The Invisible Woman

When I was a kid, visiting my cousin meant I got to do two things: sleep on the top bunk and page through his epic comic-card collection. I may have learned about dating from Archie Comics' Betty and Veronica, but the superheroines of Marvel and DC Comics were much more exciting. I coveted Rogue's kinetically charged boyfriend, Jean Grey's red mane, and Wonder Woman's strength, even squeezed down to trading-card size. It was perfect training for a future superhero-movie consumer. I've followed my memories of those tiny illustrations to the theater to see the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, I cheered Stan Lee's cameos in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, and in May, I read everything about Marvel Comics' announcement that its film-production division would release six new movies by 2011.

But as the biggest superhero summer so far comes to a close, I can't help but notice that women have been firmly relegated to the sidelines as girlfriends and assistants. Five of the six upcoming Marvel movies feature male leads, and it's not clear which, if any, superwomen will end up in the only ensemble picture in the lineup, The Avengers. Why is it that a film industry will cast lovably schlubby Seth Rogen as the Green Hornet and will take a serious chance on an Ant-Man movie (both are due to hit theaters in 2010) but can't get it together to make a Wonder Woman flick? Or any true superheroine movie at all?

The sad truth is, as special effects have gotten big, superwomen have gotten small.

It's not because directors and writers lack good material. There are hundreds of comic-book superheroines in the DC and Marvel Comics universes alone. Female characters play integral roles in almost every superhero team and major comic-book plot. Wonder Woman helps found the Justice League. The Scarlet Witch and the Black Widow are the first of many female members of the Avengers. Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman, is one of the most important members of the Fantastic Four. At their best, a few superheroines transcend their paneled pages and become literary figures. But rather than drawing on extant rich stories about female superheroes, contemporary comic-based movies either downplay their powers and their personalities or rewrite them as trashy high camp.

Take the X-Men franchise, which is hardly short on compelling female characters. In the Dark Phoenix comic books, originally written between 1979 and 1980 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, that form the basis for the 2006 film, X-Men: The Last Stand, super-psychic Jean Grey transforms into the fantastically powerful but amoral character Dark Phoenix. After destroying a star and a populated planet to fulfill an almost sexual hunger for power, Jean commits suicide to save the universe. As a character in the comic notes, "When faced with a choice between keeping her god-like power--knowing she would then wreak death and destruction across the stars--and dying herself, she chose the latter." It's a lot to make one woman both an agent of genocide and an exemplar of human goodness, but Claremont and Byrne pull it off.

Alas, in the film adaptation, director Brett Ratner basically confines Dark Phoenix (Famke Janssen) to vaporizing her boyfriend, Cyclops (James Marsden), shredding her mentor with glass, and removing Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) belt with her mind. These are useful skills, to be sure, but they seem more worthy of Uma Thurman's dumped G-Girl in 2006's cringe-worthy My Super Ex-Girlfriend (tagline: "He broke her heart. She broke his everything."). Rather than being supercharged, Janssen's Dark Phoenix looks like a wax doll. And rather than engineer her own justice, she has former suitor Wolverine do her in.

Other female X-Men suffer similar fates when adapted to the big screen. In the comic books, X-Men's Rogue struggles with her ability to absorb other people's powers and memories. On the page, Rogue finds love with fellow superhero Gambit, who can touch her without being affected by her powers, and she becomes more comfortable with her abilities once she joins the X-Men and accepts who she is. But in Ratner's film adaptation, Rogue (Anna Paquin) decides to take a vaccine to have her powers removed so she can touch--and keep--her boyfriend, Iceman. It's better, apparently, to be normal and keep the boy around.

With the notable exception of Wonder Woman, not many comic-book series focus exclusively on female heroes. But a market certainly exists for a solo superheroine movie. In 2006 Dan Buckley, Marvel Enterprises' publisher, said women's rising interest in comic books prompted the company to develop new storylines that would appeal to female readers. Marvel's director of sales, David Gabriel, said at the ComiCon convention that year that plotlines like the romance and wedding of Storm and the Black Panther, especially when repackaged in book form, could help reach black and female audiences by getting comics into mainstream bookstores rather than relying on readers to seek out specialty shops. And the audience isn't limited to women. In 1992, DC Comics told The New York Times that the then-50-year-old Wonder Woman was going strong with a 90 percent male readership. The Amazon princess almost certainly enjoys a larger market now than she did in 1967, when a test segment of a TV pilot was shot under a working title that played on her civilian name, "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?"

