Wonder Woman is an icon.
She was created by the American psychologist, writer, and designer of a systolic blood pressure measuring device, William Moulton Marston, for All Star Comics – later to become part of DC Comics. Inspired by two women in his life (Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne), Wonder Woman first appeared in print in 1941 – battling ‘Axis’ forces, supervillains, and mythological Gods and monsters. She has since been continually published, with the exception of a brief hiatus in 1986.
Based in Greek mythology and initially called “Suprema”, she was quickly renamed Diana – a Warrior Princess of The Amazons and daughter of Hippolyte. When a US Intelligence Officer – Captain Steve Trevor – crashes his plane on the isolated island homeland of The Amazons, Diana finds him, nurses him back to health and fights for the right to return him to “Man’s World”, fight crime and battle the Nazis. Her mother awards her a special dress for her new role as Wonder Woman, and she arrives in America, ready to get to work. On arriving, she meets an Army nurse named Diana Prince, who desperately wants to leave for South America with her fiancé, but cannot afford to. Wonder Woman gives her the money she needs in exchange for her identity, and embarks on life as a nurse in the US Army, while fighting evil as Wonder Woman.
Like her only male equals in the DC comic realm – Batman and Superman – her story has been re-vamped and reinvigorated many times. Various re-boots have erased the relationship that developed with Captain Trevor; had Wonder Woman sacrifice her superpowers and learn martial arts instead; regain her superpowers; re-named her homeland as Themyscira; had her become an ambassador between Themyscira and ‘Patriarch’s World’; had her discover her true ‘creation’ as a clay figure, given life by the Greek deities; and, in a September 2011 re-launch, was no longer a clay figure, but instead, the demigoddess daughter of Hippolyte and Zeuss, King of the Greek Gods.
Wonder Woman has many abilities, including super strength, speed, agility, super reflexes, stamina, endurance, flight (after 1960), hand-to-hand combat skills, empathy, healing, and near invulnerability to magic. She wears a tiara that doubles as a projectile, and a pair of indestructible bracelets that can deflect bullets. They can also manifest magical weaponry, including the Lasso of Truth (also referred to as The Magic Lasso of Aphrodite, or Golden Lasso), which compels those captured to tell the truth. It is effectively a magical lie detector, the basis of which lies in William Marston’s development of blood pressure components of polygraph machines. In some stories, Wonder Woman has also been known to use an invisible aeroplane. Her iconic costume in print has undergone subtle changes over the decades, but remains largely the same – a red and gold bodice with blue and white shorts/skirt and boots.
With this broad range of powers and weapons, Wonder Woman has fought for justice, love, and peace for over seventy years, including appearances as part of the Justice Society of America (from 1942) and the Justice League of America (from 1960). Her monthly title consistently performs well, generating over $1 million each year. Of hundreds of comics, she is a regular fixture in the top 60 titles published, making her one of the most popular comic superheroes in print today. So, why has her formidable presence not continued to permeate our general media culture, as her male counterparts have?
The film industry generates vast income from comic book characters. Marvel have a successful history of turning their print properties into profitable movie franchises – The X Men (2000 onwards), The Fantastic Four (2005), Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America (2011) and, of course, The Avengers (2012), are all prime examples of this strategy. They all have one thing in common, however – male dominance. There are women in The X Men films, but they operate within a defined patriarchy. There are women in The Fantastic Four movies, but their identities are defined by their relationships to their menfolk. Iron Man has Pepper Potts who, while being an accomplished, relatively well-written character, only currently exists in relation to Tony Stark. Thor has Jane Foster, a dedicated astrophysicist, certainly, but also a two-dimensional plot device. Captain America had British Agent Peggy Carter who, in his movie, basically served to be the beautiful woman he thinks about as his plane goes down.
