Thinking About Vicki Vale
A Character Analysis of Comic Book Super-Babes
By Terrie B. Hayes | Story Developer | January 19, 2023 (revised)
In a grad school screenwriting class, I was inspired by a fellow classmate’s “painful” discussion post to devote serious thought to the character of Vicki Vale from Batman comics.
This started as an assignment to rewrite a short scene from an existing film/genre — our choice — with the emphasis on ACTION to REVEAL CHARACTER rather than dialogue.
A critical part of this assignment was to be mindful of the CONVENTIONS of the genre — i.e. the expected and/or traditional elements of a superhero story — as these details would be essential in pulling off an authentic and more convincing scene.
My classmate chose to REWRITE a dramatic exchange between Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne, where Vicki goes bridezilla-bonkers when Bruce doesn’t return any of her calls after their FIRST DATE hook-up. Oh NO!
In an earlier scene of this rewrite, Vicki wakes up in Bruce’s bed in the middle of the night and sees that he’s gone — no note, no flower, and no Uber funds (giggle) — so SHE WAITS. Double NO!
At first, emo-Vicki is confused and a little annoyed, but, when Bruce doesn’t show up after a couple hours, she’s super pissed. And super off-character!
Vicki has no idea that her naked dance partner is the “Caped Crusader” himself or that this mega-billionaire/cave-dweller is “working” as a third-shift vigilante. Nonetheless, she’s under no obligation to wait for him…and she shouldn’t!
Alas, everyone writes through their own emotional filters.
According to my classmate’s version, this Vicki had been thrice-abandoned by men in her life and now saw this “abandonment” as the the LAST STRAW! If she actually believed in such a thing!
So, when Vicki finds the sleep-deprived Bruce the next day — in person, no less — she dumps buckets of insecurity all over him, as though he dropped her off on a Gotham street corner and told her to walk home. Ouch.
The feminist in me screamed, “Please stop the madness, emo-Vicki! You’re killing us!” Rather than being the sophisticated and confident icon her creators intended her to be (back in 1948), this Vicki was acting like a hormonal teenager.
One of my MALE classmates expressed his disappointment in Vicki’s “radical and uncomely” immaturity so early in the relationship. A FEMALE classmate wrote, “This is appalling…and hard to read.” We three agreed that such a diminished portrayal of an iconically-likable female character was an insult to women and the genre.
The author, no surprise, was quite offended by the feedback (and fought back). Good for her! She justified Vicki’s juvenile outburst by explaining that she was writing from her own experiences, and argued, “Isn’t that what writers should be doing?!!”
She had a good point. And, normally, the answer would have been a solid YES, but this was an exercise focused on SUPERHERO CONVENTIONS.
The idea wasn’t just to write full-steam ahead — from the deep-dark place of low self-esteem— but to write with the specific purpose of channeling the story-brain of a superhero writer.
WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW can go a long way — absolutely — but when writing in the superhero realm, the writer must don the cape of a super-human to think as both a superhero and a supervillain.
When Batman’s soon-to-be archenemy, Joker, first appears in 1940, he is established as a sadistic psychopath. Clearly, he’s the “bad” guy.
If my classmate was turning Vicki Vale into a supervillain — which would break the continuity of a long-running DC narrative—then the “less than charming” behavior of her Vicki could be considered “seeds of evil.”
In the comic book realm, details can be ADDED to any character’s established past — via “Retroactive Continuity” — to change the existing story, but not the core personality and motivations of that character. This is the “secret sauce” of writing “new” stories for both DC and the MCU.
Again, the purpose of this convention-focused exercise was to REVEAL CHARACTER THROUGH ACTION — to show WHO Vicki Vale is by showing HOW she behaves and WHAT she says and does.
In filmmaking, every minute of screen-time is costly. Producers, especially during pre-production, have to consider the individual costs of numerous line items — including, but not limited to equipment, location rental, payroll, meals, supplies, costumes, make-up, props, sets, and insurance — in addition to cast and crew availability, weather, and day or night hours.
This is a big deal, even for a “small” production. Often what these “invested” readers are looking for in a script, beyond its feasibility, is whether or not the story is “tight” or “efficient.”
Bottom line…the writer must deliver as much CHARACTER (and story) information as possible…in as few pages as possible.
So, if you’re writing in the superhero genre, which is built from consistent, ARCHETYPAL displays of strong femininity, you don’t need to waste pages on behavior that neither serves your characters nor your story.
And, if you’re hoping to sell a story with well-known, well-established comic book characters, then you have an obligation to appease a very knowledgable and reverent audience.
