Superman Batman and Wonder Woman

There’s a wacky political theory (hear me out and stop yawning) that commercials for presidential candidates don’t actually do anything. The thinking is pretty simple: since commercials only increase name recognition, and the people running for the highest office already have a metric ton of name recognition, candidates spend hundreds of millions to move the needle not at all. Strangely, no campaign has ever had the brass buttons to give us a real-world test of the theory.

The movie studio corollary is fairly simple to spot — particularly in an age where the name of your franchise is theoretically far more important for your movie’s potential popularity than the name of the actor playing the part. We’re in a post-star era, but the extent of actors’ diminished effect on bringing in fans isn’t really clear, leading to an important franchise question.

Would it really matter who played Superman? Batman? Wonder Woman? Katniss? That Sparkly Vampire Guy?

Actors have already caught on to the phenomenon and capitalized on it by extending their profiles into the independent world, going as far as ensuring financing for small films that otherwise wouldn’t be made without them. Best of all, they do this without risking their “personal brand” as “big time movie stars” at all. In that sense, the shift has been freeing, and it can be freeing for studios, too, as they become more comfortable choosing from outside the same 10-name list for higher profile roles. In the best case scenario, it’ll give directors and casting directors more freedom to cast the best actor for the part, regardless of their level of fame. An evolution from popularity contest to meritocracy. Imagine it and try not to cross your eyes.

This is fertile, yet terrifyingly new territory for a lot of tentpoles, and with this week’s news of Gal Gadot being cast as Wonder Woman for Batman vs Superman (and ostensibly a future standalone movie), Warners and Zack Snyder find themselves in the middle of that territory without a compass.

That’s because there are three options for why Gadot was cast.

  1. Warners is convinced (by her auditions) that they have a new star on their hands who can shoulder her own big budget outing.
  2. They, unlike those weak-kneed politicians, are planning a real-world experiment as to whether an actor with virtually no recognition can bring in a billion dollars on the character’s/franchise’s name alone (which Fifty Shades of Grey is also doing).
  3. They aren’t taking a standalone Wonder Woman movie very seriously.

Certainly there are question marks surrounding Gadot as an actor. There’s the typical surface level bull, but genuine concerns are out there. Firstly, she’s not a complete unknown, but she’s pretty close to it. Unfortunately, she’s appeared wooden in just about everything she’s been in. Her turn in the Fast movies is forced and puckering, her brief cameo in Date Night could have been listed as Giggly Vapid Slut (which might turn off anyone hoping that Wonder Woman will be a beacon of feminine strength), and I have to violate the rule of threes here because that’s how short her CV is.

On the other, bigger hand, we have no real idea of her aptitude. After all, everyone is pretty wooden in the Fast movies, and that’s where we’ve gotten the biggest dose of Gadot so far.

My best guess is that it’s her name (specifically that almost none of us knew it) that spooked everyone. Hers is a small resume (with Beauty Queen as the brightest asterisk) that causes an automatic uneven playing field against Affleck’s Batman and four-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. The move feels even more bush league when stacked up against Marvel personalities like Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans. It’s not quite Michael Bay model stunt-casting, but it feels like a close relative being used on what some feel should be a big, franchise-leading character.

But on the other, bigger hand again, Christopher Reeve was a newcomer when he put on the tights that made him famous and so was Brandon Routh. Not to mention that Henry Cavill wasn’t exactly a veteran before Man of Steel, and if you consider Wonder Woman to be DC’s Thor, there’s a nice correlation with the newcomer they found for the Thunder God in Chris Hemsworth. This isn’t at all a new trick in superhero movies. What’s even more telling is that Warners was never in the business of finding a big name to play Wonder Woman. Instead, they tested Olga Kurylenko and Elodie Yung alongside the eventual winner.

The ultimate point being that optimism and pessimism are both correct. But pessimism is slightly more correct.

If you’re Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, you’ve got your fingers crossed:

“The only thing left to do then is to hope for the best. Maybe Gadot has more chops than she’s had an opportunity to show off before, and Batman vs. Superman will provide an illustration of how Hollywood’s wasted her talents. Maybe Snyder, who has a long record of interest in female characters, relishes the opportunity to treat Gadot like an actor rather than the former Miss Israel she is, giving her things to do with her body other than simply being touched by other people. And maybe the power of Wonder Woman’s cultural legacy will shield the character in the same way her gauntlets, forged from Athena’s shield, have protected Diana herself on so many occasions.”

I get why it’s so crucial to get Wonder Woman right. Men get a million shots at being lead superheroes on screen. Women will probably only get this one, and it’s not hard to imagine a studio system that sees failure (or even lower-than-record-breaking performance) as reason to avoid “taking a chance” with a female superhero again.

Digression aside, Rosenberg’s hope comes with a hefty load on its back that’s bundled by those first two quoted statements. Perhaps Gadot hasn’t delivered a stellar performance for the public yet because the right director hasn’t drawn it out of her. Sure. And here’s where we get to the real problem of her being cast as Wonder Woman: Zack Snyder.

Charlie Jane Anders attacks it directly:

“And that’s why Zack Snyder taking on Wonder Woman — or, more broadly, anyone recreating Wonder Woman in the same style as Man of Steel — is potentially a nightmare.

After watching 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel, there’s plenty that I admire about Snyder’s film-making. He’s great at creating arresting visuals, and he has a deep appreciation for the grammar of comic-book storytelling, creating splash pages on the screen.

But he has a problem with capturing real emotions, as opposed to surfaces, something the cold and depthless Man of Steel confirms. And he especially has a problem with female characters, because his love for pulp imagery leads him to explore women as fetish objects. It almost doesn’t matter if, as some have discussed, Snyder is trying to turn this fetishization on its head or show how it’s harmful — it still tends to dominate.”

Agree 100%. The guy has an abysmal record of directing better-than-bad female performances, even from highly talented actresses, and that’s a hypothesis that doesn’t require a lengthy defense. It’s something almost universally accepted by now. It took Amy Adams to push into the realm of decent acting (in an emotionally disconnected film), so if an Oscar darling can barely survive, how will a neophyte fare?

And even worse, if she isn’t a fan favorite — if she doesn’t steal the show from Supes and Batman — will it leave the studio colder than they already are on a Wonder Woman standalone movie?

After all, it’s not like they’re starting from an enthusiastic position. It was only two months ago that Warners chief Kevin Tsujihara coolly said that they “need to get Wonder Woman on the big screen or TV” without much more ado. Feel the passion! Big screen or TV or whatever, he made it plain that they don’t yet have a longterm plan for her. I’m unconvinced that the Gadot casting news proves they do. I’m not sure how anyone could be. It’s pretty clear that her appearance in Batman vs Superman is a test run, both for the character and for the woman playing her.

But when you boil it down, any potential she might have as a performer is snuffed out by the near-guarantee that Snyder won’t be able to handle the character. Or, perhaps worse, the reasonable question that looms over whether he’ll turn an iconic figure into eye candy.

A great director can draw a strong performance from an average actor. A bad director can cause a supreme acting talent to stumble. It’s Snyder’s track record on that front — and not Gadot’s — that should be the real concern.


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