Wonder Women: Five Actors In Search of a Superhero Movie
Hollywood has proved to be pretty great at superheroes. For the last few years the genre has provided some of the biggest tentpoles of the blockbuster season. Hollywood is less great at other things — like, for example, providing leading roles for women.
Hollywood is especially not great at providing lead superhero roles for women, but maybe that’s not entirely Hollywood’s fault. Superhero comics aren’t great at providing those roles either. In fact, there are plenty of actors in Hollywood who could play amazing superheroes — if only the roles existed for them. For example…
Sandra Bullock was one of the top grossing stars of 2013. She’s ranked fourth in Vulture’s list of most valuable movie stars. She starred in two of the big hits of last year, Gravity and The Heat. And at 49, she’s unlikely to play a superhero.
Superheroing is a young person’s gig. Except, Robert Downey Jr. was in his 40s when he first played Iron Man. The same is true for Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Don Cheadle as War Machine, and Paul Rudd in next year’s Ant-Man. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Samuel L. Jackson were all in their 50s when they put on the proverbial capes. There are roles for all of these actors that no-one blinks an eye at. Yet the oldest woman to originate a superhero role is Halle Berry, who was 38 when she played Catwoman.
Are there no superheroes that could be played by a woman over the age of 40? We can accept an Ant-Man in his 40s; can we do the same for Batwoman, Spider-Woman, Sue Storm or Zatanna? Where is the superhero for Diane Lane, Salma Hayek, or Rachel Weisz? Why isn’t Monica Bellucci already in the movies as Contessa Valentina de Fontaine? Where is Sandra Bullock’s Iron Man?
Michelle Rodriguez is still safely in her 30s and not yet considered “out to pasture.” She’s established her action movie cred time and again with roles in Resident Evil, Avatar, Machete, and the Fast & Furious franchise. Michelle Rodriguez can throw down.
She’s the perfect candidate for an action-packed superhero role. But who would she play? There aren’t actually that many female heroes known for their muscle, because the comic industry favors such a limited range of body types. As a woman of color — half Dominican, half Puerto Rican — Rodriguez’s options are further limited when it comes to existing heroes. Most of the Hispanc characters at Marvel and DC are teenagers, because they were created as rookies in the past couple of decades.
In an another timeline, Rodriguez would have been perfect as Marvel’s Miss America Chavez from Young Avengers. One can well imagine her punching holes in reality and rocking some star-spangled denim. As she’s not a teenager any more, there isn’t a heavy-hitting Hispanic female hero she can play. Doesn’t it feel like comics has let us all down?
If the range of women’s bodies in comics doesn’t offer many options for Michelle Rodriguez, it has even less to offer Gabourey Sidibe. The actor played something close to a superhero in American Horror Story: Coven, and she clearly relished the opportunity to play a fantastical role.
There’s an obvious reason why Sidibe is unlikely to play a traditional superhero; the genre favors athleticism. Yet the genre also perpetuates a very limited understanding of what athleticism looks like. We’ve talked about this on ComicsAlliance before. A gymnast does not resemble a basketball player. Weightlifting alone offers a range of female body types, and no sane person is going to tell those women they’re not athletes. Heavy does not equal unhealthy.
Comics’ narrow ideas about what qualifies as “athletic” has a knock-on effect for our views of womanhood and beauty. Breast size; curves; hip width; even the texture and behavior of hair, all tend to be presented in limited ways that exclude most women from representation. There need to be more female body shapes in comics than Jubilee, Black Widow, She-Hulk.
As Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black, Laverne Cox made a big impression in 2013. As an outspoken advocate for trans issues, she’s already a goddamned superhero. She’s already Wonder Woman.
And honestly, Laverne Cox could play Wonder Woman. She could play Storm; she could play Vixen; she could play Monica Rambeau. I would love to see her in any of those roles. Hell, I’d like to see her play a female Captain America, because Laverne Cox undoubtedly represents the values of liberty and justice for all.
But I also wish there were a transgender superhero she could play. I cannot understand how we’ve reached the year 2014 without a trans hero at either Marvel or DC. I know there are writers, editors and artists at these publishers who are smart enough and progressive enough to know that such a superhero could really save some lives. People coming to terms with with their gender identity may need heroes more than most of us. We can’t leave it to Laverne Cox to save everyone.
There is already a superhero that I want Tilda Swinton to play, and it’s Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. I don’t think she would do it, as I suspect it would blow her cover as our universe’s Sorcerer Supreme. I also don’t think Marvel would do it, which is a shame, because whoever they choose will obviously be less perfect.
That leaves Tilda Swinton without a superhero to play. She played a comic book character before — Gabriel in the 2005 movie Constantine, based on the star of Hellblazer — but there’s no Avenger, no Justice Leaguer, for Tilda Swinton.
Why do I think there should be? Because Tilda Swinton represents a type of female power that we never see in superhero comics. She represents intensity, control, and subversion, and she defines her appearance without consideration of gender norms. Even the most well-rounded women in superhero comics tend to conform to very male ideas of female power, rooted in feminine sexuality and physicality over intellect. Male heroes can take the form of Doctor Strange or the Phantom Stranger. Female heroes never get to be so… strange.
But Why Not?
There aren’t roles in superhero movies for any of these women because there aren’t roles in superhero comics for these types of women. Superhero fiction presents a limited range of ideas of what woman can be.
Some amazing characters have come from that space. Characters like Wonder Woman and Storm, Batwoman and Kitty Pryde, have pushed the boundaries of the genre’s limits. Yet there’s room for so much more. There’s room for a Michelle Rodriguez, a Laverne Cox, or a Tilda Swinton. Those women will probably never be superheroes. The generations of women that follow them deserve to be told that they can be.