By Rich Drees

Comic book heroines on film led way for box office success of ‘Wonder Woman’

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Jane Fonda portrayed Barbarella in the 1968 film of the same name. Critics were unkind, but the movie had a lasting effect on popular culture.
Submitted photo
Pamela Anderson plays the title role in ‘Barb Wire’ in 1996. A critical and commercial failure, it nonetheless featured a strong, female lead in the hero role.
Submitted photo
From left, Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch star as two teens searching for their place in the world in 2001’s ‘Ghost World.’
Submitted photo
Even with Oscar-winner Halle Berry, 2004’s ‘Catwoman’ fell short in terms of acting and directing.
Submitted photo

This weekend “Wonder Woman” exceeded all expectations by clearing just over $100 million at the box office and earning some of the best reviews for a comic book movie in some time.

Clearly, the Amazonian princess’s cinematic time has come. But while she’s perhaps the best-known female comic book character around the globe, Wonder Woman is not the first comic book heroine to make the leap from the printed page to the big screen. There were several others who blazed that trail for her.

As you will see, some of these movies weren’t very good, but they all helped set the stage for Wonder Woman to make her bow this weekend.

Barbarella (1968)

Perhaps the most famous female-led comic book adaption was the first — “Barbarella.” Based on a French comic, the film is a science-fantasy romp set in the far future. United Earth government agent Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is assigned to track down the whereabouts of the scientist Durand Durand, who has recently perfected a new type of weapon the Earth government would prefer not fall into anyone else’s hands.

As Barbarella sets out on the scientist’s trail, she encounters a number of strange beings along the way. As in the comics, Barbarella does sleep with a couple of different men along the way. But the film tries not to be salacious about it, treating Barbarella’s encounters as a rediscovering of a natural way of doing something that had long been supplanted by technology. Fonda described her character as “not being promiscuous, but she follows the natural reaction of another type of upbringing.”

Critics were unkind to the film, labeling it crass, juvenile, inane and junk among other derogatory comments. Even contemporary reappraisals of the film remain consistent about some of the film’s problems and sexual politics while praising much of its design sensibilities. “Barbarella” would go on to develop a cult following and have an influence that could be seen in places such as British pop band Duran Duran’s name and the costume design of Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” (1997).

Sheena (1984)

It would be easy to see the character of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, as a gender-bent variation on Edgar Rice Burrough’s iconic Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.

Both were raised from infancy in Africa after their parents died there. Both had the ability to communicate with animals, were fierce fighters and often stood against poachers, slave traders and other evils that “civilized” men would bring to jungles.

But Sheena, introduced in comics in 1937, proved to be popular enough to spawn a number of her own imitators. And while she would have a short-lived TV series in the mid-1950s, it wouldn’t be until almost five decades after she first appeared on newsstands that she would get her shot on the big screen.

Former “Charlie’s Angles” star Tanya Roberts was picked to bring Sheena to life, and to her credit, the actress brought a physicality to the role that helped lend verisimilitude to her performance. Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay was a bad mix of high adventure and palace intrigue that threatens to make Sheena a secondary character in her own film.

The film was not well received by most critics, though curiously, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael broke ranks with the popular poor opinion of the film to give it some praise. Much like many later-day attempts to bring Tarzan to the big screen, “Sheena” didn’t connect with audiences and died a lonely death at the box office.

Brenda Starr (1989)

A few years before animation legend Ralph Bakashi would try a similar trick with “Cool World,” this adaptation of the long running newspaper comic strip worked with the conceit that the comic strip was a reality unto itself and could be crossed over into from our own “real” world.

This revelation comes to cartoonist Mike (Tony Peck ), an artist on the Brenda Starr strip who is confronted by the character (Brooke Shields) after he makes some disparaging remarks about his job. Disgusted by his attitude, Starr walks off the job on her own comic strip, forcing Mike to draw himself into the strip and into an adventure that involves a scientist, with a formula that can turn ordinary water into an unlimited power source, who is hiding out in the Amazonian jungle.

Timothy Dalton, Jeffrey Tambor and Charles Durning round out the cast.

Although shot in 1986, the film did not get a release anywhere until 1989, and that was overseas. Legal questions about the film’s distribution rights were said to be the delay. It finally made its American debut in 1992. Critics were harsh and ticket sales virtually non-existent. Today, “Brenda Starr” is virtually forgotten and those who do hear of the film and want to see it will have a hard time doing so, as it appears not to be on any streaming content platform.

Barb Wire (1996)

It is the futuristic year of 2017, and the United States is being ripped apart by the “Second American Civil War.” Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson) is the proprietor of a bar in a city that has somehow managed to remain neutral in the conflict. While trying to retain her own apathy about the war, she soon finds herself entangled with a scientist and a rebel leader trying to secure safe passage out of the city but who are pursued by a dogged colonel and his men.

If the plot synopsis sounds familiar to you, you are probably realizing that “Barb Wire” is actually a stealth “Casablanca” remake. And yes, that means Anderson is in the Bogart role. (And yes, we apologize for that image.)

