Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Yup. Another superheroine on film post. Maybe I’ll just keep writing these until one gets made (probably not, I’m already pretty tired).
If you read this column frequently you guys know that I’m a pretty big fan of io9 in general, but Charlie Jane Anders has been killing it lately on the superheroines on film issue. First with her compilation of Action Movies Starring Women that I linked to in last week’s article and then this past week she proposed 8 ways to get a superheroine movie made, it’s a great piece even if I agree with some of the ideas more than others.
One thing she points out that I think is key, is that NOW is the time to get a superheroine movie made. Waiting two, three, four, or more years to get the ball seriously rolling on a superheroine film is just not an option. Moves need to be made now, or we might just miss our window. There’s sure to be burnout on superhero movies (are we already there?). As long as the movies continue to be good I think people will continue to spend money to see them (even if they complain or pretend to complain that they’re tired of them), but the mainstream audience may get weary, and seeing a bad one (they can’t ALL be good) can put a lot of people who aren’t naturally invested in superhero properties off the concept quickly.
So, a big thanks to Anders for the inspiration – and I hope she doesn’t mind me jumping on her bandwagon and coming up with some of my own solutions for each of her suggestions and one additional category of my own. I obviously stand by my position that it’s pure insanity to not already have The Black Widow in development (as well as Wonder Woman) but beyond that, here are some ideas that think a little bit outside the box.
Don’t wait for DC/Marvel to figure it out, just create all new heroines. I am ALL FOR THIS (obviously). Anders lists very good examples in Chronicle, Hancock, and Sky High, also The Incredibles (though as an animated property I’m not sure they have quite the same challenges). These movies were wholly original, not even adapted from non-comics material, and they did very well relative to their budgets and expectations. There’s absolutely a great argument for just pushing Marvel and DC aside and doing something wholly original (or adapted from media outside of comics, or comics outside of Marvel and DC). I obviously can’t make a specific argument here without creating my own hero and writing a script for it, but I can say that I think it’s pretty easily done – the building blocks of superheroes are pretty universal and easily applied. And if you DO want a roadmap or inspiration or more, there’s a lot of material out there already that could be adapted (cough<The Girl Who Would Be King<cough) though arguably a lot of it is not superheroine focused. Another option as mentioned above is just to go after more indie creations, like Faith Erin Hicks Adventures of Superhero Girl or Ross Campbell’s Shadoweyes.
Simply to take liberties with existing heroine properties. I think any adaptation has to take some liberties with the existing property, and hopefully Hollywood is well aware of this. Certainly the best adaptations do this in smart ways, but I think that Marvel and DC especially would be wise to keep this in mind, and fans should learn to be flexible. Adaptations are tricky things to begin with and what works on a comic book page doesn’t necessarily work blown up on a 40-foot screen.
We’re not all going to like what happens when liberties are taken, and sometimes it will be a bridge too far (I was able to accept Azzarello’s origin change for Diana, but couldn’t handle the destruction of the Amazons). So individual mileage will vary, but as fans we should try to keep in mind that movies are designed to appeal to a much broader and less informed audience, so sacrifices must be made in the best interests of the final product.
I was kind of dismayed on the last column to see some really small thinking in the comments section — there were great comments too of course — but there was a lot of really narrow focus on exactly what stories could or should be adapted — as if only stories that already exist can or should be what’s focused on for a film – I mean, we all know that it doesn’t have to go that way, right? Sometimes the best story for the medium, time, character, what have you, hasn’t yet been told and we’d all do well to remember that. I was also bummed to see so many of you insistent that there weren’t many superheroines (beyond Wonder Woman) “big enough” to launch a film. The implication a lot of times was that there were no women “worthy” of a film but that’s not only incredibly small-minded thinking that really devalues so many of our characters and stories but it also ignores what we have already learned – i.e. as many of you also pointed out, Iron Man was not the A-list superstar he is today when the first Iron Man came out in 2008. A major film can do a lot to raise a character that previously wasn’t A-list to A-list.
Hopefully the success with films like Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, and even Nolan’s Batman films Hollywood and DC/Marvel have learned that flexibility is good.
THE NON-SUPERHERO SUPERHERO
Anders idea is that if you don’t tell anyone it’s a superhero movie, you can get away with the female-led action film. I get the idea of doing a big reveal at the end of a film to show how this is actually a superhero movie, but given how much gossip happens during filming I don’t think it’s that practical, plus you’d possibly miss out on the natural promo machine that is the comics industry/SDCC/etc. Instead what I’d suggest is a superhero movie wrapped up in another kind of movie.
Quite frankly Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias would be a great blueprint for this, because it’s primarily a really a cool detective story, set inside a superhero world and with a great complicated leading lady, that it’s only revealed slowly has superpowers (but not ones she’s all that comfortable with).
