of the bad old days of the 80’s and 90’s, then, attitudes being as they are, not only will the likes of Ike Perlmutter be vindicated in their beliefs about the box office non-viability of female superheroes, but it will also be taken as a reinforcement of the (in my opinion, erroneous) idea that comic book movies have to be dark and cynical in order to find an audience. No one is suggesting that the stories shouldn’t have conflict, but the victories that come of those conflicts shouldn’t always feel so Pyrrhic so that one walks out of the theater or turns off the television worn out and depressed when we were meant to have been inspired. There’s that old chestnut about a movie or a show that makes you stand up and cheer; we haven’t had that for a very long time, and we really need it – boys and girls alike. So Godspeed, Supergirl, may you fly far, and may you turn out to be everything we’re hoping for and far more.
No pressure or anything.