Wonder Women: A conversation with filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

Gary Collinson chats with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, director of the upcoming documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines…

“I was reading a New York Times article that introduced Gail Simone as Wonder Woman’s first female writer EVER. Despite the fact that she was this incredible feminist symbol, she was stuck, like a lot of strong female characters, between being created by men and primarily consumed by boys,” explains filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan (Going on 13) as to the inspiration for her second feature documentary, Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, which was previously entitled The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman and is set to receive its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this week. “The story stayed with me and I began looking into Wonder Woman’s origins. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was an incredibly fascinating character with a clear agenda to create an empowering role model amidst a lot of super violent male heroes. Of course, he had some interesting ideas about what a strong female hero should look like, but his creation had incredible staying power while so many comic book characters (especially female ones) have come and gone.”

After making her first appearance in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941), the Wonder Woman gained her own successful solo title in the Summer of 1942 before emerging as one of DC Comics’ most recognizable characters with a near unbroken publication run bettered only by her male counterparts Superman and Batman – a remarkable feat for a female character in a medium typically dominated both by male characters and readers. “Wonder Woman was not a sidekick. She was not a daughter or sister or romantic partner,” states Guevara-Flanagan as to the lasting appeal of the Amazon Princess, who is perhaps best known for the 1970s television series starring Lynda Carter. “She was at the center of her own story and, even today, that is incredibly rare for a heroine. I think that alone, having her own complex mythology and being at the center of her story, has most helped her stick around for so long. She is also a WOMAN and not anyone’s ‘girl’. Sadly enough, she is kinda still the only real female superhero that people recognize.”

Although Wonder Woman was the obvious choice to serve as the focal point for a documentary about powerful female characters, she is by no means the only heroine to fall under the remit of Wonder Women. “We touch on some of the other early female superheroines (Miss Fury, Sheena) and then stay with Wonder Woman for a while until the 50s when we also look at Catwoman, Batgirl and Lois Lane. Eventually we come to the TV screen and look at The Bionic Woman [1976-1978] and Charlie’s Angels [1976-1981]. Then finally we end up on the big screen where we look at characters like Ripley from Aliens [1986] all the way to Jean Grey from X-Men [2000]. And then, of course there are the real life heroines we talk with like Gloria Steinem and Kathleen Hanna (one of the originators of the Riot Grrrl movement).” Two moments in particular proved hugely memorable for the director during the production of the film: “It was a blast to MEET Lynda Carter and Gloria Steinem! I was incredibly awed in their presence, for entirely different reasons!”

“I think the potential for female heroes has changed over the years,” reflects Guevara-Flanagan. “They can do what any male hero can do, they don’t have to be married, they can have interesting careers, but I am constantly disappointed by the hyper-sexuality on display in these characters. All of those gains seem mitigated by the fact of how they are drawn, what they wear, and the postures they assume.” However, while female superheroes have evolved considerably, they are yet to really make their mark on screen during the current boom in comic book movies; even the Amazon Princess has failed to make the transition, with the long-rumoured Wonder Woman feature now languishing in development for over a decade. “The only films with female superheroes – Supergirl [1984], Elektra [2005], and even Catwoman [2004] – bombed miserably and because of that, the studios can claim that a woman leading as a superheroine is simply too risky. These films also need to play well with international audiences and that is another excuse the studios will use as to why they just can’t have a film lead with a woman. There are a crop of films coming that I am hoping will debunk this myth, namely, The Hunger Games [2012] series and the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] – not superheroines per se, but bad-asses nonetheless!”

Despite Hollywood studios’ reluctance to give their backing to female superheroes, the Wonder Women team found plenty of support on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter during a recent campaign designed to raise financing to help complete the documentary and fund its upcoming premiere. “Kickstarter is so amazing! There really was no other way to be so directly in touch with your audience, until it came along. I love the idea that all these artists (writers, musicians, filmmakers) can go directly to the consumer and crowd-fund their project. It is an incredible feeling to know that there is an enthusiastic audience out there for your film, waiting for you to finish and cheering you on as you do!” Having met their Kickstarter target with five days to spare, Wonder Women is now ready to screen at SXSW, but Guevara-Flanagan is already pressing ahead with her future plans for the film. “We are applying to other festivals and hope to do a lot of screenings in various communities. We hope to secure a broadcast deal with a station like PBS and finally, we’d like to see the film in schools and colleges, so there will be a big educational push after the initial festival and broadcast launch.”

As for Guevara-Flanagan, she has no immediate plans to make the shift to narrative filmmaking, preferring instead to continue to explore her passion for the documentary medium. “I picked up my first Super-8 camera when I was in high school and actually made a kind of experimental documentary right away. I have been hooked ever since! I am pretty sure at this point in my life that documentary filmmaking is my medium. I do hope to write a few narrative screenplays… but I think I just like directing non-fiction.” Nevertheless, if she were to change her mind and be offered the opportunity to bring Wonder Woman to the screen, what sort of characteristics would she be looking for in casting the Amazon Princess? “Oddly enough, I don’t have a great answer to this question. Somebody like Ellen Page could be really interesting, but doesn’t yet seem to have the physicality you’d want in a Wonder Woman. Michelle Rodriguez can certainly play the tough chick role, but again, you’d want someone who is versatile, and can play it almost like a political leader. Michele Obama?! I am keeping my eyes peeled!”

Many thanks to Kristy Guevara-Flanagan for taking the time for this interview.

For more on Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, visit the official site.

Gary Collinson