You're a Wonder: Superheroes, Women & Arche-Type-Casting

I'm sure you've heard the idea that women are an enigma, a contradiction. I never quite know how to feel about this. It seems at times a vaguely dismissive appraisal. But then I consider I might actually be undervaluing a "contradiction" as a troublesome thing, a problem, coming at it as I am from my typical male, problem-solving perspective. Perhaps a contradiction is a good thing.

It's all a little beyond me, so on to lighter fare.

Here are my top three picks - in order of personal preference - for casting the role of Wonder Woman in a big-budget, summer blockbuster version of her origin story and/or overall debut on the big screen: 

  1. Jaimie Alexander
  2. Gina Carano
  3. Jennifer Lawrence

Allow the nerd-rage comment flamewar to commence. Heck: I (re)proposed another choice about a couple of years back, myself. I want to hear "better" suggestions. Let slip the dogs of Internet opinion-having. Lord knows the news of a "Superman and Batman" film slotted for 2015 has the pump primed for some serious, deep-cut dork debate.

People have been using the term "unpack" around me way, WAY  too much lately. So, do forgive me. But I'll "unpack" the significance of Wonder Woman to me later on; because I must, and because it merits explanation in a 'blog largely dedicated to subjects like theatre and, lately, parenthood.

Initially though, an explanation of my choices. This explanation will be in order of what casting would be best for the film. In other words, what would 1) assure the production's existence long enough to be opened, and 2) best fulfill the promise for the franchise (because let's not kid ourselves) as a fiscal success:

Jennifer Lawrence
Because, I mean: Duh.
OK, but actually, Ms. Lawrence fits a ton of the criteria. If it weren't for a couple of surprising developments on blockbuster casting and superhero movies in general in the past few years, she'd be my first-with-a-bullet. She has, in no particular order:

  • Youth - Important to franchise casting, as Bale began to illustrate and Downey, Jr. will undoubtedly conclude, wryly but inescapably. Not to mention the fact that this might be an origin story for a character who benefits from being underestimated at first glance.
  • Chops - Jennifer Lawrence can act. Arguments? Did not think so. 
  • Personal Reputation - She's a respectable role-model for young women. Ms. Lawrence isn't even a neo- or post-feminist. She's beyond it, beyond schmoozing at awards ceremonies, beyond caring what you think.
  • Physique/Training - The Hunger Games  franchise tested and continues to test her mettle, sure, but I'm actually thinking more of the dancing in Silver Linings Playbook . Not that impressive, you say? That's right. Intentionally so. Which actually takes more skill and endurance to portray than adept steps, never mind when you have to do it over 70 takes or so. Each day.
  • Looks - Beautiful, initially via insightful consideration, but now by general consensus. Which brings us to...
  • Track Record - She is heading up one hugely successful, adapted franchise, is award-winning, and immensely popular. Even (especially?) when she eschews popularity. She's even played a comicbook character already. She is Caesar right now, y'all. Pre-appointment.

Jennifer Lawrence is our first, best hope for a hugely successful Wonder Woman franchise, and I would be pleased as punch were she to don the silver gauntlets and golden crown. So why isn't she my first pick? Because I can't and won't get the following woman out of my mind in this context.

Jaimie Alexander 
An "unknown" (insulting to an actor's career, but you know what I mean) is a powerful resource in establishing a character.

Did you see Thor ? Terrible film. (Hi, haters!) Not good, in spite of terrific performer charm and directorial pedigree. And Ms. Alexander did not have a part, per se. She had an archetype, at best. And not even an archetype, the type has occurred so infrequently in Hollywood and was so lightly sketched-in by this film.

But that was part of the impact, intentionally or no. Here was a female warrior, part of a group of warrior friends of Thor's that was plainly ridiculous. The casting, comicbook sourcing or no, was basically there to balance Thor's unapologetic (and immutable) Norse-ness. Idris Elba garnered all the attention in this context as a black (THE HORROR [irony {you GET IT, folks}]) Norse god, but Thor's chums were clearly modeled in counter-point to his seriousness, gorgeousness, Western-ness, and male-ness. If anything, they needed to take a light touch in the script even inferring that there was something unique about a woman joining the fray.

