Toward a Truly Feminist Blockbuster Cinema

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Warner Bros.

Wonder Woman, the first female-headlined modern superhero film not called Catwoman or Elektra, has been a huge financial success, and that’s great. There are plenty of reminders every year that female-led storytelling can be critically and financially successful on its own terms, but this time, the reminder is in three-foot-tall letters and backed by a bombastic Rupert Gregson-Williams score*. It’s in the language of the comic-book franchise, a historically male space whose visual and narrative features have finally been successfully embodied by a female director and star.

Ironically, though, it’s when the film is adhering to that structure most to the letter that it stumbles. The final third of the film is widely regarded as its weakest — this is one thing both Vulture’s David Edelstein and audience reviews on the film’s famously glowing Rotten Tomatoes page can agree on. I can’t help but tag this as another example of a woman making the same mistake as a man and getting twice as much flak for it. But here the flak is deserved. The final extended action sequence of Wonder Woman is dumb; the final action of most comic-book movies is dumb. They’re all working off a blockbuster framework, a refined-to-the-pixel version of action and excitement inherited from a male-dominated idea of what summer audiences want.

I don’t mean to suggest that women don’t like action and violence (the new crop of female horror auteurs is proof of that). Some do and some don’t. But maybe the hard-core peaceful Amazonian paradise of Themyscira has me thinking of an alternate universe in which the language of blockbuster action was developed primarily by women. What would that universe’s equivalent be of Iron Man and Hulk punching each other and destroying half a city skyline in the process? What would we have instead of a giant thing hovering over a city, waiting just long enough to destroy everyone in it so that our exceptional heroes have time to intervene? Perhaps, in this hypothetical universe, we could find other ways to express the weight of a sequence other than physical size and the extent of destruction onscreen.

If you have any doubt of the indelible mark the patriarchy has left on the modern blockbuster action sequence, you need only look to the repetition of “invade the body” climaxes, which we can probably blame George Lucas for. From Star Wars to Independence Day to the recent Tom Cruise flop Oblivion, our heroes take their vessel through a small hole in a giant mothership, fly deep into its center, than exploit its weakness and pull out before the whole thing explodes around them. You don’t even need to read the foreword of Psychoanalysis for Dummies to see the naked anxiety on display there. As it happens, the most memorable of these sequences (including both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi) are fantastically exciting even to this day, so naturally they’ve been repeated ad nauseam, with diminishing returns.

In general, big sequences like this, Freudian and otherwise, tend to focus on destruction, or at least take it for granted. But does action need to equal destruction? Not to bring up poor Cruise again, but you need only look to his most recent misstep The Mummy to see how much a pursuit or combat scene seemingly automatically requires that every wall and building in the vicinity be toppled in the process. This feels like a hedge against a well-constructed script — if we don’t already care about the conflict between the actual warring parties, maybe a bunch of crumbling drywall will bludgeon us into paying attention. It’s a kind of action movie black hole, grabbing more and more external objects, in denial about of the narrative void at the center.

It’s the opposite of martial-arts movies, in which the body reflects the mind and the physical action is just a very elegant brain fight. Horror films can also generate more excitement in much smaller spaces, just by closing in tight on a character reacting to the threats around her. Both these genres are proof that you can have action without mass destruction (other than the bodily type, of course). But I think it’s possible to dig even deeper inward: I keep thinking of the CGI bonanza at the climax of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, a film that was widely maligned at the time but may point a way toward a new model of action. The final sequence of Speed Racer is a race, naturally, and lots of crazy car action happens on its physically impossible racetrack. But Speed himself is not so concerned with the other racers as he is with his own journey, and most of the “action” is in his head, as he powers himself emotionally all the way to first place. The Wachowskis brilliantly released themselves from the constraints of CGI as a representation of reality, and the final seconds of the race are a borderline abstract kaleidoscope of color, and more exciting than 99 percent of today’s effects-driven climaxes.

The foundation of a new model of blockbuster action may just depend on how we decide we want to use our CGI powers. For the immense possibility they hold — you can literally create anything onscreen now — the blockbuster imagination has still been relegated to burning cities and big space battles. This is an ever-evolving, omnidirectional visual tool, and two generations of male action directors have been handed it and thought, Cool, I can destroy more stuff with less mess. No wonder “CGI” is almost a slur now. But I feel as though we’ve only scratched the surface as far as what kind of visual and emotional highs we can reach with digital effects.

Before seeing a screening of Wonder Woman, I joked on Twitter that I would not be satisfied by the film unless it featured a full-length transformation sequence — a tall order, given that the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman’s transformation was a mere few seconds of flashy spinning. But I’ve been obsessed with transformation sequences since I was a young Sailor Moon fan on the mid-’90s internet, collecting precious .movs of them (a 15-second clip could take an hour on our 36.6 kbps modem) and rewatching them obsessively. In a transformation sequence, time melts away: These girls (and they were always girls) would always be able to take 15 or 20 seconds out of a high-stress situation to twirl and pose, suspended in a Technicolor void, gathering energy around them and distilling it into gloves or tiaras or really cute boots. It was an explicitly female interpretation of what it feels become someone new: a makeover montage with the consumerism magicked away. Sometimes they drew their new selves around them with, of all things, a pen.

Unlike, say, The Mummy, which uses visual effects to distract you from the fact that you don’t care about the characters, Speed Racer and the transformation sequences of magical-girl anime use them to make you care about a character more. The act of becoming is given the same (or more) visual weight as the act of conquering. We are invested in our protagonists because we get to see them in a private, emotional space, at their most aspirational, temporarily removed from the immediate physical threat they face.

As it turns out, Wonder Woman does feature a transformation sequence of sorts, albeit molded into plausible physics. (The camera revolves around her in 360 degrees as shells fall around Wonder Woman in a trench. She raises her head, tosses back her hair to reveal her tiara, and we see a flash of a cuff peek out from beneath her dark cape.) But far more CGI grandiosity goes into the film’s final battle scene, in which (spoiler alert) she fights a big bad guy at night. This is as much a hallmark of the franchise she exists within as the genre, but it means Wonder Woman still unmistakably looks like it exists in the DCEU. And that’s useful from a branding standpoint, but should by no means be seen as a blueprint for what a successful female-led blockbuster needs to look like.

I don’t think we need to accept lackluster endings like Wonder Woman’s as features of the superhero genre. If they are, we should probably think about why this is the dominant genre of our time. In all the remarking on the milestones Wonder Woman represents, the genre, as it exists now, is often taken for granted as a kind of indisputable pinnacle. But I’m of the school of thought that feminism isn’t ultimately about women being able to do what men do just as well — be a dipshit CEO, burn down villages in third-world countries, make a CGI battle sequence — but about creating our own terms for what success looks like. I don’t know what a from-the-ground-up female-driven action blockbuster looks like yet. But I look forward to seeing market-proven powerhouses like Patty Jenkins figure it out.

*This post originally misstated the composer of Wonder Woman’s score.

What Would a Truly Feminist Blockbuster Cinema Look Like?