I know that “commercialism” is something that irks just about every writer, at some point or another, but it’s part of the job. We’d all love to just think and write from a place of passion — paycheck be damned — but, any seasoned industry pro would also advise us to write what pays the bills.
As a writer of superheroes, you must also consider that you are a consumer as well. In addition to thinking about what the audience wants and/or expects, you should THINK ABOUT WHY YOU LIKE CERTAIN TYPES OF CHARACTERS and each of their archetypes.
An ARCHETYPE is a “familiar” character persona — such as THE HERO, THE VILLAIN, THE MENTOR, THE CLOWN, etc. It is that relatable essence that covers the full spectrum of human experience, no matter what language we speak. When we see certain behaviors, we know, immediately, WHO and WHAT that person represents.
SILENT FILMS have a great many examples of familiar archetypes.
An archetype is also identified by SIGNIFICANT STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES that are “typical” of that character. A HERO, for example, is “actively” portrayed — as being courageous, good-hearted, and strong-willed, as well as being an inexhaustible target for villainous antics.
Both heroes and villains struggle. Struggle (against any opposition) is what strengthens and motivates characters. Comic book “people,” whether they are trying to save the world or are up to no good, are further bolstered by each successive win or loss — as long as they are within their archetypes.
This isn’t to say that a “super” woman cannot show signs of emotional vulnerability. Just the opposite. Real emotions are essential in every character, especially in dramatic writing — for sake of audience relatability.
And while those emotions should come from a place of deeper hurt, anger, frustration, etc., you have to remember that in the superhero genre, a super-babe would not “typically” breakdown into an all-out tantrum — an action generally seen as a sign of immaturity, not strength.
So, if you’re in any way thinking that I’m being unfair to this fellow classmate, consider also that comic book heroes and heroines display physical and intellectual strength as well.
Some of the most popular on-screen examples of super women are: Captain Marvel / Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel, 2019), The Wasp / Hope Van Dyne (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018), Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri (Black Panther, 2018), Wonder Woman / Diana Prince (Wonder Woman, 2017), Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (The Avengers, 2012), Catwoman / Patience Phillips (Catwoman, 2004), Elektra Natchios (Daredevil, 2003), Phoenix / Dr. Jean Grey (X-Men, 2000), Trinity (Matrix, 1999). Do any truly unflattering traits come to mind?
In all fairness, I will concede that Vicki Vale is NOT a quintessential superhero like the women above. I will also qualify that I’m not lumping Vicki Vale into this category, so much as I’m placing in her into the “super” universe where the bar of female strength is set high. Also, keep in mind that characters like Elektra, Wasp, Trinity, and Okoye are each linked to a “super” man, yet are independently badass at the same time. Talk about an “enhanced” super-babe archetype.
SUPERHERO CONVENTIONS establish heroines as incredibly dignified, restrained, and reserved in their more intimate dealings. These esteemed women would NEVER reduce themselves to spewing emotions like a broken faucet. Rather, they would speak their minds and act accordingly.
As a big fan of the superhero genre, my ultimate argument is that while an esteemed man like Bruce Wayne would be initially attracted to an incredibly beautiful woman, he would never fall in love with a grossly insecure, high-maintenance version of Vicki Vale. He doesn’t have time.
Let me qualify, at this point, that the author of this literary insult was rowing her boat in unfamiliar waters without a compass. She didn’t bother to explore the conventions or lore of comic book superheroes and heroines or to learn more about Vicki Vale’s origins. And it showed!
Everyone has their own approach to writing — I understand — but, no matter who you are, and, especially, if you’re writing in a well-formed genre, you would be wise in “consulting” with the masters — dead or alive!
On this point, my purpose in writing this Vicki-focused article is to pay tribute to the INTENDED characterizations of comic book heroines as envisioned by their masterful creators.
Artist Bob Kane (1915–1998) and writer Bill Finger (1914–1974) co-created “Batman” out of the combined concepts of a vigilante crime fighter and a scientific detective. “Batman” first appeared in Detective Comics (3/30/1939).
“Vicki Vale” first appears in DC Comics’ Batman #49 (October 1948) in a story titled, “Scoop of the Century.” She enters this world as the ever-suspicious and inquisitive journalist (and potential love interest) of Bruce Wayne. True to her super-babe origins, she discovers — in only her first issue — that Bruce and Batman may be the same person!
How clever she is! We see that this Vicki is not easily fooled nor dissuaded. She is quite observant, adept in gathering evidence, and not shy about asking questions.
And she is TENACIOUS! We see that her investigative efforts are always thwarted — as they should be — yet she persists! By design, Vicki has no inclination to quit, and, at the same time, the writers extend the mystery of “Will she ever discover Bruce’s true identity?” through many exciting volumes. Like I said…MASTERFUL!