This could fit seamlessly into an already existing Marvel Universe. An Alias/Jessica Jones story can reference superheroes and the existing characters and world building (not unlike Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD seems like it will), while still not being a huge budget-busting blockbuster. Jessica Jones is undeniably a superhero, but she doesn’t present that way initially, and in the scope of Alias (volume 1 at least), she doesn’t even ever “become” a superhero in a traditional sense. Additionally, Jessica naturally overlaps in the material with superheroines Ms/Capt Marvel and Spider-Woman, so it can either introduce those characters or anchor Jessica more firmly into that universe and give those heroines juicy supporting roles. There are also some great dude cameos built in from Luke Cage and Captain America to Daredevil and Ant-Man.
So Alias is a way to have your superheroine movie cake and eat it too. Or something.
Riffing off of all the “female Expendables” talk! Doing a team up movie certainly gets you more bang for your buck. And if there’s a fear about enough people being interested in a certain superheroine, doubling down with multiple heroines can potentially minimize your risk (though it also likely ups your budget significantly). I also like this idea because it can potentially minimize the odds that filmmakers will focus on all those seen it before origin stories and just get to the heart of the story right away.
In truth, an X-Men film focusing on the ladies in Brian’s Wood’s cast makes a ton of sense. Bring back Anna Paquin (whose profile is much raised thanks to True Blood) as Rogue, Ellen Page is already on record saying she’d be delighted to come back as Kitty Pryde, both are talented actresses and reasonable draws for an ensemble movie. I like Halle Berry, but I’ve never enjoyed her take on Storm (and they continue to not get the hair right), but still, half the movie is already cast with known actresses as well as superheroines that audiences are at least partially familiar with — add a Psylocke, Jubilee, and Rachel and you’re done. I actually think Wood’s first three issues for his new X-Men series has total potential as the framework for a movie.
I’ll re-iterate how much I’d love to see a Nextwave Agents of H.A.T.E. film. I also think the humor and meta-ness of Nextwave is right in sync with what Marvel’s doing right now. Add to that, three powerful female leads (and a dude and a robot dude for diversity!) I admit I also loooove the idea that if you could establish Elsa Bloodstone as a character you could eventually have a Legion of Monsters spin off movie. Sooo potentially cool. A triple bonus would be getting Monica Rambeau established as a heroine, especially if Carol is the new Captain Marvel – makes me feel better about everything on that front.
From DC the obvious call would be Birds of Prey. Seems like a slam-dunk quite frankly.
Write a movie for a male lead and then simply swap the gender. This one is tough when it comes to comics, because while it certainly worked well for movies like Alien and Salt as mentioned in the io9 piece, those weren’t previously established properties with rabid (and very vocal) fan bases. They also didn’t skip over a ton of totally doable existing superheroines to switch the gender on a male supe.
So I think taking an existing male superhero from comics and making her female superhero is probably a mistake. However, I think you can take the idea of this and think outside the box a bit. Manhunter for example, was originally a male character, but was re-imagined to reasonable success when Kate Spencer took over as the current Manhunter in Marc Andreyko’s series. Like Alias, Manhunter does a great job of straddling genres in that she’s not your traditional supheroine, she’s a darker vigilante character, and though there’s a costume and some toys and some “unofficial sidekicks” she’s more street level and thus perhaps more approachable in some ways as well as less expensive that traditional superheroes. She also ties nicely to a lot of Bat-universe characters, which, when done correctly, is like printing money.
Something awesome in this same vein (but which you can file in the “it’s never going to happen” category) would be taking the Cassandra Cain Batgirl Volume 1 and doing a version of it that as a movie. This takes the “make Batman a chick” idea, but with its roots already firmly planted in an existing property that despite DC Comics having no interest in the character, still has a thriving fan base.
And there’s already a nice roadmap on how to bring that character to the screen in her initial comics. You just begin with Cain as the ultimate badass bat character, doing the absolutely unbelievable, but hampered by her inability to speak — and her “reading of body language” is an exceptional opportunity for creative filmmaking and effects — then she gains the ability to speak but loses what makes her a perfect fighting machine. She struggles with the desire to be more normal through an ability to communicate and understand language as others do, but ultimately tries to give it up so she can be a better heroine. Annnnd done! An amazing character focused piece. I don’t even think you need some massive villain, you can just do a smaller story that establishes Cain as a crime fighting Bat hero with assassin roots, and you’re ready to go. Cassandra Cain as Batgirl also has advantages in that you can (again) tie in to the Bat universe, you can use Oracle, another hugely popular character, and Cain is the “darkest” of all the Batgirls, which is certainly in line with current DC as well as the Nolan (and now Snyder?) take on the DC Universe in film.
I know a lot of fans have issues with characters that feel like rip-offs of male counterparts/versions, and I understand the complaint, but in the scheme of things it doesn’t really bother me. Yes, it’s better if we can have a heroine totally independent of existing male characters, but what I care about is a great heroine making it to the screen. I’m okay with that being a Batgirl or Batwoman, or a Spider-Woman, etc., so long a she’s three dimensional and awesome and on screen in my damn lifetime.
