In 1968, Roger Vadim cast his young wife Jane Fonda in a sexy, satirical science fiction film based on an infamous French comic strip. The film, Barbarella, didn’t do well at the box office, and critics panned it, but the following decades saw it rise to cult status. Frankly, in a cinematic culture now obsessed with comic book adaptations and riding the line between earnest genre-wackiness and ironic camp, we are all lucky to have Barbarella. It’s the comic book film we need, but barely deserve.
Barbarella’s most obvious influence is its playful and frank use of sensuality. The sexual liberation of women was tied into Barbarella’s marketing copy, using language which, by today’s standards, would seem incendiary. “Who’s the girl of the 21st century?” Barbarella posters asked moviegoers. “Who gives up the pill? Who goes to outer space? Who nearly dies from pleasure?” In addition to sensationalizing female pleasure, Barbarella put in serious work as both a science-fiction film and a skillful adaptation of a comic book strip. By translating the (French!) visual rhetoric of lovable pervert Jean-Claude Forest’s comics into cinematography, Roger Vadim and his team crafted a comic book film that could teach today’s multi-character comic-operas a thing or two.
A lesson in tone
Barbarella’s comics are not simply smut; in addition to being titillating, they’re meant to make a reader laugh and enjoy science fiction’s world-building. Each planet Barbarella visits has its own culture and set of physical rules, so watching her decided to have sex with a robot, or a king, or a harem of women who get high by breathing the “essence of man” follows the same formula as Star Trek: The Original Series. Barbarella’s quest is often the same as the objective followed by Kirk and Spock; she just tends to bed new creatures in order to learn more about them, whereas Spock tries to keep Kirk from doing just that.
One of the most stunning things about the Barbarella film is that it encapsulates the same tonal quality that Forest’s comics worked hard to maintain. Though Barbarella is technically in danger often, her stories skirt around any true darkness. There is always a way out of the binds Barbarella finds herself in, and the solution usually involves coitus.
The film’s opening credits address Barbarella’s role perfectly: she is meant to be gazed at, and performs for the camera without being disingenuous. She’s aware of her beauty without being consumed by it, and considers her sex appeal as useful as being able to fly her ship. Fonda’s comedic physicality in the film’s beginning, which is set completely inside Barbarella’s furry spaceship, mirrors that of her comic book persona, who always seems twisted into improbable physical situations.
The film’s awareness of space is pulled right from the comic strip; Barbarella’s relationship with her environment is always rooted in how much physical space she occupies. Some planets cast her as huge and hulking, others as a maternal figure or an overgrown little girl. In many, she’s a classical ideal of feminine beauty, and in others, she’s an oddity. This space between Barbarella as sex object and Barbarella as alien invader is where most of the drama in Forest’s comics occurs, and it’s also where the film finds most of its story.
Comic book logic, onscreen
One of the most satisfying, and unique, aspects of reading comic strips and books is the idea that storylines don’t have to outlive their appeal. If Barbarella lands on a planet with one big joke to it, Forest can keep her there for a couple panels and blast her off again, before the conceit becomes stale.
Because the Barbarella film is structured like a trippy road movie, Fonda’s character gets to experience wild situations that have no lasting bearing on her character. This immediate disposal of some smaller plot-lines is bolstered by Fonda’s considerable acting ability; we believe her reactions to the craziest stuff, but we also believe her “out of sight, out of mind” way of conceptualizing outer space. Killer dolls, for instance, appear, and are just as soon gone.
Comic book films of late have gotten so bogged down in linking all of their characters and worlds together that they begin to suffer. I think of the “flag waver” line in Jessica Jones, which probably felt it needed to address the looming Avengers in any sort of superhero story, though it didn’t have the means to fully feature these other characters. Looking at Barbarella as a cinematic adaptation of a large comic canon would tell the MCU to chill out. Audiences are smarter than you think, and we’re willing to let a lot of stuff go.
Differentiate your climaxes!
What, I ask, is the point of having a world of unique superheroes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, if each of their solo films crescendo in exactly the same same fashion? Big baddie wants a brawl, and Hero of the Day is the only one muscular enough to stop them.
Marvel, admittedly, played at a new setting for a film-ending show-down in Ant Man, though the formula was essentially the same, just smaller. A bad guy with no redeeming qualities who was clearly introduced just to be disposed of at the end of the film targeted the hero, and the hero fought him. DC, on the other hand, is more obviously guilty of choosing boring super-villains from its comics, and having each costumed hero defeat them exactly the same way. There’s a reason we’re all still talking about Heath Ledger’s Joker, and it’s not because of the disappearing pencil gag. We truly didn’t know how Batman was going to take him, or Two-Face, down. The Dark Knight experimented in a way that Batman vs Superman won’t.
Take Barbarella, right? She’s on a specific quest her entire movie, and she teams up with characters whose gifts are useful in some situations, and not in others. Her big showdown involves one of the greatest sci-fi machines in cinematic history; American theaters called it The Excessive Machine, but French moviegoers knew it was “The Orgasmostron”, which is better. My point being, Barbarella took down her big baddie in a way that felt organic to her character’s skills.
The filmmakers and creatives building out the cinematic universe of comic book characters would do well to return to weirder ephemera, if only to remind themselves that unique, small worlds are often more engrossing than loud team-ups, or as the fantastic tweet I embedded above put it: “punch-ups in a car park.” The more complex and nuanced struggles of every one of Marvel and DC’s comic book characters are already outlined in the comics. Filmmakers just need to return to their source text with the same reverence and attention to detail that Roger Vadim gave Barbarella.ique, small worlds are often more engrossing than loud team-ups, or as the fantastic tweet I embedded above put it: “punch-ups in a car park.” The more complex and nuanced struggles of every one of Marvel and DC’s comic book characters are already outlined in the comics. Filmmakers just need to return to their source text with the same reverence and attention to detail that Roger Vadim gave Barbarella.