In Tim Burton’s version of Batman (1989), Vicki is a photojournalist played by the lovely Kim Basinger. Not exactly portrayed as a “super” woman, this seductive Vicki is immediately drawn to Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) — and vice versa — and a steamy romp caps off their first date.
Afterward, Vicki spends much of her time pursuing the mysterious and evasive Bruce — for personal reasons, not professional. I would have expected this Vicki to play hard-to-get — for the sake of getting her big story — but she comes across as needy and stalker-ish.
FUN FACT: As of Jan. 20, 2023, HALF of the Top Ten grossing domestic films feature superheroes: Avengers: End Game (2019), Spiderman: No Way Home (2021), Black Panther (2018), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and The Avengers (2012). The other HALF include: Star Wars Episode VII — The Force Awakens (2015), Avatar (2009), Top Gun: Maverick (2022), Titanic (1997), and Jurassic World (2015). (BoxOfficeMojo.com)
Essentially, audiences love fantasy and adventure more than any other genre. The stories are magical, exciting, and full of heart, and demonstrate, the greatest human attributes in the most bold and inspiring ways.
Without knowing the motivations and/or behind-the-scenes pressures of Sam Hamm (Batman story) and Warren Skaaren (Batman screenplay), I can only surmise that the final decision was to portray this version of Vicki Vale as the quintessential damsel-in-distress.
Evidenced by her frequent ear-piercing screams and her lack warrior instinct, we see that she’s more than a tad vulnerable, as well as the perfect “sitting duck” target for the sinister (and persistent), ever-smiling Joker.
That being said, this more sensitive Vicki is pressed to the edges of terror and NEVER devolves into ugly crying fits, accusations, or freak-outs. She’s obviously never been trained to fight, so, via strategic writing, Vicki’s defense tactics are more or less reactionary to prolong her survival until her Dark Knight can make a very timely rescue. Personally, I would have endowed her with more of that Gotham grit.
In The Dark Knight (2008), Bruce Wayne’s love interest “Rachel Dawes” (aka Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a better example of the quintessential super-babe. She demonstrates just how daring she is at Harvey Dent’s dinner party by calling the insane Joker’s attention to herself.
And then, after Joker drops her out of the skyscraper window — and Batman dives out after her — she free-falls with him onto a car (and survives), and calmly says, “Let’s not do that again.” Riveting, sexy, and very likeable!
While writing in this genre, you have to keep asking yourself, “Why do so many people love superhero stories?”
If we consider the four most iconic superheroes — Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Batman — I think it’s evident that audiences of superhero flicks love the overarching concept of a costumed “good guy,” who chooses to hide a spectacular alter ego behind a facade of normalcy.
It doesn’t hurt that these characters also happen to be smart, strategic, and extremely principled in following his/her own moral code. (Being sexy and having super cool weapons and transportation are bonuses.)
The next level of enjoyment — i.e. convention — comes from watching the “bad guys” do spectacularly bad stuff, so that the “good guys” can swoop-in with some hardcore butt-whooping and get roughed-up in the process.
Another significant convention is for the superhero to have an alluring (and undeniably courageous) love interest, like Vicki Vale, who is, in no small way, as SUPER as his/her counterpart.
Vicki sneaks into mafia headquarters.
In the Batman comics, Vicki is street smart, resourceful, and resilient — all by virtue and necessity — and driven to unmask the “Caped Crusader” for the curiosity of the citizens of Gotham City as well as for her own curiosity and journalistic ambitions. Exciting, right?
It’s in this crime-ridden metropolis, that the ability to think like a criminal, with unwavering fearlessness, and then shake off the dirt is what makes Vicki an indomitable force in the male-dominated, news profession.
She is shrewd enough to know that in order to serve her bosses as well as herself, she must bend her moral compass toward the greater good of selling more newspapers. The job must come first! Vicki’s hyper-primal, means-to an-end compulsion to survive also makes her a super woman that audiences can relate to and admire.
Vicki’s birth in the comic realm also means that she was literally designed to be incredibly beautiful, provocative, strong, fierce, confident, intelligent, and stubbornly determined — among other amazing traits!
When you think of the broad landscape of fictional super females — including Disney’s Mulan, and “Rey” from Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens — you can see the overt similarities in their creation, as well as in their intended purpose…to INSPIRE!
No doubt, the artificial and extraordinary perfection of super women is super fun to watch, envy, or lust after, but, no one can deny their influence in breaking the mold of unnaturally restrictive roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper, as examined in The Feminine Mystique of 1963.
