Critics everywhere are currently in the midst of a frenzy of praise over Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the fourth film in the DC Extended Universe series, and the first feature film to headline a female superhero character since Elektra (a spin-off of the maligned Daredevil) in 2005. That Wonder Woman, a mightily popular comic book character created in 1941, is finally starring in a live-action film is, of course, a significant chapter in the history of the comic book film genre. It’s taken studios a long, long time to incorporate women into the predominantly male world of superheroes, and that we have such an iconic character starring in such a widely praised movie is – finally – completing the canon.
Pundits everywhere, upon this news, have hastened to look back over the history of female-led superhero movies, and have repeatedly uncovered the usual trio of cinematic heroine embarrassments: 1984’s Supergirl, 2004’s Catwoman, and the aforementioned Elektra. While each of these movies may have defensible details, none of them is considered remotely good overall, and none of them were large hits. These three films spell out a dark narrative that ostensibly kept studios from making films about other superheroines for many, many years.
But, for some reason, most pundits and studios have failed to mention the best superheroine film to come before Wonder Woman: Rachel Talalay’s 1995 post-apocalyptic punk flick Tank Girl, based on the comics by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin.
Tank Girl, a cult hit, takes place in a distant future when water is scarce, and hoarded by evil rich men in an ivory tower. The populace lives in the desert, facing thirst, a lack of resources, and the occasional mutant (half-kangaroo men live out in the wasteland). The title character, played by the awesome Lori Petty, is a rambunctious, half-crazed punker who commandeers a tank and fights the powers that be. The film features a weird story, animated sequences, and one of the best soundtrack records of the 1990s (which is saying something).
Of all the major studio superheroine films – perhaps even Wonder Woman included – Tank Girl features perhaps the most rebellious, most interesting, and most entertaining protagonist. Tank Girl is anti-establishment, energetic, driven, and funny. She has a weird sense of humor, an open mind (she smooches one of the kangaroo men), and an assertive libido. Director Talalay had previously directed a few crazy horror films – including the off-the-wall Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare – and seemingly wanted to create an on-screen female character that would inspire audiences through attitude and a middle finger rather than familiar, inspiring slogans.
Tank Girl came out at a time when post-feminist sexuality was bubbling into mainstream consciousness, when a lot of previous modes of conventional entertainment were being deconstructed from within, and when semi-satirical characters like Tank Girl could actually make their way to the big screen. As such, we have a movie where the main character masturbates, flirts with other women, and even toys around with S&M. In 1995, these things were considered daring. These days, it might even be downright taboo; can you imagine Wonder Woman or Captain America masturbating in a big studio feature film? Oh wait, we did get that kind of recently. Thank you, Deadpool.
Tank Girl‘s punk rock daring and open, non-objectified sexuality has left a greater impact on culture than the film’s meager financial success may belie. Feminist essays, punk bands, and Gwen Stefani can all be connected to philosophies of Tank Girl. It is perhaps the cinematic exemplar of the riot grrrl movement, and carries with it – lightly – a wonderful take-charge, damn-the-man attitude that modern films wouldn’t dare handling. Modern blockbusters are yoked with the burden of having to appeal to the widest possible audience. Tank Girl was free from such fetters.
The film’s authors seem to feel that Tank Girl‘s riotous feminism is more natural and healthier even than the comparable, contemporary movie heroines. Rachel Talalay didn’t turn her protagonist into a masculine heroine who simply does what men do. She created action heroine who was actually feminine. No small feat in the filmmaking culture of the 1990s.
What’s more, Tank Girl is just weird. Tank Girl‘s aggressive oddness is immensely appealing. It doesn’t play with a net, granting audiences a gaudy, subversive, unique, deliberately off-putting thrill. It’s wonderfully dizzying, even if the plot is simple, and the scene-by-scene story construction doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Tank Girl is a cartoon character, a spiritual relative of Harley Quinn and Babs Bunny.
So the next time you have a conversation about Wonder Woman – and there will be many over this weekend and beyond – remember that there was at least one other quality female superhero movie to come from a major studio. Tank Girl should be recognized as part of the canon.
Ten Wonder Woman Comic Book Stories You Have to Read:
Top Image: United Artists
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.