It briefly looked as if Wonder Woman was about to get the big-screen treatment she deserved when, in 2005, Joss Whedon signed on to write and direct a film adaptation. (Whedon, the genre-busting writer, producer, and director, is best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the toughest cheerleader ever to put on high heels and pick up a stake.) Wonder Woman not only held the potential to restore superheroines to their proper place but could have been one of the movies that reinvented the genre. But in early 2007, Whedon quit the project over creative differences with the studio. The film seems indefinitely shelved.

Whedon hasn't elaborated on the specifics of his differences with Warner Brothers, other than to say they were significant. But he did comment in a recent interview with media gossip blog Gawker that the critical and commercial failure of other comic-based movies with female leads has made it difficult for serious portrayals of superwomen to make it into theaters. "Progress is slow and often nonexistent," Whedon said. "There's plenty of cool comics with female characters. ... But all it takes is one Catwoman to set the cause back a decade."

He was bemoaning failed superheroine movies that slathered on high camp and special effects while dumbing down their characters. Both 2004's Catwoman (starring Halle Berry) and 2005's Elektra (starring Jennifer Garner) were critical and commercial flops because they didn't embrace the fact that their characters are complicated anti-heroes; neither movie dares to make its heroine really bad or really good and neither movie ends up being very interesting.

In the comics, Catwoman represents female vengeance, a cautionary tale for men who mistreat women. In one origin story, Selina Kyle begins her life of crime by breaking into her abusive husband's safe to retrieve her jewelry and assumes the alter-ego of Catwoman. Frank Miller reintroduced Selina as a prostitute in 1986; in one spin-off, Catwoman kills her former pimp to save her sister, whom he has kidnapped and abused. Michelle Pfeiffer captures some of this spirit of revenge as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) when, with an electrified smooch, she kills the abusive boss who pushed her out of a window. But when Berry has her turn as Catwoman in a leading role, Selina's name gets changed to Patience, and Catwoman gets declawed. Her nemesis is an evil makeup magnate (Sharon Stone), and Berry defeats her by scratching her marble-perfect face. If toning down Catwoman is what it takes to get her a movie of her own, it isn't worth the trade.

20th Century Fox didn't even try to turn Elektra, a spin-off of the 2003 Daredevil movie, into a blockbuster: The studio released the film in the late-January dead zone reserved for mediocre movies. In it, Garner dons a red bustier to reprise her role as an assassin who accidentally befriends two of her targets. There's a lot of nonsense about competing secret societies and moral tests, all of which is obscured by some flashy special effects, including tattoos that turn into animals, which in turn turn into beams of light, and an attempted murder via same-sex kiss. Nothing's wrong with high camp. But it's easier to laugh at Nicolas Cage's deliberately ridiculous performance in the 2007 faux-Western superhero morality play, Ghost Rider, because we've already got big-screen versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk standing by to remind us that being a superhero is really a serious and illuminating business.

Superwomen, on the other hand, are in danger of appearing merely risible. Robert Rodriguez is unlikely to correct that impression with his upcoming Red Sonja remake, slated for 2010 and adapted from the comics about a 16th-century barbarian babe famous mostly for popularizing the chain-mail bikini. Sonja is not even really a superhero, but she is the only comic-book woman who's set to hit theaters in the foreseeable future.

After a summer during which women flexed their box-office muscle, giving Sex and the City the highest-grossing opening for an R-rated comedy in movie history, it's not inconceivable to think that a superheroine flick could draw on both the "girls' night out" crowd and the already broad fan base for comic-book movies. That would be a great development, and not just for the studios that would experience a revenue bump of the kind provided by the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. Superheroine movies could instantly provide badly needed quality roles for talented female actresses of varying ages and ethnicities, helping to address a gender imbalance in summer movies that's caused critics like The New York Times' Manohla Dargis (herself a minority in a world of mostly male reviewers) some serious heartburn.

Superwomen could also appeal to the tween set and challenge the stars of the Disney juggernaut, like singer-actresses Miley Cyrus, by injecting some female muscle and a little intelligent, nonexploitative sex appeal into the marketplace. And they could give supermen a good shaking-up. From Batman's brooding darkness to the Hulk's search for peace to Iron Man Tony Stark's solitary tinkering, superheroes these days are a somewhat inward-looking lot. Putting Rogue back in her bright-green suit, restoring the shine of PVC to Catwoman's outfit (if Hulk got rebooted, why not Selina Kyle?), and bringing back Susan Storm's desire to connect with her fellow heroes would do a lot to liven up summer screens.

And why not start with the superwoman who was sent here to bring a feminine--and feminist--perspective to the fight against evil? It might take Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth to make studio executives own up to the fact that 41 years after she first made it on the screen, they're still afraid of Diana Prince.