The brainchild of director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards, the documentary ‘Wonder Women! The Untold History of American Superheroines’, began its life as a Kickstarter campaign and fortunately reached its goal and was finished. It made the rounds of the film festival circuit receiving rave reviews. The documentary focuses heavily on the most iconic female superhero, Wonder Woman, tracing her wildly varying incarnations over several decades, but also showcases other pop culture icons like The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Conner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess.
Seeing as how this is more of an examination of the female heroes’ impact on the world at large, unfortunately, most of the comic book realm’s mighty leading ladies are left unmentioned. Maybe if this were made later, at least Black Widow would have been name checked for her role in the third highest-grossing movie ever. But besides Wonder Woman, only a few female comic book characters are shown and only Lois Lane, Catwoman and Batwoman (50s version) are mentioned by name.
Nevertheless, here is my review of the documentary which aired on April 15 on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series, hosted by Stanley Tucci.
The doc opens with random people on the streets of New York rattling off the names of super heroes, all of which are the usual suspects, Superman, Spider-Man and Batman. This is followed by a film montage of various male heroes, including those named as well as icons, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones and Iron Man. Not surprisingly, the people on the street are hard pressed to come up with a single female super hero and the first one named is Catwoman, but neither the man that mentions her or the female with him are sure if she even is a super hero. (More of an anti-hero, really.) Then when a girl replies with Wonder Woman, she is unsure if she has her name right.
Many experts from different fields offer commentary throughout the doc; from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner, who portrayed the icons Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman repectively on television, to comic book creators such as George Perez, Gail Simone, Jill Thompson, to comic historians like Mike Madrid, the author of The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines (READ IT!!!) not to mention several psychologists and sociologists.
The documentary spends a great deal of time on Wonder Woman, seeing as she is the most famous female super hero in the world. They discuss the dawn of super heroes during the Great Depression, when these colorful figures served as wish fulfillment to the downtrodden public. Of course, her highest profile period was during the time that Lynda Carter portrayed her on television, which is highlighted as well as the ensuing shows Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman. While the contributors express great affection for these shows– and point out their strengths– they do note that they weren’t as forward thinking as they could have been.
Unfortunately, it is pointed out (and I can’t dispute it) that after the end of the television show, Wonder Woman’s presence in pop culture as a whole, has diminished and her comic book series has typically been fair at best. So the doc shifts toward less colorful, but no less intimidating characters like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien franchise and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. From there they move into the 90s, with Xena and Buffy. Buffy in particular gets a spotlight, contrasting her somewhat with Thelma and Louise.
Discussion of more recent heroines is at once eye-opening and upsetting, when a certain pattern emerges.
Ultimately, though tethered (at-times) to cheesy pop culture, this is an examination of what it means to be female in our culture. Young girls are shown expressing unhappiness in being unable to find positive role models and taking jabs at stereotypes in films. The lead singer of Bikini Kill, a pioneer in the Riot Grrrl movement (which is also featured in an interesting segment) shreds the whole “Girl Power”/”Girls Rule” attitude that is so prevalent nowadays. There is a look at the anti-feminist wave that washed over our society during the 90s (the Clarence Thomas trial is depicted), but ultimately the end lesson is that females still aren’t equal to males in certain areas after all these years.
This documentary is entertaining first and foremost, but it provokes thought (and hopefully discussion), and is incredibly heartwarming and educational.
Unfortunately, the DVD is not available for personal purchase (It is available to educational institutions, libraries and other groups), but you can watch the documentary below now through June 14th.
Did you catch this special? Do you have any thoughts? Comment below!