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Can “Wonder Woman” Make Its Mark in a Crowded Superhero Movie Landscape?

by  in Comic News Comment
Can “Wonder Woman” Make Its Mark in a Crowded Superhero Movie Landscape?

Between Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios’ recent announcements, the future of superhero films looks brighter — and more crowded — than ever. As exciting as it is to be a superhero fan in these times, however, it may seem odd to see an unbalance in the level of excitement surrounding these announcements, perhaps most pointedly when looking at “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel.”

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While there is certainly more than enough room for both ladies in superhero cinematic history-to-be-made, the buzz around “Captain Marvel” and the comparative lack thereof for “Wonder Woman” has left some fans scratching their heads. Considering my own excitement for both films, I asked myself, why has the “Wonder Woman” film received such a tepid reaction from fans and critics compared to the cheers for Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” announcement? And how can “Wonder Woman” stand out in a market with over two dozen superhero films planned for the next five years?

Ah, the Element of Surprise

Marvel and WB made their announcements just about two weeks apart. However, the way the two studios released the news couldn’t have been more different. The DC announcement came relatively out of the blue at a Time Warners investors meeting. Meanwhile, Marvel dropped their “Avengers: Age of Ultron” trailer a week ahead of schedule following a leaked copy of the anticipated first look, but then let speculation build after talking up a secretive press event amidst rumors that Benedict Cumberbatch had been cast as Doctor Strange. Both sets of announcements were monumental for comic book flicks, with DC naming ten films and Marvel answering with nine of its own.

More to the point, Marvel and DC’s respective announcements each included one female-led film: “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman.” While Wonder Woman has definitely enjoyed a longer and more popular tenure in the annals of comic book history — one could arguably call her the First Lady of superheroes — the “Captain Marvel” film feels as though it has received more media attention, at least by way of think pieces (of which I am admittedly guilty). So what gives?

I think part of it comes down to expectations. Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” almost a year ago; ever since, rumors have swirled about her expanding role in the post-“Man of Steel” DC movie universe. In fact, as early as January 2014, the nature of her three-picture deal heralded cries of a solo “Wonder Woman” film, so Gadot’s headlining picture has always been more of a question of “when” rather than “if.”

On the flip side, the rumors of a Carol Danvers appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were speculative at best. With no one cast and only a loose connection to the character by way of the Kree’s introduction into the MCU, no concrete evidence for her debut was offered ahead of the “Captain Marvel” movie announcement. Further, a “Black Widow” movie was much more anticipated by fans and pundits, considering the build up of the character over the past few movies. As such, the announcement came as a bigger shock than “Wonder Woman’s,” which has had much more time to stew in fan chatter and theories.

So Little, So Late

With director Christopher Nolan departing the Batman franchise in 2012, Warner Bros. decided to launch its superhero universe anew with “Man of Steel” in 2013. For all intents and purposes, then, the DC movie universe is a fledgling franchise — and it’s already besting Marvel at the diversity game, casting actors like Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller to major, headlining roles. With the solo films and culminating “Justice League” conglomerate, that means half of DC’s lineup features an ethnically diverse range of stars, an approach that has rightfully been applauded.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel Studios, only two out of their 20 slated films — including the 10 already released — are confirmed to star a woman or a person of color as the central protagonist. Where others, like “Inhumans,” carry the potential to do the same, no word has come out concerning the characters that these films will feature.

RELATED: What We Learned from Marvel Studios’ Phase Three Film Announcement

What’s the point, you find yourself asking. Simply put, Marvel has stretched out the need for diverse casting, letting its fans simmer while it pushed forward property after property helmed by their (admittedly very talented) white male protagonists, with the ensemble “Guardians of the Galaxy” the one possible exception. While Marvel’s latest announcement doesn’t undermine DC’s, it definitely relieved some of the burn from the fire felt by Marvel fans left wanting, making the two films thrown their way cause for major celebration.

Critical Insight

Again, Marvel has quite a few films on DC, so I’m going to keep this section on the short side. However, according to RottenTomatoes.com, “Man of Steel” was rated to be 55% fresh by critics. Marvel Studios’ first film — “Iron Man” — managed to hit a 93% critical rating. Although some of films struggled after that, Marvel began to churn out critical darlings one after the other, scaling higher than “Man of Steel” — in some cases, much higher: “Iron Man 3” (78%), “Thor: The Dark World (68%), “Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier” (89%), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (90%). It’s inarguable that DC/WB is off to a shaky start, but that doesn’t mean the franchise, including “Wonder Woman,” can’t hit acclaimed heights of its own. However, since Warner Bros. continues to point to “MoS” as the blueprint for its superhero universe, it does give one pause.

Setting the Character’s Tone

One of the most common criticisms “Man of Steel” received concerned its dark tone, dulled-down color palette and general humorlessness. Many accused director Zack Snyder of trying to fill Nolan’s shoes with a gritty, “grimdark” take on the Big Blue Boy Scout, specifically calling out the movie’s polarizing conclusion — something Mark Waid spoke about at length. With “Batman v Superman” looking darker yet, according to the promo photos and video clips shared at conventions, where does that leave “Wonder Woman?”

If, as rumor has it, the first “Wonder Woman” film is based in the 1920s or 1940s, perhaps Warner Bros. will approach the character like Marvel did Captain America. As much as I enjoy period films, that approach would be an extremely safe route to go for a character long touted to be a feminist icon. Setting her in this time period would find her in a man’s world that is overtly misogynistic and intolerant, as opposed to the much more subtle one she’d encounter today.

That is, of course, if she encounters man’s world at all. The “Wonder Woman” solo film could take a cue from Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s New 52 take on the character and deal more with the Greek pantheon than the woe’s of man’s world. After all, producer Charles Roven has stated that she will indeed been Zeus’ daughter in the films — a change that has been controversial among comic book fans, but might help movie audiences connect with her. Regardless, this approach could set up the kind of fun, rock-’em-sock-’em monster brawl that Diana faced in the Golden Age.

Tonally, Wonder Woman could fit in either way. Though she only does so in only the more dire of situations, she has killed enemies without remorse in an effort to save future victims. On the other hand, Wonder Woman is a warm, compassionate character whose sense of justice spurs her to attend to man’s world; in pre-New 52 continuity, she even became Star Sapphire for a stint in a reflection of her capacity to love. However, where Wonder Woman certainly has a capacity for darkness, it seems a little out-of-tune to make Diana go to the way of “Man of Steel’s” cold, paranoid Pa Kent — something that could spark some hesitation in any Wonder Woman fan’s heart.

What Now?

Now? We wait. As much as there is to discuss about the MCU and DC’s established cinematic history, the reality is, virtually nothing is known about the solo “Wonder Woman” film — and even less about “Captain Marvel.” Thanks to this current climate, both films have sparked some hype early on, for better or for worse, thanks in large part to their roles as the first lady-led superhero films in quite some time. It’s easy to get caught up in the Marvel vs. DC furor that pervades the superhero genre, but the “Wonder Woman”/”Captain Marvel” debate shouldn’t be misconstrued as a contest; rather, they’re an equal opportunity — an opportunity to bring women to the screen in different but compelling ways. And though I have my own reservations about the potential direction of the “Wonder Woman” film, you’ll be sure to see me there opening night, with a big old grin on my face.

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