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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

At last weekend’s Comic-Con in San Diego, Smallville executive producers Al Gough and Miles Millar introduced actress Laura Vandervoort, who will play Kara Zor-El — Clark Kent's Kryptonian cousin, also known as Supergirl — in the show's seventh season. (Yes, Smallville is still on the air. No, I didn't think it would go seven years either.) During the press junket, Vandervoot said, "It's been a whirlwind, but a wonderful whirlwind. I've been learning to fly, and she's a strong, independent woman. So it's great to play."

I hope she's been having a good time because statistically speaking, adaptations of female comic book heroes tend to tank. Hard. Take the previous incarnation of Supergirl in the 1984 movie starring Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway and Peter O'Toole. I know at least one person at B-Fest 2003 who tried to lessen the carnage by throwing a blanket over her head. It didn't work. In a recent interview, Slater said, "The character was just a female replica of Superman, so [it] never made a viable story. It didn't really tap into what Supergirl was experiencing. Hopefully 'Smallville' gets it right." Gough said that the movie does not affect the television show, but when he saw the film he was "bored out of [his] tree." There are already rumors of a Supergirl spin-off, and she hasn't even appeared onscreen yet.

True, not every comic book film featuring a male lead does boffo box office or provides a positive movie-going experience (for example, Joel Schmaucher's offerings in the Batman series, Howard the Duck, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four), but think of the Burton/Nolan Batman films, Richard Donner's Superman, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man: classics all. There is no equivalent for heroines. Name one film in which a female comic book hero — who isn't part of a team or isn't someone's girlfriend — did well. Our choices:
The aforementioned Supergirl
Tank Girl, starring Lori Petty
Elektra, a Daredevil spin-off starring TV's Jennifer Garner
Halle Berry's Catwoman, a piece of dreck so awful that it was the first film in a double feature at my most recent Movie Dictator Night

See what I mean? One could argue that the depictions of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) in the X-Men trilogy are multifaceted, appealing and close to the source material. It doesn't hurt that the actresses playing them kick ass. However, they are practically canceled out by the horror that is Berry's Storm, queen of the fictional African nation Wakanda. Berry lacks the necessary power and gravitas to bring this leader to life. Another weak ensemble woman is Sue Storm from the Fantastic Four movies; Jessica Alba is blank and blonde. Michelle Pfeiffer does a wicked job as Selena Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns, but she's Bruce Wayne's love interest/nemesis, not the focus of the piece. Garner was good in Daredevil, where she played a similar role, but didn't connect with audiences on her own.

The situation is slightly better on television. The 1970s Wonder Woman series cast a then-unknown Lynda Carter to replace Cathy Lee Crosby (if you've seen the TV movie, then you know what a good choice that was). Sabrina the Teenage Witch ran for eight years on two networks, although she is less of a hero and more of a... teenage witch. But there are also misses. Gough and Millar already had a go at a series featuring DC heroines; it was called Birds of Prey. Executive producer Laeta Kalogridis wrote the pilot but she was removed as showrunner before the first episode aired. She now executive produces the much-buzzed-about Bionic Woman remake (she wrote the pilot as well), airing on NBC this fall. Kalogridis also wrote a draft of the Wonder Woman film, which has been in turnaround for years. Birds of Prey had to jump through several hoops to please the publishers, the network and the company producing the show. With so many cooks in the kitchen, no wonder the attempt failed. Birds ran for only 13 episodes in 2002–2003 on the WB.

And currently there's NBC's Heroes, which first appeared on television but now appears in promotional comics and will soon be in the DC Comics catalogue. Tim Kring's sleeper hit features several ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary powers. Claire Bennet is an indestructible Texas teenager. She has cheated death numerous times, including one memorable moment in which she wakes up on a morgue table post-autopsy with her ribcage spread wide open. Single mother Niki Sanders has a dark half: her dead sister, Jessica, resides inside Niki's body and displays an incredible amount of might when she takes over. Invulnerability and superstrength are typically "masculine" abilities; the "girly" powers of invisibility, phasing through objects and telepathy have been assigned to the male characters. However, Claire is a symbol in a quest for the emo-lead Peter — "Save the cheerleader, save the world" — and a daddy's girl. This could be because of Claire's age, not her gender, though, and she rallied to reunite with both of her families. (It's too complicated a story to explain here.) And in the beginning, the Niki/Jessica storyline seemed not much more than the classic virgin/whore complex wrapped up in a single body. There are several secondary female characters who prove to be strong, essential and interesting. But as a whole I think the Heroes women got the short end of the stick, which could be growing pains, cast bloat, or a lack of time and money to tell every story.

Why is it so difficult to transfer a strong, leading female comic book character to the screen — large or small — as played by a human woman? (Animated series offer complicated, many-sided women and have for many years.) Is it because the writers of comic books and television series are almost exclusively men? Is it because these women are primarily defined by the men in their lives? Is it because the characters themselves are less "complex"? If you think the answer doesn't matter because women don't read comic books, I suggest you click here. And join the 21st century.

Note: Thanks to Regina O’Brien and Tara O’Shea — comics junkies both — who provided links, opinions, and expertise to this amateur, who has only read The Dark Knight, some X-Men books back in the early '90s, and Kingdom Come.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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