Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
Y’all know I’m a Marvel girl. The MCU has been one of the things that’s kept me going for at least five years now, and most assuredly for the past two. So it’s a bit disingenuous for me to talk about DC’s film universe because I know from the get-go I’ll just get labeled as some sort of shrill Marvel shill. But bear with me because, above all else, I just want to be told a good story. I’m the first to call out Marvel when I think they’ve failed (which they’ve done frequently and spectacularly lately) so keep that in mind when I say that DC done lost its fool mind.
I had the misfortune of having to go see both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad for a podcast that I host with my friend Marc. You can’t talk about something if you haven’t seen it. Marc is much kinder to things than I am. I wanted to burn everything to the ground after enduring both movies. Neither has any depth, plot, or character development. They’re both desperate, slapdash propagations of highly lucrative intellectual property. They rely solely on the fact that everyone is desperate to love the films because they love the symbols in them. DC has always been King. Batman has always been #1. Everyone already adores Harley Quinn. But Marvel’s film success has DC desperate to get their shit in front of eyeballs because superheroes sell. They seem to have missed the crucial bit that good stories about superheroes are what sell. (The box office returns v. critical acclaim debate I save for another day.)
There are so many problems with the entire situation that I can’t even enumerate them all. I don’t know the ins and outs of DC, Warner Brothers, or comics culture the way others do and DC’s disasters have been endlessly dissected by others better than I could. So what I’m going to talk about is not the horrors DC puts out but what I want from Wonder Woman. Because, to my weird specialized heart, that movie has the potential to be better than Captain America: The First Avenger. (Y’all ever heard me go on about Cap1? There are usually overexcited tears involved.)
First, judging by the trailer, the film is set in World War I and set up like a pulp sci-fi adventure story. “That’s not sci-fi, it’s more mythology,” is an argument I’ve already had a few times. A ton of sci-fi circa the 1900s and 1910s was mythology. Edgar Rice Burroughs in particular is a good example here with his serialized Under the Moons of Mars (later published in novel form as A Princess of Mars.) I mean just look at this thing. It’s essentially a giant mythological adventure romp, but on Mars. The science fiction of the time was heavily influenced by mythology and mythologizing colonial white supremacy. Is that hella problematical in 2016? Yes. (Looking at you Tarzan movie. Just who the hell even thought that was a good idea?) But! You can do it right, and having Wonder Woman as a central figure in that kind of narrative would refocus it and package it well for the 21st century. Agent Carter is an ideal example of honoring classic genre conventions while allowing people besides white men to not just have space in the story but centrality. What would be phenomenal about setting Wonder Woman in the 1910s is that, as with Captain America: The First Avenger, you can use the world-building conceit that the sci-fi of the time period is actually real and then tell an amazing story off of that. She could dismantle all the tropes and assumptions baked into that narrative structure and tell us something new. We like to ignore the early 20th century in our history and cultural studies because it feels antiquated, is often tied up in complicated socio-political issues from the 19th century, and isn’t as glorifying of American derring-do as World War II. Wonder Woman has so much potential as a feminist action-adventure romp in a space that’s fresh for modern audiences because we largely ignore World War I entirely. (Sidenote: World War I is my favorite war. Everyone has a favorite war, right?)
Now, I don’t think I’m going to get any of this from Wonder Woman. I think it’s going to be cringe-worthy in the extreme. Just judging by the previous DC output it’ll be big and flashy with no substance, no character, and a lot of feminine “empowerment” in the form of appeasing decontextualized “feminist” comments (like the “slavery” line from the trailer) and constant overt sexualization of women. Undoubtedly with “Chris Pine is so virile in his straight white masculinity that even Wonder Woman gave up her utopic life to be with him” thrown in. Because every story needs a paint-by-numbers romance subplot, battle of the sexes plot tumor, and misogynistic portrayal of women as adversarial rolled into one (sarcasm.)
I know Marvel gets shit for all it’s films having white male leads, and for “always doing the same thing.” Those concerns are valid. But Marvel television has also done some crazy amazing representations of women and people of color (pre-judging Luke Cage to hopefully be as amazing as Jessica Jones and Daredevil season 2.) And honestly I think it’s kind of appropriate that Peggy Carter, Jessica Jones, Skye/Daisy Johnson*, et al get to shine on the small screen. Marvel television is the stories that fill in the cracks in the ‘verse. But rather than those stories being lesser, we get to spend an enormous amount of time with those characters. Marvel TV can challenge the normative worldview because it can slide around in spaces where blockbuster movies don’t traditionally go. And that’s not to say it’s okay that these characters don’t get to lead films. But it also presents these spaces in relation to each other the way that I experience them in our actual culture. Agent Carter isn’t lesser than Captain America—the stories of her series are more intimate than his films. But they’re also the kind of unsung work that keeps the world turning. That show knows that, but more importantly a number of Marvel’s films also know that, if only in passing. Even Pepper Potts—who starts as a secretary—is never derided or belittled for the fact that she’s a woman and her competence is rewarded by Tony putting her completely in charge of Stark Industries.
That sort of complicated narrative politics is something that DC can’t even perceive as existing right now. Setting aside the fact that they have three concurrent parallel cinematic universes (which already destroys for them a huge chunk of the fun of watching MCU TV), even their Arrowverse suffers from this kind of identity-politics-blindness and utter lack of awareness. How many times does Felicity Smoak—the only sensible character on Arrow—call herself “just a blonde?” So that’s why, rather than expecting Wonder Woman to pull an awesome Agent Carter-esque recontextualization of 1910s sci-fi—which would rock—I’m expecting a tropey early-20th century disaster peppered in between illogical action sequences and slapdash attempts at plot. But I want so much more.
I actively hate DC for a lot of reasons, but even I just want to reach in and fix these movies. It honestly wouldn’t be that hard to make them even passably watchable. It’s fucking DC for Christ’s sake. It’s 80 years of cultural dominance. They almost have to be trying to screw them up this bad.
*Obligatory note that I have massive issues with the third season of Agents of SHIELD very largely because of the way gender, women, and women’s stories are presented. They dropped the ball at every turn, but season 2 remains unreal amazing in this respect.