The Unappreciated Legacy Of Barb Wire, 20 Years Later
Not that anyone at Marvel Studios cares, but Scarlett Johansson has kicked ass as Black Widow in five films. From her introduction in 2010’s Iron Man 2 to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (read our review), she’s fought her way into our hearts using chairs, guns, and body scissors (a wrestling move that utilizes the thighs and legs to choke your partner into submission). And yet, looking at the slate of films Marvel will roll out from now until the rapture, she has no solo film scheduled.
It was easier to make a female superhero film when you didn’t take them seriously. No one but sex-starved Playboy fanatics craved the 1996 comic book adaptation of Dark Horse’s Barb Wire, starring Pamela Anderson. The film opens with a backlit intro where Anderson goes undercover as a stripper, thrusting and gliding across a stage, drenched in water, as if she were auditioning for Goddess alongside Nomi Malone. Barb Wire is set in the not-so-distant future of 2017, where the United States is in the midst of the Second Civil War. And while Donald Trump’s rise to prominence 20 years later might foretell that dystopian future, Barb Wire is also particularly prescient about the state of the female comic book heroine.
Marvel’s only female-led film on the schedule as of now is 2019’s Captain Marvel, starring a heroine who hasn’t even been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. DC will beat them by two years by debuting Wonder Woman in 2017, starring Gal Gadot, the only person anyone cared about in Batman v Superman. Purportedly, we take our superhero films seriously now. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s gritty superhero outing The Dark Knight. But if we take them seriously enough to plot out an entire cinematic universe for them, why aren’t we taking the women just as seriously?
Barb Wire was cooked up as a vehicle to launch the film career of Anderson, who’d experienced television success on Home Improvement and Baywatch. Those cleavage-heavy roles were a natural successor of her role as a frequent Playboy playmate. So naturally, Barb Wire was a reasonable choice. In the vein of Jane Fonda’s Barbarella, it stars a sexed-up heroine in a futuristic landscape. Barb Wire is a bounty hunter who operates on both sides of the Second Civil War, doling out her services to the highest bidder. The movie is far from brilliant—it’s just bad, to be honest—but there’s a sort of trash-with-aplomb vibe that’s appealing enough to get through it when you’ve had a few drinks. Two random facts about Barb Wire: It’s loosely based on Casablanca (I’m not fucking kidding—it’s right there from the evil Nazi-like characters to the finale on a tarmac) and that it was written by Ilene Chaiken, who would go on to help create two messy yet iconic soap operas, The L Word and Empire.
The movie is a goddamn mess, but you know what? Anderson looks badass in her leather outfits, wields multiple guns and hand grenades, and kicks ass just as well as Natasha Romanoff. 20 years later, what legacy does it leave? That in 1996, it was easy enough to create a superhero vehicle for an American sex symbol. After all, comic book films only got as good as Tim Burton’s Batman films. But now, with the prestige afforded to comic book movies, it’s near impossible to find one starring a woman. In a comic book landscape full of powerful women in supporting roles, like Black Widow, Wonder Woman, or the Scarlet Witch, you have to look elsewhere to find female superheroes.
Oddly enough, you can find those superheroines in an arena not too dissimilar from Barb Wire’s. Professional wrestling features attractive, athletic women in outfits that are just as scantily clad. But don’t forget the men in wrestling are dressed just the same. The suit isn’t to elicit sexual desire; it’s to put the athlete’s muscles and prowess on display. And in a world known historically for machismo and sexism, much like the conditions that created Barb Wire, it’s the women who rule as titans. It was a body scissor than won Charlotte Flair the WWE Women’s Championship Belt in a match that laid to rest a pink, glittery belt called the Divas Championship Belt. When a historically male-dominant arena like wrestling takes the legacy of its heroines more seriously than the comic book films starring actual goddesses, sorceresses, and secret agents, Barb Wire’s impact ends up being bittersweet. Captain America: Civil War opens this week and Scarlett Johansson is once again relegated to the sidelines. Rather than a solo Black Widow film, Johansson has to get her action hero kicks like a junkie fiending for a hit in an alley. How else do you explain starring in Luc Besson’s convoluted Lucy or attempting to play an Asian character in impending disasters like Ghost in the Shell? A female superhero film is nice work if you can get it, but if you can’t, well, this mediocre film from 20 years ago will do.