DITCH THE COSTUMES
The idea being that you don’t have to put a character in a costume to make them a superhero. I don’t think absolutely no costume works too well (unless you go with something like Alias as discussed above) but I think Anders makes a great argument for how rarely you see a character like Wolverine in an actual costume. He works as a hero (and superhero) in and out of costume. Anna Paquin’s Rogue in the first X-Men film never wears a costume (and in fairness doesn’t do a lot of fighting given her power set) but the filmmakers managed to translate some of her comic costume ideas into real world clothes in powerful ways. That green hooded jacket is better than most costumes on screen.
Similarly, there has been some cool development of more practical costumes in comics that are striking but also function as reasonable clothing – Jamie McKelvie’s take on both Miss America and Kate Bishop/Hawkeye spring to mind instantly. Jubilee’s new costume – a black jumpsuit and the classic yellow jacket and sunglasses. Immonen’s take on the Ladies of Nextwave are all reasonable costumes, some of which work as real life clothing as a bonus.
Its true that powerful iconography really drives a lot of superhero properties, and I think it’s an important part of the equation, but there are a lot of different ways to approach that idea. Easily the most important thing however is that sexing up the lady costumes and erring on the non-practical side certainly DOES NOT work (see Catwoman and to a lesser degree Elektra) so let’s hope that lesson at least has been learned.
Anders makes a good argument for period pieces being an interesting time for women and also allow you more freedom to push on issues of gender. It’s true that WWII is an especially interesting period for women, as it’s a moment of real change, women stepping more into the workforce and traditionally male roles. There’s some cool arguments you can make on that stage that don’t play as well in a modern context. I confess that I’m more interested in seeing modern superheroines tried, if only because I don’t believe there’s no reason it can’t be done, but I agree that period piece stories can both be fascinating and have some fertile comics history to mine. Who doesn’t want to see that awesome Darwyn Cooke New Frontier Wonder Woman/Superman moment: “There’s The Door, Spaceman?”
Man, that might actually be enough to make me swoon, a movie that brought me that line. Yep.
It’s a bad idea to put romance in a female-led superhero film, you risk chick flicking the hell out of it, which is good for nobody. Gods, I hope this one is really obvious. And it’s not to say that our heroine can’t have some sexual tension in her story, but she needs to be first and foremost a hero, the same way our male heroes are in their films. It will be even more important in a supeheroine film, that risks being written off as a chick flick or “for girls,” that filmmakers are really careful with toeing this line and keeping the romance and “chick stuff” to a minimum. The good news is that there are a ton of wonderful examples in comics of superheroines functioning without any romance anywhere to be seen.
“YA” IT UP
Superhero movies by definition are somewhat YA in that studios want to hit that PG-13 rating. So you’re already halfway there. Pick a property rife with young new heroes and you’re nearly there. YA literature is a huge seller – from Harry Potter to Twilight to Hunger Games — and adapting YA material for the big screen has a real history of success — though there are notable – and recent – failures – like the first (only?) installment of Mortal Instruments.
Using Gillen and McKelvie’s very young and fresh feeling Young Avengers as a template seems like a no-brainer, though arguably there’s an issue in explaining to non-comics audiences both Kid Loki and Kate Bishop as Hawkeye. It’s also not female heavy which is what we’re supposed to be focusing on here…okay, fine, I would really just love a Young Avengers movie, alright!?
You can go back a bit further with properties like The Runaways — to be honest I don’t love that opening story of The Runaways — which naturally focuses on their origin as characters with powers and as a team in general — but the characters are undeniably awesome and fresh feeling and there are a lot of cool ladies.
You could also do something great like Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s The Inhumans story and focus on the youth/transformation aspect of the story, as told through Tonaja’s eyes, which is its strength anyway. With themes of growing up, segregation, and things never quite being what they seem there’s a great movie in there, though in fairness it’s probably not the first movie to try to make and the effects would be challenging/budget busting. Like Young Avengers I guess this goes on a personal wish list more than a logical “it makes sense! Do it now!” list.
In conclusion I guess I’d just advocate for the idea that there are so many rich characters, books, and stories when it comes to superhero ladies that I hate to think that anyone would dismiss all of that with a hand wave that they “just don’t think it would work.” Think of all the things that you thought might not work that turned out awesome in life? I mean, how insane must Being John Malkovich have seemed on paper, and yet someone had the vision (and the balls) to make it and it’s amazing. There are so many things like that.
Similarly, if we just gave up the first time that things didn’t work (like Catwoman or Elektra, or going further back SuperGirl) then Buffy The Vampire Slayer never would have gone on to become an amazing and groundbreaking seven years of television after the atrocious (and rightly so) failed movie of the same name. But we’re blessed with visionary passionate storytellers and incredibly rich stories — those that exist and those that have not yet even been dreamed up — so there’s no reason to be so sure that this can’t work. It can, and perhaps more importantly, it should. It’s high time…well past time in fact. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s become one because there’s such a bizarre lack in this specific area.
It’s time to fix that.
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