Ah, Wonder Woman – the Amazon princess of Themyscira who’s sent to Man’s world as an emissary of Peace, a job that seems to involve a remarkable amount of beating people up, battling evil and repelling bullets with her magical arm gauntlets. She’s massively recognisable. She’s one of the most long-running superheroes around. She’s a female icon, a wish-fulfilment figure and a role model… and yet she hasn’t managed a non-animated onscreen appearance since the fabulously campy Seventies TV series starring Lynda Carter. It’s not for want of trying – there’s been a whole series of attempts to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen (most notably in 2005, when Buffy creator Joss Whedon was hired to do a reboot) but all of them have either failed or stalled.
Now, however, Wonder Woman may be on her way back to TV screens, thanks to a rather unlikely benefactor. If you were going to make a list of potential producers for a TV version of Wonder Woman, it’s very unlikely that David E. Kelly – the king of kooky courtroom drama and creator of shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal – would have made the cut. However, proving that you can never predict exactly how weird Hollywood can get, a Wonder Woman TV project is looking very likely, a pilot episode is being put together at US network NBC, and David E. Kelly is the man in charge. Details of the pilot script have filtered out via film/tv/comics site Bleeding Cool, and it’s certainly sounding a very David E. Kelly show – by the sounds of it, it’ll be a frothy relationship-driven superhero comedy drama with a fair selection of continuity from the original comics, but aiming more at the mainstream network audience, and certainly in no way trying to do the straight, mythic and serious take that plenty of fans seem to want.
(A quick summary of most of the details we’ve got – essentially, the setup is that Wonder Woman is Diana Themyscira, head of the Themyscira Corporation, and publicly moonlights as a superhero (think Tony Stark and Iron Man), but also uses the mild-mannered alter ego of Diana Prince from time to time. The general mood seems to be goofy female-oriented superhero drama, with a slightly worrying number of pop songs listed in the script (there’s apparently going to be a fight scene scored by ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyonce, which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope), and from most of what I’ve read in the Bleeding Cool article, it does feel like the closest reference point is going to be that fabulously Nineties TV take on Superman, Lois and Clark (also known over here as The New Adventures of Superman) – or, at least, the earlier episodes of Lois and Clark where the relationship-driven comedy worked, and the whole concept hadn’t been run into the ground yet).
At this stage, I’m neither loving nor hating what I’m hearing. A lot will depend on execution, and Wonder Woman isn’t a character I’m especially invested in – it does read like the kind of thing that’s more likely to fail than succeed, but pilot episodes can be notoriously clunky anyway, and I’m willing to at least give it a little benefit of the doubt (until I’ve actually seen the episode in question) as this could go either way. Kelly’s take might be a smash success or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it failure (like the TV adaptation of female-centric Batman universe comic Birds of Prey, which was cancelled so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed that it existed), but it’s interesting in that it shows exactly how much uncertainty there is over how to do Wonder Woman onscreen, a lot more than there ever was with a character like Batman and Superman.
A little of it is simply to do with the fact that superhero tales tend to be pretty big budget (especially if we’re talking movies), and female-driven superhero movies don’t exactly have a fantastic strike rate of success (evidence for the prosecution: Supergirl, Elektra, and the stunningly awful Catwoman). Much of this is down to bad luck and rotten creative decisions, but there’s also the problem that big budget superhero films need to be pitched as wide as possible, and I don’t think anyone has yet to crack how to sell the kind of major-league, female-oriented superhero blockbuster that they’d need if they were going to give Wonder Woman the cinematic outing her following and history deserves.
