By Chelsea Hensley
In DC’s rush to keep up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has produced mediocre film after mediocre film. Man of Steel holds a 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a 28 percent rating, and Suicide Squad is even lower with 25 percent. Though audiences showed up in theaters, somewhat soothing the sting of critical reception, DC’s been unable to really challenge Marvel’s critical and box office success. That is until Wonder Woman arrived in theaters with nearly universal praise (Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93 percent fresh rating) and broke box office records with its $200 million worldwide opening.
After the many, many Supermans, Batmans and Spider-Mans, after the Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and most ridiculously Ant-Man, the world finally has its Wonder Woman, the first superheroine to lead her own franchise. Despite a long list of male-fronted superhero movies to look to for what worked (and what didn’t), the only women Wonder Woman had to look toward were Elektra and Catwoman, released more than a decade ago to pitiful reviews and an unforgiving box office. They became cautionary tales about female superhero movies and put a decade between audiences and another one, but at least one of them — Elektra — wasn’t (quite) as bad as it seemed.
When 2003’s Daredevil (starring eventual Batman Ben Affleck) premiered, it wasn’t a great movie either, but it was easy to see how it birthed spinoff Elektra starring Jennifer Garner. With my formerly-limited comic book knowledge, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to Daredevil if not for Garner’s casting. Back then she was known as superspy Sydney Bristow on Alias, a role that proved she could be a reliable action star. Additionally, 13 Going on 30 also proved Garner had equal capacity for charm. Depending on who you ask, Jennifer’s Elektra was the best thing about Daredevil. She was smart, interesting, and a verified badass, grinning real big in one scene and pulling a sai from her palm in another.
So, of course, Elektra got her solo movie. After Bullseye kills her, Elektra’s resurrected by Stick, and she trains with him briefly before he cuts her loose because she’s too violent. She becomes an assassin not questioning her career path until she’s hired to kill Abby and Mark (Kristen Prout and Goran Visnjic), a father and daughter fleeing the Hand.
The charming and funny Elektra isn’t totally gone, but she’s not served well by the wooden dialogue. While she’s still a badass, it’s watered down by the movie’s inert take on a superheroism. Brief and mediocre fight scenes are sprinkled throughout so rarely, it looks like they were only included because someone happened to remember Elektra was supposed to be an action movie.
Despite a roster of villains with intriguing powers (deadly breath, sentient body art, impenetrable skin), they’re similarly unimportant and are dispatched in underwhelming ways (one wanders into the path of a falling tree, Elektra casually breaks another’s neck and flings a sai into another). And of course, none of them are white, contributing to the old trend of putting white heroes up against POC villains they’ll go on to kill.
Elektra is not a “good” movie. I was disappointed by the finished product, but I still bought a secondhand DVD (after several years of watching it on TV) because it felt like someone cared about Elektra enough to spend a whole movie reminding her of her worth as a person and her potential heroism. Though Stick rejects her and criticizes her new line of work, Abby and Mark are just grateful Elektra decided to help them. Abby, a “treasure” being warred over, not only needs Elektra but wants to be just like her, even cutting and dying her hair to match Elektra’s.
Yes, Prout is kind of annoying, and Garner and Visnjic have negative chemistry and didn’t need to kiss at all in this movie, but the bones are there, and I still feel a little flutter of pride for an Elektra someone aspires to be like rather than one people are warned away from. In short, Elektra spends a little too much time feeling sorry for its eponymous hero to really showcase her skills as a martial artist and assassin, but for all its critical lampooning, a universal positive emerged: at least it wasn’t Catwoman.
Despite being released within months of one another, Elektra and Catwoman had opposite problems. Elektra was a sluggish think piece of a movie that didn’t enjoy itself at all, but Catwoman (far unlike the recent spate of notoriously unfun DC films) was having too good a time. Halle Berry (who earned a Golden Raspberry for the role) slinks around being “sexy” and cracking a whip all in shiny, dominatrix-esque leather, cueing everyone’s secondhand embarrassment.
It’s all a poor attempt at disguising what’s obvious: no one involved in Catwoman actually cared about Catwoman. It barely counts as a Catwoman movie. It takes place in Gothika, rather than Gotham. Instead of Selina Kyle, we get Patience Phillips, a timid graphic designer caught up in a corporate conspiracy. She dies, is resurrected by the goddess Bast breathing into her mouth via a cat and becomes a jewel thief. She also flirts with Benjamin Bratt, and Sharon Stone is also there… doing things. It’s a hot mess AV Club called “relentlessly gaudy and in love with its PG-13 approximation of kink,” which could have only been made worse by “an accident in which the actors caught fire”. In other words, it totally deserves its 9 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes (Elektra holds a 10 percent).
There were only six months between Catwoman and Elektra’s theatrical debuts, but it took more than ten years to get Wonder Woman. Maybe it was worth the wait if it meant we got Gal Gadot as Diana and Patty Jenkins to direct.
Jenkins displays an understanding and admiration for Wonder Woman that may have been lost with someone else, and Gadot inhabits the role perfectly. It’s faster and more electrifying than Elektra, but it shows Diana the same care Elektra tried to show its eponymous heroine. And the joy it takes in telling Diana’s story is mutual compared to Catwoman’s, which must have pleased someone to make it into theaters but only pleased them. Diana, though beautiful isn’t treated like a pinup while sharing a mutual attraction to Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. She has a strong personal arc, a romance, cool action scenes, and an iconic unveiling of her armor.
Wonder Woman gave Diana a movie she deserved, and one we deserved, too. If Elektra and Catwoman, and Hollywood’s male-dominated Powers That Be, can stall another superheroine film for years, then surely Wonder Woman can compel more of them. At one time, it looked like Marvel would be the one to get the first superheroine franchise with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, however, it’ll be Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in 2019. Eventually, we’ll get Batgirl and the Gotham City Sirens and, of course, Wonder Woman 2. But it’s impossible not to think of Elektra and Catwoman.
Neither disappeared entirely after their films tanked. Anne Hathaway was Selina in The Dark Knight Rises, and Elodie Yung is Elektra on Netflix’s Daredevil (and on The Defenders come August). The love Diana got in Wonder Woman proves it’s possible for Hollywood to get it right sometimes, and I want to believe it can get it right with them, too.
Chelsea Hensley is a writer and blogger from St. Louis. You can read more of her writing on Book Riot and Screenspy and follow her on Twitter @ChelseaBigBang.