Destroy All Monsters: Wonder Gal

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Destroy All Monsters: Wonder Gal

Is it fair play to discuss Gal Gadot's casting as Wonder Woman (announced last week for a role in Zack Snyder's untitled Batman vs. Superman project) in terms of body type? On first blush the immediate conversation around the size of Gadot's breasts seemed both crass and ridiculous. It was an online caricature of the fanboy archetype, writ large; to say nothing of being the exact sort of commodification-based categorization of female performers that runs riot across the film industry. After getting in a few slap-fights on Twitter last Wednesday night, I gave up and went home.

To an extent, though, the critics pointing to Gadot's slender frame are raising a valid point of contention against the visual personality of the character she's playing. Depending on who you ask, Wonder Woman is somewhere above six feet tall, curvy, and - well - Amazonian. Gadot doesn't, on first blush, fit the bill.

I don't think there's a clear decision on how closely a piece of casting needs to adhere to the established look of a comic book character. One cannot imagine Warner Brothers casting a man of Tom Cruise's stature as Superman, for example, no matter how much muscle mass he could accumulate; and when Joss Whedon insisted that Alan Taylor include a gratuitous shot of Chris Hemsworth's naked upper body in Thor: The Dark World, he certainly understood how to deliver on the fantasies of a sector of his audience. (I've seen the film twice; audible gasps both times.)

But in the best cases, you cast the actor first and build towards a clear take on the character - brilliant if it's Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (an admittedly close visual match) or Michael Keaton as Batman (further afield of the lantern-jawed hero of the comics); less brilliant if it's Keanu Reeves as John Constantine or Jennifer Garner as Elektra. Those latter examples were in more trouble, filmwise, than just their casting, but they speak to a failure to "get it" on a basic character level that extends beyond the performer's look. The casting, alone, suggested something rotten in the interpretation as a whole.

It would be lovely if Wonder Woman were a tertiary character like Constantine or Elektra (or even pre-movie franchise Tony Stark) with which Warner Brothers and DC could experiment and develop a take on the character, but at the end of the day, she's Wonder Woman. Her status as the premier female comic book character - and coming at the tail end of a year which somehow managed to become the ne plus ultra of just how male-centric-to-the-point-of-'roid-rage the American blockbuster landscape could become - there is an inevitable, larger conversation here around the way the character is being treated in this case, which extends far beyond her (likely) relatively small part in Batman vs. Superman.

Concerns around Gadot's casting might begin (for some) with the actress' look and relative lack of experience, but they extend to a failure to pass a basic sniff test on Snyder, Warner Brothers, and DC's intentions as a whole for the character.

Snyder's involvement in developing the character is problematic. The limp ninja schoolgirls stuck in the elaborate death fantasy of Sucker Punch notwithstanding, the gender politics of his visual presentation of characters like Queen Gorgo, Laurie Jupiter, and recently Faora in Man of Steel, are troubling. Snyder consistently seems to be attempting to articulate an internally-held notion of strong women, which nonetheless never seems to escape his commercial-director's penchant for having his visual porn and eating it too. He creates exquisitely art-directed cosplay babes with the means to kill, but no onscreen density that gives them the ability to transcend their costumes.

(To be fair, the same can be said of most of his men. Gerard Butler's pecs in 300 are more memorable than his performance. Rorschach was a brilliant literalization of the comic book's Rorschach. Kevin Smith is on the record with his glee regarding Ben Affleck's Batman costume for Batman vs. Superman. Snyder should have been a costume designer.)

The most troubling indicator for the new movie's treatment of Wonder Woman, though, has nothing to do with the actress or the director, but simply with the project as a whole. I blame this entirely on Warner Brothers. In a single shot (and a few months after having declared Wonder Woman "tricky"), the studio has announced to the moviegoing world at large that Wonder Woman is not a character in her own right, but an adjunct to a larger fistfight between two popular male characters. Warner Brothers' cinematic universe is a man's world, and Wonder Woman's only shot at big-screen badassery is to play second fiddle in it.

Wonder Woman's curious status as the Smurfette of the Justice League is nothing new, of course, and speaks to a baseline exclusionism that runs throughout the mainstream comic book universe. Superheroes are male, and then get their female equivalents - and notably, for every Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel, there's a diminutive Supergirl or Batgirl, straddling the line between anima and cute teen sidekick. They're part of the system that assigns foils and protégés to the male leads, not leads in themselves.

This basic assumption, that "normal" is white and male and heterosexual, and everything else - everything else, from gender to sexual identity to race to religion - is an "alternate," is the pre-war rule set that the comics industry (and, let's face it, most of the rest of popular media) has stalwartly failed to remedy in its 80-year history. What's astonishing is that the market itself is now directly affirming to studios like Warner Brothers that their rule set is out of date: within weeks of the Gal Gadot announcement, two female-lead blockbusters had gobbled up the market share of the month of November. In both of those cases, they were great movies - which are always a safer bet for profitability than crappy ones - and not demographic-baiting base hits. But they suggest that the audience doesn't approach the studios' content with the same biases with which the studios create it.

For Batman vs. Superman, the status remains very much quo. Women in superhero stories rarely get to be women, in the sense of an adult female character with an internal psychology, agency, and purpose all her own. Here, we can see why casting the pixie-cute Gadot fits in line with the strategy of not just the movie franchise, but the entire comic book landscape. Warners' decision to roll out Wonder Woman as the only girl in the clubhouse speaks to the whole history of superhero stories, and every single thing that is wrong with them.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

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