Sure, you could make an argument for every one from Spider-Man to Wolverine, Plastic Man to Captain Marvel/Shazam to make the cut, but in my eyes, these three are the big three. All three have been continually published in one form or another for over seventy years (the only superheroes to do so). They were at the birth of the comic book medium, they survived the dark period of the 1950s, and have weather numerous booms and busts over the decades. They are American icons that have become part of Americana. And odds are if there is a piece of licensed material with a DC Comics character on it–be it bedspreads, t-shirts, alarm clocks or anything else that could be sold–it has one, if not all three, of these characters on it.
This makes it especially puzzling why Wonder Woman has had such a hard time get adapted into live-action format. While she arguably has more cultural influence that the other Big Two (she is a feminist icon as well as being a gay icon), she has only one live-action television show to her credit and no feature films. Superman has had four live-action shows, and is undergoing his fourth regeneration at the cinemas. Batman only has one live-action TV show to his name, but is going on his fifth film incarnation.
The casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and the news that she will be appearing in the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman film could be seen as a sign that the character’s journey to the big screen might be over. Or, it could be a sign that the problems plaguing the character are getting worse.
If we want to examine Wonder Woman’s problems getting a film of her own, we should start with he struggles to get on TV. Her trek to the small screen wasn’t a piece of cake either.
About nine years before Lynda Carter donned the eagle breastplate, an attempt to create a Wonder Woman TV show was made. In 1967, when the Batman TV show was at the height of its popularity, a Wonder Woman pilot was commissioned. Titled Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?, it was a comedic look at the character. Five minutes of that pilot were filmed and they were completely awful.
You might say it’s hard to get an idea of the final product from just five minutes, but I can’t see it getting any better. Even after you get past the awkward story structure and the lame attempts at jokes and slapstick, you have a clip that’s less about Wonder Woman and more about Diana Prince being harangued by her mother to find a boyfriend. When Diana says she’s looking for a “man” instead of a boyfriend, it seems like lip service to the feminist movement to make up for the stereotypes on display.
Regardless, this incarnation showed the start of the errors Hollywood made in approaching Wonder Woman. It’s not just that they didn’t “get” the character, although that plays a big part of it, but it’s also that they decided to employ the character to suit their own needs. They needed a superhero for a campy comedy, they drafted Wonder Woman for a dumbed down version of That Girl.
If we are being generous, we can say that the next television incarnation was faithful to a particular era of Wonder Woman. However, even taking that into consideration, it was still way off in its portrayal of the icon.
On March 12, 1974, ABC aired a Wonder Woman film that was intended to be a backdoor pilot for a series. It starred the exceptionally blonde Cathy Lee Crosby as Diana, who was more superspy than superhero. Most of the character’s superpowers were gone. She did have strength, speed and agility greater than the common man, but nowhere near her comic book counterpart. In other words, she could beat that burly trucker in an arm-wrestling contest, but she couldn’t tear a door of a bank vault off its hinges. She kept her magic bracelets, but her golden lasso turned into a golden cord in her belt buckle. And her trademark costume was replaced by a track suit you’d expect an Olympic athlete to wear during opening ceremonies.
The film focused on Diana trying to track down vital stolen documents from a bad guy with a rogue Amazon bodyguard. Here is a clip from the film, taken completely out of context.
While the comic book Wonder Woman did go through a powerless superspy phase in the book a few years earlier, but I doubt that was what the producers of this film going for with this one. I think they were just reworking the concept so it would A) be cheaper, and B) play into the spy movie trend that was popular at the time. It was Wonder Woman pretty much in name only, and it could have been turned into a different property with minimal rewriting. Audiences didn’t respond and the blonde Wonder Woman was never seen again. Wonder Woman would have to wait for a proper adaptation.
But she wouldn’t have to wait long. The very next year ABC made another pilot movie, The New Original Wonder Woman, starring 1972 Miss World Lynda Carter. Finally, we have a faithful adaptation of the character. The pilot took the character back to its World War II roots and kept the powers and costume of the comic book. The blue-eyed, brunette Carter and the character were a perfect fit. Her Wonder Woman looked like she stepped right off the comic book page.
