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The year's best and worst on-screen superheroines / by David Goldberg

Cosmic energies of power shifted in 2012 and the corporate forces of the film industry were forced into diversifying their properties and female characters. It became clear that feminist consumers would be getting more women, but not necessarily better women. A higher standard for inclusion has been set for blockbuster movies, and while some male writers and producers are rising to the challenge, others are just dressing the boobs up differently. It’s not so cut as dry as Angelina getting a mastectomy while Jennifer plays a stripper. I wish it were, but audiences demand better.

There were “strong” women who sucked, dragon queens who melted our faces off, and interesting revelations about the shape of things to come for female protagonists and action heroes. There were a lot of promises made in 2013, and a lot of angry women on the internet who felt lied to.

With a promising cast of pretty witches, Oz: The Great and Powerful had the potential to celebrate one of history’s most female-positive franchises. Unfortunately, Disney knew an opportunity to rewrite history when they saw one. The Wicked Witch became a lovesick harpy, Glinda the Good Witch derived her power and strength from the patriarchy, the Wizard gave away sexual favors instead of pocket watches, and Rachel Weisz wasn’t a megalomaniacal sorceress who happened to be beautiful – shocker – but was an old hag in disguise! It was cruel of Oz to feature so many women in its main cast, only to become an exercise in ruining them all.

Noting fan demand for more Norse babes with swords, the producers of Thor: the Dark World gave the ladies of Asgard “expanded” roles. Now, this is where it gets dangerous. As someone who was born in 1990, I levitated a bit when I saw Rene Russo wield a dagger like a boss. But I should have known that I would be punished for it. The bitch got stabbed, and Thor learned a lesson about morality or mortality or something. I wish that Thor could just make out with his brother so that Natalie Portman, and human beings everywhere, could be spared the sordid romance subplot of the sequel. She’s an average girl astrophysicist! She goes on dates! She gets infected by a deadly prehistoric parasite as retribution for her feminine curiosity! She gets traded like property between Norse Gods and Elves! It would have been better to never have had her than to have had her at all. At one point, Portman’s “character” walks up to Loki and “boldly” punches him in the face. “I like her,” Loki says. Nobody else does.

1976’s horror legend Carrie was remade this year by director Kimberly Pierce. But the feminist “auteur” clearly didn’t have the bones to defend her “vision” against her studio puppet-masters, and the result of their struggle is a film that lacks subtlety, subtext, and storytelling skill. The original was an entropic cauldron of hormonal passion, oppressed desire, and female fury. The remake was an ABC Family event about a hot girl who can throw shit at other hot girls. What is a modern retelling in 2013? Locker room period scenes: now with iPhones.

We had high expectations. We also had 13 dollars. There were a lot of losses. But sometimes, the surprises were for the better.

The Wolverine could have rested on the careening bulges of Hugh Jackman, but delighted audiences with a supporting cast of deadly women who have their own business to deal with. As the yummy villain, Viper is a toxic tongued vamp of the oldest sort, and Yukio, Logan’s sidekick, looks like she cuts her own bangs with her samurai sword. Unlike the marble visage of its lead actor, Man of Steel was not a perfect movie. But it featured a Lois Lane who pushed through boundaries because she wanted to and because she was intelligent enough to do so. Lois discovered Superman’s identity within the first half of the film, and stuck around to help save the day. It was refreshing to see a female journalist do something besides “get into trouble.” I like Amy Adams in a flightsuit.

Speaking of Amy, I’m not going to pretend to care about the plot of American Hustle, nor to the men who greased it up. But as two ambitious and unhinged divas, Adams and on-screen adversary Jennifer Lawrence demolished their costars. They were catty and obsessed with a man, but they were also ambitious and unpredictable and manipulative. I guess their complexity sounds like a lot to ask these days.

Whether the movie was a flop or not, these characters would never have risen to such prominence if it weren’t for the sensational box office success of Katniss Everdeen, the meta-revolutionary of The Hunger Games. Make no mistake: she will change the way action characters are written and gendered. Fresh off her Oscar win, Jennifer Lawrence shone with valiance and grace in her second round with the character. Catching Fire was an intense ride with a lot of twists, but its center was the emotional range of its magnetic muse.

In a year of development and momentum in women’s roles, it was inevitable that Wonder Woman would finally be cast to make her debut on the screen, albeit in a man’s movie. Gal Gadot is an athletic former soldier in her personal life and a slight but striking beauty on screen. It remains to be seen whether she’ll get the chance at the Wonder Woman we’ve been waiting for, or if she’ll go down as a badly written sacrifice to spite the fans that demanded her for so long.

By the rules of 2013, this superheroine will get her shot on screen. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. We’ve got the parts, but we don’t have the pantheon we deserve. Here’s hoping for a new year of quality and quantity.

David used to have platinum blonde hair but who knows what color it is today? He's a comic nerd and superhero guru living in Los Angeles (and vacationing in Stars Hollow). Read about his nights out at or find him at Sally's Beauty Supply.

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