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I Thought We’d Moved Past Every Movie Led by a Woman Being a Referendum on the Very Concept

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 had the biggest domestic theatrical debut of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far, and is now the most-viewed movie released directly to VOD. If you’ve been on social media since December 25, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many discussions about the film. Whether you loved it, hated it, or somewhere in between, you’re bound to find someone who shares your opinion and someone who doesn’t. But the discourse surrounding Wonder Woman 1984 has already morphed from a spirited discussion on the movie into something a lot more toxic … and sadly far too familiar.

So, Wonder Woman 1984 ended up being the first big-budget tentpole superhero movie made to appeal to the widest demographic possible to release in well over a year (Joker was rated R, so it obviously wasn’t targeted toward kids and teens, Birds of Prey was also rated R, and The New Mutants was … The New Mutants). With so much buildup and hype surrounding it after all the delays (the movie was originally supposed to come out in 2019, before the pandemic even began), it was inevitable that reactions would range from people being so happy to see a new superhero movie that they would have loved it pretty much no matter what to people having sky-high expectations that would have been impossible to meet no matter what.

What I’m saying is, there was always going to be discourse surrounding the next major superhero movie, whatever it ended up being. And there would always be discourse surrounding Wonder Woman 1984, given that the film is such a huge departure from its predecessor in so many ways and makes some questionable-at-best choices. But looking at my Twitter feed and seeing all the debates and hot takes about the movie didn’t fill me with dread as it often does. It actually made me sort of … happy.

People were talking about the movie’s script and characters. They were discussing whether or not the 1980s setting was truly warranted. They were debating about the amount of action scenes in the movie and whether there should have been more, or if it worked better with less fighting and more talking.

In a nutshell, they were treating this superhero movie like a superhero movie and not a “female superhero movie.” The discussion wasn’t about the fact that the movie’s protagonist was a woman or that it was directed by one; it was about a movie that had highlights and flaws and questions raised that just happened to have women at its forefront.

Until it wasn’t.

Less than 48 hours after Wonder Woman 1984 made its domestic market debut, the discussion had shifted from talk of the film’s quality as a reflection of itself, to talk of a reflection on female superheroes leading movies and female-directed blockbusters as a whole (with some threats sent to the filmmakers and those who enjoyed the movie, for good measure). I felt like it was February again, when people were going after Birds of Prey—or March 2019, with the attacks on Brie Larson for not smiling enough in Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel sits with her head in her chin and a smirk.

(Marvel Entertainment)

Another thing that’s been an issue has been the weaponization of feminism for ulterior motives. This is common with female-led superhero movies, especially now that both DC and Marvel have released major projects with women at the forefront. While it’s great that these movies have inspired so many people to look at media through the lens of feminism, a lot of (mostly male) comic book fans are pretending to care about the way women are treated in movies as an excuse to build-up or dunk on the company of their choice.

This has mainly been done in the form of the old standby of pitting women against each other, with “Wonder Woman vs. Captain Marvel” and which one “did girl power better” so far, but I’ve already started to see people throw Black Widow into the mix. (And I know some guys engaging in these debates aren’t doing it for clout and really do care and mean well, but when it comes to women’s issues, it’s best to let us ladies lead the conversation. If we think something is degrading or uncomfortable as a woman, we definitely won’t be shy about voicing our concerns!)

Every time a female-led superhero movie comes out, it ends up being judged as if it’s a referendum on whether or not more female-led superhero movies should be made instead of being judged on its merits for what it is: a singular movie led by a female superhero. No other type of movie seems to have this much weight put on each individual example, and these films shouldn’t have to bear that burden.

It’s frustrating because I thought all of this ridiculousness would have been largely put to bed by now. We all know that 2020 was supposed to be a banner year for mainstream movies helmed and led by women. Superhero movies in particular were supposed to be a big part of this, with the two DC Comics films from Warner Bros., Birds of Prey and the aforementioned WW84, and the two Marvel Studios films, Black Widow and Eternals, focusing on female characters and being directed by women.

But the pandemic changed the release plans for all of these films save for Birds of Prey, with WW84 shifting dates multiple times before having a theatrical/home viewing hybrid release (a fate similar to that of Disney’s Mulan remake, which also had a female protagonist and was directed by a woman) and the two Marvel movies ultimately deserting 2020 entirely.

But even though this year didn’t play out as expected, we know female-led blockbusters can get good reviews and make bank. The first Wonder Woman got stellar reviews and earned over $800 million at the box office. Captain Marvel got good reviews and earned over $1.1 billion. Birds of Prey also got good reception from critics, and while its box office wasn’t great, people have been increasingly discovering and appreciating it for its departure from the typical comic book movie style since its home viewing debut. (I suspect even more will check it out after The Suicide Squad hits the scene next year and hopefully erases any of the lingering disdain from the 2016 movie that Birds of Prey may have paid for, to a degree.)

2020 was supposed to be the year that women taking the lead on superhero movies went from being a novelty to normal. Instead, we ended up finding out we still have a ways to go. Fortunately, women aren’t leaving the comic book movie scene anytime soon. 2021 is set to have two superhero movies directed by and starring women, Harley Quinn’s return as a main character in The Suicide Squad, and a whole bunch of Marvel series on Disney+ with women in starring roles, the director’s chair, and as showrunners. (And, of course, looking beyond 2021, we’ve got a second Captain Marvel and a third Wonder Woman movie have both already gotten the green light.)

With so many of these projects set to put the focus on PoC and LBGTQA+ characters and issues, it’ll be more important than even to work to make sure the conversation surrounding them is focused on the positives and negatives of the projects themselves. Let’s make sure the question isn’t whether diverse representation in superhero media (and all media) should continue, but how said media can continue to improve, moving forward.

(featured image: Warner Bros.)

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