Monday, April 22, 2013

Doc Watch: Wonder Women! on PBS

On Monday, I watched the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines on the PBS series Independent Lens.

If you were expecting a documentary about the importance of Wonder Woman to 20th and 21st Century females as a symbol of power for women, you were in the right place.

You can watch the whole thing online at the moment.  Here you go.

For those of us who are already fans of the character, it's a nice tribute to the character, a nice consideration of the influence of the character across the 20th century, but the doc was also a bit frustrating.

The documentary was a good starter kit for someone to consider pop culture touchstones as gateway drugs for empowerment for women and a place to start the discussion of media portrayals of women.  But, if you know your Wonder Woman (and I only kind of feel like I've scracthed the surface of the character), the film followed the prescribed narrative checklist of players and topics you'd get in talking about Wonder Woman's history if you were to talk on the subject for more than five minutes.

We got:
  • William Moulton Marston's creation of a lie-detector and his hang-ups on bondage scenarios are touched upon
  • Glora Steinem talks the first cover of Ms.
  • Lynda Carter gets interviewed (and is still just as stunning)
  • various academics are interviewed who talk about what it means to have a strong female character at the start of World War II
  • Wonder Woman's second tier place in comics after WWII

And none of that's wrong, but after reading a few books on Wonder Woman and seeing at least one other documentary on the topic, from a facts-based stance, the doc didn't bring much new to the page in regards to Wonder Woman.  It did, however, make the direct connection between Wonder Woman on TV and the expansion of the role of women as action heroes.

What the movie does do is create an emotional resonance outside of the fan websites and comics communities and asks a general population why there isn't a Wonder Woman movie to stand alongside Spider-Man, etc...  It actually sort of makes a direct prescription that... hey, Kathryn Bigelow exists...  were just saying....

All documentaries need to leave something on the cutting room floor, but if you're a Wonder Woman fan, or you happen to know your superhero comics, the doc feels less cut for time and more that it's shaped a narrative for itself that asks questions as if the answer is, unflaggingly "if people were decent, we'd have a Wonder Woman movie" rather than actually answering the questions it raises.  If I sound a little down on the documentary, it's that the entire doc sort of bends history and actual causal connections to draw a version of history that isn't entirely accurate, fails to give credit where it's due, and cherry picks it's media to make arguments that are sometimes either not true or far more complex than what's presented.

Look, I am aware that I know DC comics better than most of the people interviewed who are experts in gender studies, but it's pretty clear that those experts were asked to comment on Wonder Woman (and action films, etc...) and that was maybe not really their area of expertise.  For example, there's some distress that Wonder Woman is shown in peril on the cover of her comics when - hint - putting the hero of the comic in peril was the modus operandi of DC Comics straight through from the 50's until the mid-1980's, and is still extremely common.  It was intended to make the reader curious about what was going to happen to the brand-recognized hero and you could find out for a few shiny nickels.

In many ways, the doc is using Wonder Woman as a lens to look at the way women are perceived in media, and that look at other characters, co-option of images, etc...   The movie seemed to believe it could explain why we haven't had a Wonder Woman franchise film through Film Theory 101 applied to reality.  And that's one take, I guess.  I just didn't find the approach practical, and I found both evidence and conclusions debatable.

The doc isn't required to discuss the crash in the superhero market for comics in the 1950's (and there was one), and that there may be context to Wonder Woman becoming more focused on romance during the era as romance comics sold like crazy.  But if it is going to take Wonder Woman to task for the I-Ching, Kung-fu era Wonder Woman, it does owe the context of Emma Peel, James Bond movies, martial arts movies, etc... that were popular at the time - and why those things may have been seen as a doorway to revitalizing flagging sales on Wonder Woman comics.

The doc continually contradicts itself in large and small ways, including suggesting that Wonder Woman has been in stasis for decades - ignoring the entire post Crisis run, the appearances on Justice League, I believe a brief mention of the failed NBC pilot (if that.  I might be making that up.), no mention of the failed Joss Whedon film, nor the animated film that did see the light of day.  I am aware that it's not the same exposure as Lynda Carter appearing once a week on TV sets on one of three networks, but the tone is that once Carter's show ended, Wonder Woman ended and made way for an evolutionary pattern that climaxed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Most puzzling - the doc seems very focused on Wonder Woman comics pre-dating Crisis on Infinite Earths, so the "modern" take on Wonder Woman the doc seems to want to discuss is mired in the late 70's and early 1980's.  No mention is made of the nearly the past 30 years of Wonder Woman comics - much of which I think I would have liked to have heard someone discuss.  I believe we got one George Perez image during the entire running time of the doc, and nothing by Phil Jimenez.  And I think I would have liked to have heard the take on Wonder Woman, as I think some of what happened in the past, oh, 30 years, might have been of interest.

While it would complicate things, the doc also conspicuously fails to mention that DC was run by Jenette Kahn (a person of the lady persuasion) from 1981 through 2002, and that for the past few years, DC has once again had a woman at the helm.  Or that it's two primary examples of cutting edge female characters (Ripley and Sarah Connor) were both products of James Cameron.*  And that Ridley Scott, who was responsible for the cited Thelma and Louise, was also responsible for V.1 of Ripley.

It's not wrong to ask for a Wonder Woman movie, especially one that can get the production that I'm seeing for Man of Steel rather than CW's Smallville or Arrow.  And we should all rejoice that the David E. Kelley Wonder Woman show never made it to broadcast.  But some nuts and bolts discussion of why there isn't a Wonder Woman big budget movie would be more illuminating than the argument that's flown that basically boils down to "it's not fair" and does some hand waving about society, man.

When you're planning to make your pitch for a movie, there's nothing like some solid facts in hand.  If Wonder Woman comics aren't selling, why?  (At no point is the change from the newstand to the direct market and changing demographics mentioned.)  If no movie is being made, and we know that Hollywood will make a movie about just about anything if they think it will make money, why isn't Wonder Woman included when whole franchises like Resident Evil and Underworld have featured female leads.  What happened with the attempt at a WW TV show and a movie?

I believe in all the warm, fuzzy reasons pitched by the doc as to why Wonder Woman should be considered for her time in movie theaters when we live in a world where we've given The Punisher three shots at a movie and WW hasn't seen a marquee with her name on it.  And I don't want to find myself debating the doc as it's rolling along... because I'm on their side.

Look, I watched the doc because I'm a fan of WW, I'm interested in the topic of gender portrayals in comics and superhero media, and I kind of care about some of this stuff.  I know the director probably felt she'd exhaustively researched the topics, but... she really needed someone to fly co-pilot with her who better knew the terrain.  I don't want to spend my time while watching a doc feeling like there was an agenda and an idea first, and what presented itself was going to get discarded if it didn't fit neatly into the narrative the filmmakers had in mind.

*and, it's worth noting, director Kathryn Bigelow was married to Cameron many years ago

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