On top of that, Wonder Woman is a tricky character whose origin story has been tweaked, rebooted and remixed a surprising number of times over the years. For example, while there have been wildly different interpretations of Batman, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever suggesting “Hey, you know what? What if Bruce Wayne gave up all the dressing up as a bat, and instead we had him travelling the world as a daring spy who poses as an international playboy? Maybe his codename could still be ‘The Bat’!” And yet, that’s exactly what happened to Wonder Woman for several years, from the late sixties to the mid seventies, when she was de-powered and transformed into a fab and groovy secret agent. There have been other massive changes over the years, and Wonder Woman’s origin isn’t the kind of clear-cut tale that you can sum up as easily and succinctly as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely managed in the first page of their magnum opus, All-Star Superman:
Even now, DC are struggling with the character – she’s in the middle of an ‘alternate history’ revamp, a ‘bold new direction’ that was thought up by writer J. Michael Straczynski before he jumped ship from writing monthly comics, and which seems to have turned her into a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess and the DC Comics beserker warrior equivalent of Wolverine. It’s not as much of a car-crash as Straczynski’s god-awful “Superman walks across America” tale Grounded, but after about six issues, it really doesn’t feel like it’s working (even with a mild upswing in quality thanks to Chris Roberson taking over scripting duties). They’ve also, as part of the remix, given her a much-heralded new costume:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t actually have a problem with this, and as superhero costumes go, it’s pretty good. The jacket is still ridiculously Nineties, but the ensemble works, and it doesn’t say “armoured swimming costume” in the same way that the classic WW costume does. Yes, it does take away a certain degree of Wonder Woman’s mythic nature but it also, frankly, is a more practical costume that would very probably be much easier to realise onscreen without drifting into the kind of campness that Xena or, to be honest, the Seventies TV show survived on.
Another problem with Wonder Woman is her mythic nature. She was created in the Nineteen Forties as a female adventurer to battle the Nazis, a long time before the Sixties Marvel revolution made street-level, ordinary-joe superheroes the done thing. As a result, she’s a character of pure myth (plenty of versions of the origin have her actually sculpted from clay by the Gods), and there’s a sense of distance from all the DC ‘Big Three’ – the feeling that they’re Olympian ideals to aspire to. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, especially in the post-Eighties/Nineties era when superhero comics are at least attempting a bit more psychological depth (even if they don’t always manage it), and I really don’t feel like anyone’s ever entirely cracked how to handle this.
There’s also the lack of a single definitive Wonder Woman story. As I’ve said, I haven’t read a heap of Wonder Woman comics, so I’m coming at this as an outsider, but especially in the last twenty five years, in the post Dark Knight and Watchmen comics landscape, there hasn’t been a comic that has truly defined Wonder Woman as a character in the same way that, say, The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke have for Batman. I’m sure there have been some great runs of stories and some impressive creators have worked on the title (including writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone), but it feels like what’s needed is someone to take Wonder Woman and do something attention-grabbing and truly different with her (which I suspect was what Straczynski was trying to do with his rather ill-fated concept, unfortunately).
On top of all that, there’s the question of how close a screen version should stick to the comic, especially when there are aspects of the comic which (to put it mildly) might be tricky to transfer? The 2009 animated Wonder Woman direct-to-DVD film is a good example of this – it’s fine when it’s sticking to pure myth (featuring a 300-style flashback opening sequence), but comes unstuck when it has to do tackle some of the trickier aspects – and yes, we’re talking about the Lasso of Truth. Back in the Forties, there was a deliberate layer of kink to many Wonder Woman stories (with the mighty Amazon coming up against a wide variety of villains who seemed very fond of tying her up time after time), and the Lasso of Truth – the magical rope which, when tied around someone’s neck, compels them to tell the truth – is a direct descendant of this kind of storytelling.
It’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to play in a comic book than in reality, and that’s the main problem with Wonder Woman – you’ve got a character who’s a mass of challenging aspects, many of which could be breathtakingly silly if done wrong, and which doesn’t even have a clear, definitive set of stories which you can look to as an obvious blueprint for a screen adaptation. If anyone wants to set me straight and say “Well, of course there’s issues XXX to XXX”, then I’ll be extremely grateful, but considering these inherent problems, I’m really not surprised that nobody’s been able to get a full-on live action version of Wonder Woman out of development. In pop culture terms, she’s kind of where Batman was before the Tim Burton-directed 1989 blockbuster – the Seventies Lynda Carter show is still, despite its nuclear levels of camp, the main touchstone for what people (at least of a certain age) think when they think ‘Wonder Woman’. What she really needs is someone like Burton to come along and do something incredibly distinctive with her – knock the origin into a coherent shape, choose what they want and leave the rest on the comic page, and craft something which will be distinctive and attention-grabbing.
Now, for the record – I don’t think from what I’ve heard that Kelly’s TV adaptation is going to be that. It’s definitely going to earn a lot of fan hatred even before a second of it has been broadcast, and I don’t know that if my favourite comic book character was going to be changed that radically, I’d be particularly happy. But, I suspect that if Wonder Woman is ever going to succeed onscreen, she’s going to have to be changed – she’s going to have to be a specific interpretation. Until then, she’s going to remain an icon that everybody knows, but which remains frustratingly difficult to adapt…