But like it or not it remains unique, and portraying it credibly in a film is tricky business. Ms. Alexander convinced me from the moment she took the screen - with no discernible flair or even chip-on-her-shoulder angle. If a glance is the only moment a film actor is allowed to convince you of his or her truth, Jaimie Alexander has hundreds of milliseconds of advantage over the eye-flick of a Jolie or a Bullock. I am so curious about what she might do with the role.

"Unknown," but a clear and salable actor with a good head on her shoulders for playing a unique sort of strong woman. So just never mind that her setting in Thor  was basically the best Wonder Woman audition, ever. I'm surprised I haven't seen a remix of her scenes compiled into a credible Wonder Woman short film already.

But maybe the powers-the-be are looking to make a more grounded movie. Perhaps we're so deep into the "gritty reboot" arena that it must be done from the initial, uh...boot. 

Gina Carano 
Many of you will not have heard of this woman. Some of you who have heard of her might be baffled by my mention of her in a casting context, rather than - say - a brutal fighting-contest context. Observe:

These are two fights scenes from Soderbergh's film Haywire. In my opinion not the most skillful examples from the film, but probably the most dramatic. Fighting and Soderbergh - two topics that bring me directly to the strongest argument against Carano as the lead in a challenging genre movie: her acting chops.

It might be kind of me to say that Ms. Carano is an unknown variable as far as her acting ability is concerned. Most who have seen Haywire would probably say at least as much; she can come across somewhat wooden in that film. I recognize that I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt. Acting is a far more important consideration than fighting ability. Even if she has been subject to some of Soderbergh's experiments in real-world casting, there are actors who could have made more of a role under such circumstances.

So why is she my #2 choice?

I've written before in this context on the value of having a real athlete play a real athlete, or at least having someone train up in more than gym-hours alone. There is a credibility to a fighter's physique that speaks volumes on screen, but more importantly - not to mention more difficult to feign - a fighter moves  in a crucial way. It's the difference between Bruce Lee and Keanu Reaves, and it would be so impressive, so grounding to see Carano's form utilized to that end.

I can see quite clearly how her personal and career status could be utilized, too, in the characterization. She is not at home in a movie yet (though will be within a very short time, post-Fast and the Furious role) and can play an exiled Amazonian from that angle. Beautiful and hard, she can bring something unique to the unspoken moments of being Wonder Woman's alter ego, akin to the mind-blowing job Christopher Reeves did playing Clark Kent.

Plus, I mean, there's this: Gina Carano wants a Wonder Woman Done Right.

There you go. Wonder Women. (Christina Hendricks is still in my runner-up list, by the way.) But why do I care so much? 

I really do ask myself that. She's not a character I have ever followed. I have an allegiance to DC Comics, and she's a third of their holy triumvirate of leads, alongside Bats and Supes. Even in that context, however, I usually find The most interesting thing I saw done with her as part of that group was on Ross's Kingdom Come , where she eventually takes over as the only of the three who's comfortable openly opposing anyone. In that story, she's developed into the raging reactionary. It's a unique, rather blunt angle on the problem of comicbook power fantasies and how female characters can interact within them.

My explanation may come across similarly blunt. The first explanation for my frank, quiet obsession with Wonder Woman is the most humiliating. This explanation speaks to the contradictions of the character quite neatly, actually. So I'll comfort myself with that little expository advantage even as I make the admission:

Wonder Woman played a significant role in my sexual awakening. 

Calm down. Relax. Do not click away. This will not be a graphic depiction of adolescence. In fact, we're talking pre-adolescence here. The Wonder Woman television show was on in syndication when I was a wee lad of eight or so and most obsessed with comicbook characters. You'd be hard-pressed to find a heterosexual young man my age with exposure (ha) to Linda Carter who didn't experience some level of titillation (ha ha). I didn't know, however, what I was feeling. It found expression only once - in standing up for poor, defenseless Wonder Woman herself.