The pilot scored in the ratings and ABC greenlit a season of the show set in WWII. The show did well in the ratings, yet ABC was hesitant to renew it because the WWII setting was cost prohibitive. The producers reworked the show for the modern day and moved it over to CBS, where it ran for two more seasons. Even though it seems campy by today’s standards, it is the standard bearer for a live-action portrayal of Wonder Woman, if only by default.
Several more attempts were made to bring the Amazing Amazon to the small screen, most famously a 2011 attempt by David E. Kelley that went to pilot stage for NBC. It starred Adrienne Palicki as “Diana Themyscira,” a businesswoman by day, vigilante by night. Fans started speaking out against the pilot as soon as pictures of Palicki in costume hit the Internet. Even with Kelley’s name attached, NBC passed on the show. The pilot was soon leaked and people got the chance to see why. Just like the main character’s inner turmoil, the show had a hard time reconciling the rote, sappy struggle Diana fought balancing life in big business (a plot made up for the show) and as a vigilante, with the brutal violence that the character used in her night job. This Wonder Woman was a “hero” that didn’t have an qualms about maiming of killing anyone who got in her way.
The CW has a treatment in the works called Amazon, with a similar approach to the one used on Superman in Smallville and Green Arrow in Arrow. However, development of the pilot has moved to the back-burner as a TV show based on the Flash has been fast tracked by the network.
Why have I spent so much time speaking about Wonder Woman’s TV incarnations in an article about her problems getting a film made? Well, I wanted to show you the trends in the treatment of the character and in the ways many different creators tried to bring her to the screen. Because a lot of the mistakes that were made in trying to get a Wonder Woman TV show on the air were repeated in trying to get the the film version up and running.
A Wonder Woman film has been in active development since 2001, an amazing fact considering such lesser known DC Comics characters such as Green Lantern, Constantine, Jonah Hex and Catwoman have starred in films from Warners.
Joel Silver has been the producer in charge since that time and the first script I could get my hands on was a July 27, 2001 by Antz screenwriter Todd Alcott. This script is less an adaption of the comic book character than one of the 1974 Cathy Lee Crosby telefilm. The Wonder Woman of this script is a secret agent, just like she was in that film, only this time with a full accoutrement of powers. She spends most, if not all, of the time out of costume. That is, when she isn’t dead.
See, while having a non-costumed, superpowered James Bondian Wonder Woman as the lead in the film would have certainly raised fans’ ire, the fact that Diana is presumed dead during the first act, supposedly killed trying to keep a rare metal out of the hands of an industrialist who needs it for a superweapon, would have caused rioting. The star of the film is actually Donna Troy, who gains the powers of Wonder Woman upon her death. It tuns out in the script that Troy is actually the daughter of Diana and Steve Trevor they gave up for adoption. And, just by coincidence, Troy lives right down the street from dear old mom.
What’s worse is that the first death was only a swerve. Diana survived her falling out the window of her high rise apartment, to be reunited with Troy so they can bond and fight the bad guy (in this script it’s Dr. Psycho). And to be killed again. yes, Diana dies twice in this script. Twice.
Fortunately, the film never got made and the script went through numerous drafts by numerous writers before Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Shutter Island) was tapped to take over and start from scratch. I have read the fourth draft of her script, dated August 26, 2004, and I found it…not bad.
Granted it is a more traditional approach to the character and more in line with the comic book version of Wonder Woman, and reading any script with those qualities after reading the Alcott script would seem to be good. But I found the script to be solid, if flawed, work.
The villain this time is Ares, who exists in our world as a weapons manufacturer. He has a plan to plunge the world into continual war, increasing his power. The plan would involve taking the world’s leaders and having them be possessed by the worst war mongers of all time (Think Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and so on). He has two problems. One, the souls of these vicious men are being held in a heavily guarded vault on Paradise Island and two, Paradise Island resides in another dimension that he has no idea how to enter. That is, until the dimension is breached accidentally by Steve Trevor, who is transported to the Amazon’s home after pulling off a particularly difficult aerial maneuver in his jet.
