DC Comics marked the 600th issue of the “Wonder Woman” series in June. On Friday, “Salt,” starring Angelina Jolie, opens in theaters nationwide.
The two events have more than sexy, tight-fitting outfits in common.
Wonder Woman’s intentions were always clear — fight evil, clobber bad guys. Evelyn Salt’s are not — her identity and motives are murky, a fact that propels the plot of the Phillip Noyce-directed thriller.
Still, they are two smart, empowered ladies with extraordinary skills, and they represent the evolution of the female action hero ... er, heroine.
"It’s an archetype," said Lynda Carter, who soared to fame by playing "Wonder Woman" for three seasons in the 1970s television series. Carter, who is also a singer, is currently touring to promote her latest CD, "At Last."
"I read (Wonder Woman) comic books as a kid," Carter said. "Look at the timing of that series. There were no women on TV other than on sitcoms, and Angie Dickinson (“Police Woman”). In that way, it was groundbreaking to punch through that glass ceiling, kind of realizing the other half of the population wants their own heroes.”
Today, Jolie has been punching through the glass ceiling and karate-chopping past dirtbags in such slugfests as the “Lara Croft” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Wanted.” In “Salt,” she continues to add to her action cred as a CIA officer who goes on the run when she’s accused by a Russian defector of being a spy.
But Jolie is not the female Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris, an action figure who knows no other line of work. Rather, she is an Academy Award-winning actress — claiming the best supporting actress Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted” in 2000 — who has expanded her repertoire to include the kicking of butt. Jolie has burnished her impeccable acting chops by working with such rarefied directors as Clint Eastwood (“Changeling”), Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) and Robert De Niro (“The Good Shepherd”).
She doesn’t make a steady diet out of action. But when she does serve it up, it tends to satisfy.
“The thing that makes her unique is her tremendous courage,” noted renowned acting teacher Wendy Girard, who has been guiding students in the Los Angeles area for over 35 years. “She’s a very powerful personality. When have we seen that in a woman? Joan Crawford used to be that way in her day, incredibly powerful.
“It’s a combination of her courage and passion and strength that makes her who she is and makes her really convincing at bringing an action element to her acting.”
Sigourney Weaver, 'Alien' action queen
Although Jolie currently occupies the throne of female action queen, she is only the latest in a long line of such death-defying divas, stretching back to December of 1941, when Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics. There certainly had been many strong women in popular culture, but few who added physical prowess to their personas, although there are arguments to be made on behalf of various depictions of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, the Jane of Tarzan and Jane, and others.
Carter’s “Wonder Woman” aired its final episode on Sept. 11, 1979. By that time, Carter’s successor as the fiercest woman in Hollywood had already been chosen: Sigourney Weaver starred as Ellen Ripley in director Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” released on May 25 of that same year.
“I don’t think there’s much question that Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley in the ‘Alien’ movies, is the gold standard for this type of action hero,” said Bill Goodykoontz, film critic for the Arizona Republic and chief film critic for the Gannett chain. “She didn’t just kick ass, she evolved in interesting ways.
“From the beginning of ‘Alien’ to the end of ‘Aliens,’ she’d turned from a woman on a towing ship into a first-rate action heroine, fully the equal of any male counterpart," Goodykoontz said. "Jolie doesn’t compare, really, but it might not be entirely her fault. The action films she’s been in simply haven’t been as good. Could she make a character like Ripley as credible as Weaver did? Who knows? We’ll have to wait till she gets a similarly good role in a comparably good movie to find out.”
Yet there have been other actresses who scored knockouts in memorable action parts. They include Pam Grier in the title role of the 1974 film, “Foxy Brown”; Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in “The Terminator” movies; Carrie-Anne Moss in the “Matrix” series; Kate Beckinsale in the “Underworld” movies; Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” pictures; and most recently Zoe Saldana in “Avatar.”
Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant know their bone-crunching women. They run the Academy of Theatrical Combat in Burbank, Ca., and train actors and actresses in the fine arts of fight design, action choreography and weapons combat. Speaker cited Weaver as the one who broke the barrier, but noted that there were many who have gone unnoticed over the years.
“Before Sigourney Weaver, you saw women in action roles in odd, offbeat, weird barbarian movies,” he said. “And there were also a lot of female action heroes from China.”
Mixing prestige and power
In Jolie, Speaker sees a modern hybrid of prestige and power. “She’s sort of the new age, a legitimate actress,” he said. “You can see her doing serious parts, but you also buy her in action roles. She definitely has that fluidity and grace of movement.”
Added Bryant of Jolie: “I love her. I think she’s wonderful. Her capabilities in movement are terrific. Obviously I’m super concerned that the women who do these roles do them really well because we don’t get that much of an opportunity to show that kind of strength.”
Perhaps as evidence of how effective Jolie and her action sisters have been, Speaker and Bryant report a spike in the number of female students at their school. “We actually have more women in our classes than ever before,” Speaker said.
Carter, who said she is a fan of Weaver, Jolie, Saldana and others, remembered that television executives tried to kill both “Wonder Woman” and “The Bionic Woman” (starring Lindsay Wagner, which also ran for three seasons in the ‘1970s) before they had a chance to catch on.
“The public rallied around us,” she said. “They were hungry for it. The powers-that-be didn’t think a woman could keep an audience. They catered to a male audience.
“At the time, the '70s, it was an era of feminism, and there were many among the older crowd who railed against feminism, who thought they were going to see us play it as a butch-tough aggressive kind of female. When ‘Wonder Woman’ came along, it countered that thinking. She wasn’t feminist at all. She didn’t see what the big deal was.”
Carter said Wonder Woman simply had a lot in common with Salt, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and others.
“She was accessible,” Carter said. “You liked her. You knew her. You felt a camaraderie. There was that humanness about her.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.