It was the older brother of my best friend at the time. Me and my buddy were excitedly discussing television shows we loved. We both knew and loved Battlestar Galactica, Spider-man, Wonder Woman. (We both loved Knight Rider and V, too, but they were on too late for me, and I only assumed I loved V - my parents never let me see that show, at any hour.) In discussing - and, okay, perhaps acting out a bit - Wonder Woman's bullet-deflecting gauntlets, we were interrupted by a pre-teen sub-vocal noise of derision.

My buddy's older brother, Zach - whom I hero-worshipped almost on a par with some minor superheroes - began to critique the sensibility of a woman who armored only her wrists, had a lariat (really: a lariat) that didn't disable anyone but did make them not-lie, and who turned in a pretty circle in order to transform. This would not stand. I argued. No need to armor herself when she's fast enough to intercept bullets. Truth itself is a trap to evil-doers. And didn't Superman himself spin around a revolving door to get into costume in the greatest film ever to grace the silver screen? But Zach had a coup de grâce, delivered with that alarming teenage nonchalance I so admired:

"Psh. Whatever. She's just running around in her underwear, anyway." 

Oh, no. Oh NO, he DIDN'T . How DARE  he?! She's not- . That's a costume ; any idiot can see that. Wonder Woman would never-. I mean, the very idea  that...

Eight-year-old me didn't back down, nor did I win any points with my argument. But I lost regardless, because now I could see. Zach was right. The princess was wearing no clothes.

Needless to say, I now had a name for the monstrous excitement I was just beginning to feel about women. I didn't quite know how to apply that name, or even how it was pronounced (/ˌsekSHo͞oˈalitē/), but I woke up to the fact that a major component of what I deeply dug about the Woman was her considerable sense of freedom as it pertained to her fashion choices. Watching the show from that day on was still simply enjoyable - I was after all only eight, and had a few lessons left about /SHām/ - but...slightly less  simply. Slightly more complex.

I don't want to lie about that, and it reflects the experience of a certain not-insignificant segment of the population. Wonder Woman is popular in part because of her sexual appeal, and I am not an exception to this facet of her brand.

This may not make up for that, but here's the other big reason I'm invested in a Wonder Woman movie being done well: I love women.

Man, do I love women. Always have. And maybe women at large don't want in on this niche of fiction, the power-fantasies and violence of the contemporary comicbook adaptation, but I want them in there, because I love them so. It's an interesting problem to contemplate: How to make a superhero movie about a woman, for women. Maybe such a thing is not meant to be (outside, of course, of the plenty o' women who simply enjoy the same violent power fantasies that I do) but if it is a thing, if it's meant to be, I'd very much appreciate the first one to be for this character.

What's great about DC's biggest characters is also what's tricky about them. They are icons. Even to those outside of comicbook fandom, Superman is a symbol, which makes shading and complexity a problematic component in bringing him to the big screen as a person, and shading and complexity are demanded in post-modern, high-definition Hollywood. It remains to be seen whether he got an effective reboot in this summer's popcorn-muncher. The technique, however, was the same that worked brilliantly for Batman in recent years - break down the icon into a person who aspires to be an icon. Can you do that with a character whom most know solely for her alluring costume, a television series from the 70s and in invisible jet that - confounding all remaining reason - doesn't grant its passengers the same transparency?

It's a puzzle, but personally the solution seems equal parts daunting and promising to me. Whatever her origins, and creators' true intentions, wherever she may be headed once Warner Brothers has had their way, one of the brilliant successes of the character Wonder Woman is in her name. I'm not talking about the "whu"s; consonance is a rather irritatingly trite remnant from the early days of comicbook marketing. The magic is in the permutations of that word: Wonder.

Wonderful, or wondrous. Pondered about, desirous of knowledge. Above all, a sense of wonder. That's what I feel about women to this day, when I pause to really think about them: A sense of wonder. Sisters, mothers, wives, daughters. Warriors and peacemakers, creators and destroyers. They've held my life in their hands, and sacrificed their own for me. I love them, and I'm also in awe of them.

But can you truly, actively love what you are awed by? Can you actually have a personal relationship with an icon? It's a contradiction. A good one, that I eagerly embrace.

UPDATE 12/4/13: >sigh<