Trevor crashes on Paradise Island and is captured by the Amazons, who wish to sentence him to death. He is defended by Princess Diana, and his life is spared after Diana defeats a number of her fellow Amazons, including her mother, in combat. She wins the right to return Trevor to his homeworld, volunteering to be his protector while there.
Once Trevor returns, Ares tries to kidnap him in order to have him replicate the maneuver that opened the portal to Paradise Island. Along the way, Diana gains the name Wonder Woman from the American press and finds out that Ares is actually her father. Ares eventually makes his way to Paradise Island, and the film ends with a great battle between Ares’ forces, the Amazons and Trevor’s fighter squadron.
There are some things I personally find off in the script. One, there’s a scene where Diana is taken to a holding cell full of a group of prostitutes (because that is the only crime women can be guilty of of? I guess?). There’s a third-act betrayal that you can see a mile away. And Ares motivation seems to be a bit of a reach. But all in all, one of the better interpretations of the character.
I say that because I do not know what Joss Whedon’s treatment was all about. The writer/director was next in line after Kalogridis to get a shot at Diana, having been hired in 2005 for the job. His signing on raised hope amongst fans. This is the man who did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was like he had a doctorate on writing women who kick ass. He did numerous treatments for the studios in between working on other projects (such as Serenity), each treatment failing to meet the studio’s standards.
None of these treatments can be found online, but Whedon had said that his take on the character would involve a relationship with Steve Trevor, with the Trevor teaching the naive Diana about all of humanity’s foibles. It’s an interesting concept, but we were never meant to see it. In February 2007, Whedon announced that he was no longer going to be involved in making the Wonder Woman film, that he Silver Pictures and the studio were too far apart in what each wanted out of the film.
Around the time of this announcement, Warners and Silver bought a spec script from relative Hollywood novices Matthew Jennison and Brent Strickland. Like the first season of the Lynda Carter TV show, this script was set during World War II and like the Cathy Lee Crosby telefilm, Wonder Woman would be facing off against an Amazon turned bad. Silver bought the script not to produce, but just to “not have floating around.” He did have Jennison and Strickland work on a script set in modern day, but as of yet, nothing has come of it.
There was an upswing of cynicism about a Wonder Woman film ever being made when Whedon walked away, and even more when he went on to helm The Avengers to great reviews and even record-setting business. People questioned Warners approach to the film. The official party line, straight from DC Entertainment head honcho Diane Nelson herself, is that the character “doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes.” You can argue about this truth of this all you want (Personally, I think the story can boil down to “Amazon princess comes from a secret society to help protect humanity.” That is pretty much the essence of every Wonder Woman origin story right there). But I think these examples show that Warners and the people they hire to bring Wonder Woman to the screen take this party line as a way to do whatever they want with the character, hoping something will stick, without really examining what makes the character work.
And now we have Gal Gadot cast as Wonder Woman. You get the expectation that Warners was expecting fans to rejoice at this news. This is unrealistic because very seldom are comic book fans ever happy with any casting decision involving their favorite characters. But especially because Gadot has a limited resume behind her, she has been good, but not extraordinary in the roles she has done, speaks English as a second language and, even though some might write this off as body shaming, doesn’t physically look the part ( I will say that Gadot has served a two-year stint in the Israeli military, and has received combat training, so she might be the first superhero star who could actually kick your ass).
Add this to Warners’ rumored “wait and see” policy towards its superhero franchise, and I am not confident about Wonder Woman’s cinematic future. They waited to see how Man of Steel would do before jumping in on the shared universe. They are waiting to see how The Flash’s appearance on Arrow goes before they decide if they want their film and TV franchise united. And I’m sure that they will wait and see how well Gadot does in Batman vs Superman. a film where she’s at best the third lead, before they pull the trigger on a Wonder Woman film. And I fear that if the response isn’t good, it won’t be blamed on poor casting, but on the character being unworkable, which it’s not.
But this is all presumptuous. Gadot could be a better actress than she has appeared to be. Wonder Woman could be presented in a way that is true to the character’s history and that appeals to old and new fans alike. And this could be the start of the character finally getting her due on the big screen. But I fear that if this doesn’t work out, this could be the last we see of Wonder Woman for a good long time, if not forever.