Gal Gadot, a relatively unknown Jewish Israeli actress, has been cast in the role of Wonder Woman, set to make her first big screen appearance in the 2015 film Batman vs. Superman (a tentative title), the direct sequel to this year's Man of Steel. Comic and film fans erupted into a mixed chatter following the Dec. 4 announcement. Amidst them were cries of relief and concern. Perhaps more importantly, some took the time to ponder what, exactly, Wonder Woman - or a female superhero in general - means to people in modern times.
Various Wonder Woman projects have been stuck in limbo since the Lynda Carter-starring television series concluded in 1979. Among these was the pilot for a planned 2011 television remake starring Adrianne Palicki. The NBC network ultimately decided not to pick it up for a series. Notably, that pilot drew criticisms for overt sexualization of the character and an almost parody-like tone. The former criticism is significant - hyper-sexualization of female characters has become a common element of big Hollywood action movies. The women in these films, if not pushed entirely to the background, tend to be there to simply "look pretty," with little focus on their feelings or validity as people. It's incredibly demeaning, and it's become par for the course.
The most recent case in point comes in the Joss Whedon-directed 2012 Marvel's The Avengers, in which Scarlett Johansson portrayed the character Black Widow. An otherwise fun film, it didn't take particular care to give the character much useful backstory, motivation, or emotional connection with viewers. Black Widow was more "eye candy" than character, and that's unfortunate. This is something that's endemic to mainstream comics and their adaptations. Wonder Woman has, by and large, suffered the same treatment at the hands of a largely male-dominated group of comic book writers.
Noah Berlatsky, writer for The Atlantic and author of an upcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics, explained, "She has become a perennial bit player - a super-powered cheerleader for the big two tight-clad boys [Batman and Superman]. In the 2004 comic New Frontier, for example, Wonder Woman is mostly there to advise and comfort Superman and tell him his values are great. Similarly, in the 2001-2002 series The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Wonder Woman's main function is to inspire Superman - though this time by having sex with him. Why is she always the one telling him the world needs him? Why not vice-versa?
"This is particularly frustrating, because initially, the whole point of Wonder Woman was that the world needed her and not Superman," Berlatsky said. "William Marston, who created the character in the 1940s, was a committed feminist, and conceived Wonder Woman as a superior replacement for the Man of Steel." So what happened?
In a 1944 article for The American Scholar, Marston said, "It seems to me that comics' worst offense is their blood-curdling 'masculinity.' A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness." The solution, for Marston, was to remind both male and female readers of the values of women and femininity. These are values that many modern comics and films omit, at the cost of failing to represent true gender diversity.
The cries of relief, in response to the casting of Gal Gadot, were over the anticipated willingness to finally give an iconic female superhero her own major film, which is expected to follow Gadot's debut in Batman vs. Superman. The cries of concern were over the expected continued sexualization of the character (keep in mind that the upcoming film's director, Zack Snyder, was responsible for Sucker Punch, which some critics found to be highly misogynistic). Concern also abounds over the fact that, at least during her first appearance, Wonder Woman will once more be pushed to the background in favor of Batman and Superman.
Gadot herself has a fairly thin resume. She is known only for her appearance in the Fast and Furious film franchise (which, according to an article by Think Progress, "has a more consistent record on its racial diversity than its gender politics"). Many fans, however, see this as a chance for DC Comics to recreate this character in a more positive, progressive light. The ball is in DC Comics' court. Comic fans can only wait with crossed fingers to see how this will play out, and whether the legacy of Wonder Woman might be rendered respectfully and true to her creator's views in modern times.
Rounding out the cast of Batman vs. Superman will be Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Amy Adams. Other actors rumored to be circling roles are Idris Elba and Denzel Washington. The film's release date is set for July 17, 2015.
Photo: DC Comics official site