“In life women are strong. It should be the same on film.” -Gal Gadot
Warner Bros. announced this week that Israeli model-turned-actor Gal Gadot is playing Diana Prince (Wonder Woman, that is!) in Zach Snyder’s upcoming Superman/Batman film. This is easily the biggest news we’ve heard regarding the project since the infamous casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne a few months ago. And while the wisdom of that decision still remains to be seen, it’s possible that WB may have actually done something right for once.
In the middle of a legitimate renaissance for superhero cinema, WB has struggled mightily to find a live action voice for any of its non-Batman properties, including would-be icons like Superman and Green Lantern. While both those characters had well-defined character histories and a quasi-religious fan base to exploit, the same cannot be said for Wonder Woman. To this day, she still seems to lack a definitive role in the larger publication universe, and historically has been mishandled by a succession of misguided creators (George Perez and Greg Rucka being the exceptions that prove the rule).
Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by progressive psychologist and all-around weirdo William Moulton Marston. His other claim to fame includes inventing the systolic blood pressure test, which forms the basis of the modern polygraph machine and no doubt inspired the character’s signature Lasso of Truth. Marston based the character on one of his psychology students, Olive Byrne, who was also a sexual partner he and his wife shared. This bizarre sex triangle no doubt informed his work on Wonder Woman, a towering feminine symbol meant to embody his misandrist psycho-sexual philosophy. As Grant Morrison describes it,
[Marston] wanted to basically teach young men that submission to the loving authority of a clever and kind woman would be the best way to live, and it would end wars, and it would end the strife of men.
As a result, the early Wonder Woman comics are permeated by a fascinating sense of “loving submission” (Martson’s phrase) that bordered on the fetishistic and at times ventured straight into the territory of BDSM.
In addition to having one of the strangest publication origins in all of comics, Wonder Woman is also perhaps the most frustrating figures in an already very frustrating DC Universe of characters. Sad as it may sound, her traditional inclusion in the DCU “Big Three” or “Trinity” (along with Superman and Batman) has come to feel more obligatory than merited.
But this is changing. Most recently, Brian Azzarello’s run (still ongoing) has done much to rediscover what is so uniquely captivating about the character. Azzarello’s work is laying significant new groundwork for understanding Wonder Woman as her own character, most notably by incorporating a kind of Greek neo-mythology into her ongoing continuity. Azarello’s stylishly fantastical interpretation is quite reminiscent of titles like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Bill Willingham’s Fables, both of which managed to make thousand-year-old character concepts feel fresh and modern.
And we’re still waiting on the Grant Morrison take, apparently titled “The Trial of Wonder Woman.” In addition to incorporating all of the weird sexual elements from deep in her history, Morrison wants to confront the notion that this character is perennially “on trial” -for not being good enough, not being popular enough, or not being feminine enough or not feminist enough. Morrison also notes that in a broader sense, “women are always on trial. It’s always — ‘What do women want?’ It’s constant pointing the finger. ‘What do you want? Explain this!'”
Outside comics, the character has not necessarily fared much better. The last time we had a successful live-action incarnation of the character was for three seasons on ABC (1975-1970), featuring the definitive Lynda Carter portrayal. But the most recent attempt at recreating this success was a sad disaster. In 2011, David E. Kelly’s never-aired pilot starred Adrianne Palicki (alumna of the tragically cursed Friday Night Lights cast), and ended in dismal failure. Overwhelming complaints from critics and fans alike caused NBC to axe the series in May 2011, quickly absconding the embarrassing episode from public view and leaving Wonder Woman fans trying to forget any of it ever happened.
Joss Whedon himself couldn’t even get the party started. A few months ago, a pretty awesome “fan-made” trailer made the rounds, rekindling interest yet again in a live-action version of the character.
All this is simply to say that by including Wonder Woman in the Superman/Batman film (an already hugely controversial and weighty project), WB is playing with fire to a certain extent. Her character history and recent pop-cultural tribulations are a somewhat dangerous cocktail. Zack Snyder and company should proceed with caution.
Like Henry Cavill at the time he was cast in Man of Steel, Gadot is a relatively new face in Hollywood. Really all she’s known for is playing the gorgeous yet tough character of Gisele in the last three Fast and Furious movies. Before that, her claim to fame was winning the title of Miss Isreal in 2004, and representing her country at the subsequent Miss Universe competition. So although I definitely remember liking her character in Fast Five (didn’t see the other two), her filmography doesn’t give us all that much to go on. Physically, she fits the role quite well; at a statuesque 5’9″, the dark-haired beauty could easily be an Amazonian Princess. Some criticism has come through regarding her skinniness, but as one commentator points out, Snyder is quite notorious for requiring his actors to hit the gym and pack on muscle.
But the most interesting thing about Gadot is her conception of feminine strength in the context of the traditionally masculine action genre. Check out the clip below.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think she was talking about playing Wonder Woman in the completely phallocentric paradigm of big-budget superhero cinema. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which her experience in the Fast franchise, asserting herself opposite testosterone-drenched meatheads like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, will serve as the perfect preparation to act alongside Henry Cavill’s chiseled deltoids and Ben Affleck’s cold masculine aura.
Marston conceived of Wonder Woman as a compliment, if not an antidote, to the illiterate chauvinism that too often showed up in superhero fiction. Marston described what he perceived as the problem with comic books:
It seemed from a psychological angle that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity. A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to the child as the breath of life.
While some progress has been made in the comic book industry, the world of live-action superhero entertainment still needs work. Outside of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and Scarlett Johanson’s Black Widow (both leather-clad femme fatales, mind you), there is an unfortunate dearth of quality female leads in superhero cinema today.
But based on what Gadot says above (which could have come from Marston himself), and specifically the genuineness and casual intelligence with which she says it, I believe she may be the best shot we have at bringing a respectable sense of female heroism to the screen.