A heartfelt thanks goes out to DC Comics, Marvel Comics, MCU, Disney, George Lucas, and the Wachowski siblings for creating indefatigable super-babes that raise the bar of femininity!
For preparation, every aspiring writer of superheroes should watch successful, genre-related films — with notepad at the ready — and jot down ALL the fun and fascinating elements you enjoy.
Beyond the superhero and at least one super-babe, you’re looking for other CONVENTIONS like the first TENSE meeting between the superhero and the supervillain, the superhero responding to the supervillain’s criminal antics — which go from low stakes property damage to high stakes human casualties — and moments when “human” allies are in mortal danger.
There are many more CONVENTIONS, such as political corruption, the superhero being weakened to the point of failure and then recovering with unbelievable strength, and, of course, a huge final battle.
Writers also need to keep in mind that superheroes are incredibly popular because humans love to see human strength in all its forms. This is a mold that doesn’t need to be reinvented, and it has stood the test of time.
I think it’s helpful to understand that superheroes emerged at a time when people needed to rise above their fears and perceived limitations. Many of the earliest superheroes, in fact, were created during and after World War II (1939–1945), a time when so many young men joined the military and so many women broke out of their home-based roles to fill vacancies in the workplace.
Both men and women of this era were recognized as heroic in their patriotism to serve where needed, but women, thereafter, were socially redefined as stronger and more capable, like the original Vicki Vale, and women everywhere took this to heart.
Implied, if not specifically stated, is the enduring comic culture that a super man will only fall in love with a super woman (and vice versa). It’s because they both have the will to do good, that they are naturally attracted to one another, with great respect.
Beyond ambition, a super woman is tough because she has experienced great loss, grief, and suffering, and is now pulled by a greater existence and destiny! Sound familiar?
Super men love saving the damsel-in-distress, but, at the same time, they want a woman who doesn’t need to be rescued. They want a spirited, independent (and defiant) woman that will sneak into mafia headquarters — assertive, assured, and impulsive — and then employ grit, charm, and audacity to escape.
A super woman’s seemingly unavoidable habit of getting into life-threatening predicaments — may seem kind of reckless, but that’s how life is when you’re always burning with the fuel of ADVENTURE. Almost exclusively, a super woman is single-minded about achieving her goals — death be damned! In so many circumstances, she gets lucky — like a blind person crossing a busy street — and she knows it!
Some would see this irrational, “free-falling faith” as taking life for granted, but a comic book heroine knows no other way. It’s built in! Deliberately. And failure is not an option. Think about it. How many times does Superman swoop in to catch Lois Lane right before an impending SPLAT?!
What makes a super woman especially fun to watch is the fact that she’s not likely to learn from the CONVENTIONAL flaws in her audacity. Deliberate mis-steps are on her daily “To-do” list: Go into a dark cave alone — CHECK! Climb onto the ledge of a skyscraper — CHECK! Spy on the Nazis, then dive into a shark tank — CHECK-CHECK!
No matter how many times she faces death, she persists. It’s in her CHARACTER. Remember, this is the comic book world where anything is possible…and these particular super women are astonishingly immortal for being so darn human!
Is a super woman’s behavior reckless, irresponsible, and downright stupid? You bet! Do we love her audacity and cheer when she succeeds? Absolutely! Will we writers/viewers keep on paying good money to see more of these ass-kicking, danger-seeking, super-babes in the comics and on-screen? Yes! Bam! Boom! Pow!
When thinking about Vicki Vale, I see a character that reflects all the awesome traits women admire and appreciate in themselves and other women…including being selective about which man she spends her time (and her life) with! A man of Batman’s caliber is naturally drawn to a self-assured, feminine-but-tough woman for the sole reason that she is NOT easily won, diminished, or conquered.
Bottom line…a super woman has to be super! So, if you’re going to design the ultimate comic book super-babe, go ahead and put her through peril, but be sure to make her tough and resilient, and add tons of moxie!
Artwork Credits: “Vicki Vale Gets the Inside Scoop.” by Charbak Dipta, Commissioned Copyright 2020, Terrie Hayes. “Vicki Vale Sneaks into Mafia HQ” by Charbak Dipta, Commissioned Copyright 2020 Terrie Hayes. “Lois Lane Prepares to Go Swimming” by Charbak Dipta, Commissioned Copyright 2020, Terrie Hayes. “Superman Swoops in to Save Lois...Again” by Charbak Dipta, Commissioned Copyright 2020, Terrie Hayes.
“Vicki Vale gets the inside scoop.” by Charbak Dipta (c2020 Terrie Hayes)