Despite that audacity, or perhaps because of it, “Barb Wire” was lambasted by the critics. Anderson’s acting is about as wooden as one would expect, while the rest of the cast is just trying to get through it to collect a paycheck. The movie’s real purpose was to capitalize on Anderson’s famous and generous figure. But not even the notoriety she gained from her infamous sex tape with then-husband rock drummer Tommy Lee could drive audiences to the box office. Even with the small budget of $9 million, the film was a flop, grossing less than half that amount.

Ghost World (2001)

Not every comic-based film has heroes fighting villains for the safety of the planet. Sometimes, the story can just be about two recent high school grads trying to figure out their place in the world. That’s the heart of “Ghost World,” based on indie comic creator Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star as two friends who never fit in with the social cliques at school, spending their summer questioning what to do now that high school is behind them. They cross paths with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an older man with a passion for jazz records, and that encounter sends the pair onto life paths that they were not expecting.

Although “Ghost World” didn’t get anywhere near setting box office records, it receive an outpouring of positive critical notices. It also marked both leads as actresses with promising careers ahead of them, though only Johansson has been able to really cash in on that promise.

Catwoman (2004)

“Catwoman” looked like a solid hit on paper. It had Halle Berry, fresh off of her Academy Award win for “Monster’s Ball,” in the lead role as the titular anti-hero. It’s director, the single-named Pitof, was coming to the film from his critically well-received debut “Vidocq.” And it was spinning off from the popular Batman franchise at Warner Brothers. And that is where the film hits its first major road block. It has no real connection with the Caped Crusader’s franchise.

Berry is Patience Phillips, a timid designer for a cosmetics company run by Sharon Stone who discovers a conspiracy to cover up information about the the toxicity of a new line of makeup the firm is developing.

Stone’s character gives orders to have her killed, but after she apparently drowns, she is mysteriously brought back to life by a group of cats. (This is similar to a sequence in “Batman Returns” with Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman character, and is the only link between the two films.) Using new found cat-like abilities, Patience strikes back at her employer and works to expose her conspiracy.

But the film’s lack of feeling connected to Warners’ Batman franchise was not what sealed this film’s fate. It was the fact that the film was just plain bad. It had a bad script, some bad performances and bad direction from a director who seemed overwhelmed by the immensity of making a big-budget Hollywood film. Critics savaged the movie, with one going so far as to suggest that Berry give back her Oscar.

Double Dare (2004)

Unlike the other movies here, “Double Dare” doesn’t tell the story of a fictional female comics star. Instead, it centers on a woman who played a superhero on television — Jeannie Epper. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she was Lynda Carter’s stunt double for the 1970s “Wonder Woman” television series. The film follows Epper, at the time in her mid-50s, trying to continue her career in Hollywood while also mentoring young stunt woman Zoe Bell. Bell, who had worked on the popular syndicated series “Xena: Warrior Princess” in New Zealand had just come across the Pacific to try and break into the big time in Hollywood.

The story of women struggling to make it in Hollywood has been told numerous times. But “Double Dare” is our first look at it from the perspective of a group of specialty actors whose job’s very nature requires their contributions to go unrecognized. It is a heartwarming story, especially at the moment where Bell receives the phone call that she landed the job of stunt doubling Uma Thurman for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”

Elektra (2005)

This spinoff from the 2003 “Daredevil” sees Jennifer Garner rerprising her role as the crimson-clad assassin anti-hero. After being resurrected from her death in “Daredevil,” Elektra finds herself caught between two warring martial arts clans who both want a young martial arts prodigy for their own.

“Elektra”’s progenitor film “Daredevil” only ever received mixed reviews and moderate box office success, so it was odd that studio Twentieth Century Fox would go ahead with a spin-off. The law of diminishing sequel returns is definitely in effect here as critical response was much more negative and ticket sales were poor.

Garner herself works hard to make something out of a script that often feels like the Cliffs Notes for a much better movie. Despite the physicality that Garner brings to her role, fans of the character would ultimately be much better served when she would appear in the second season of Netflix’s “Daredevil” series.

Jane Fonda portrayed Barbarella in the 1968 film of the same name. Critics were unkind, but the movie had a lasting effect on popular culture.
https://www.theweekender.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/web1_barbarella-fonda.jpgJane Fonda portrayed Barbarella in the 1968 film of the same name. Critics were unkind, but the movie had a lasting effect on popular culture. Submitted photo

Pamela Anderson plays the title role in ‘Barb Wire’ in 1996. A critical and commercial failure, it nonetheless featured a strong, female lead in the hero role.
https://www.theweekender.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/web1_barb-wire-pam-anderson.jpgPamela Anderson plays the title role in ‘Barb Wire’ in 1996. A critical and commercial failure, it nonetheless featured a strong, female lead in the hero role. Submitted photo

From left, Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch star as two teens searching for their place in the world in 2001’s ‘Ghost World.’
https://www.theweekender.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/web1_ghost-world-johansson-birch.jpgFrom left, Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch star as two teens searching for their place in the world in 2001’s ‘Ghost World.’ Submitted photo

Even with Oscar-winner Halle Berry, 2004’s ‘Catwoman’ fell short in terms of acting and directing.
https://www.theweekender.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/web1_catwoman-berry.jpgEven with Oscar-winner Halle Berry, 2004’s ‘Catwoman’ fell short in terms of acting and directing. Submitted photo

By Rich Drees