Then, there is The Avengers, which actually gives almost as much importance to The Black Widow – Russian Agent Natasha Romanoff – as it does to her male counterparts, albeit mostly stomping around with a furrowed brow, complaining about having red in her ledger. Much as she holds her own in a team of male superheroes, she’s still not good enough. Why? Because she is spun-off from a male superhero’s story. She first arrived onscreen in Iron Man 2 (2010), and in the realm of comic books, first appeared in Tales of Suspense No 52 (April 1964), expressly as an antagonist of Iron Man.
In fact, every female comic book character currently in film is either a spin-off from a male character, or exists in a situation of male dominance. Yes, there once was Tank Girl (1995) – based on a British comic first published in 1990, and created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. She was a female character and the lead role in her own story, but the film version was poorly made and flopped. There was a movie version of Supergirl (1984) – a spin-off from Superman (1978) – again, poorly made, and a flop. Though we may wish to forget, there was the movie version of Catwoman (2004) – again, a spin-off character, albeit fascinating in her own right. Unfortunately, the film was simply appalling. Supergirl and Catwoman are both DC characters, and (with the notable exception of Tank Girl), remain the only real attempts to bring a female superhero to the cinema screen in her own movie. They didn’t work, because they were all simply superficial projections of male fantasies.
So, where is Wonder Woman? She completely fits the bill. She is a superhero in her own right. Her male equivalents – Superman and Batman – both have multiple versions of movie franchises to their names, while her biggest non-print success was the TV series, Wonder Woman, over thirty years ago.
Starring Lynda Carter in the title role, it ran for a total of sixty episodes over three seasons between 1975 and 1979. The show was a ratings success for the ABC network in its first season, but was set in the 1940s and was therefore expensive to produce. CBS acquired and re-booted it for its second season, changing the setting to the modern day. It was not renewed for a fourth season, due to a desire for CBS to produce more sitcoms instead. Beyond her relatively brief foray into live-action TV, Wonder Woman has featured in the animated series of Super Friends and Justice League, and also in an animated film of her own (Wonder Woman, 2009) with actress Keri Russell providing her voice. It went straight to DVD.
In early 2001, rumours began to circulate that a Wonder Woman film was in development at Silver Pictures. The names of a variety of writers were variously associated with the project, including Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), in 2007. As is often the case, ‘creative differences’ were repeatedly cited, and this project has thus far neither been seen nor heard from. Joss Whedon went on to direct The Avengers instead. On 21st January 2011, Warner Bros Television announced their intention to pitch a new Wonder Woman TV show. Every major network rejected it, except for NBC, who ordered a pilot episode.
It was written by David E. Kelley (LA Law, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Friday Night Lights, The Sentinel). It starred Adrianne Palicki (Legion, Red Dawn, Friday Night Lights) in the title role, Elizabeth Hurley (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997) as supervillain Veronica Cale, and Cary Elwes (Saw, No Strings Attached). In this pilot, Wonder Woman is a vigilante crime fighter in LA, and also a successful corporate executive known as Diana Prince. She tries to link Cale to the distribution of an illegal steroid that provides superhuman strength and endurance, but proves fatal when used repeatedly. It transpires that earlier experimental versions of the drug created terrible mutations in test subjects. Romantic tension is provided by a former boyfriend – Steve Trevor – who returns to her life, married to someone else. Though it was expected to debut in 2011, NBC rejected the show, which was a critical disaster in previews and was never broadcast. It failed because, once again, the character of Wonder Woman was reduced to a male fantasy – not least in the re-styling of her costume.
Wonder Woman’s costume for the 2011 TV pilot was described variously by critics as looking cheap and like something from bad porn. It certainly seemed to be a more cartoonish version of her traditional costume, with bolder colours, less patriotic patterning, and a shinier texture – more akin to Michelle Pfeiffer’s fetishistic Catwoman costume in Batman Returns (1992) than any Wonder Woman seen before. In this TV pilot, she varies her below-waist garb between skin-tight trousers and the traditional shorts, and though many complained about the reduction in patriotic symbolism, it was the distracting over-emphasis on cleavage that seemed to be, more than anything, just impractical.
Wonder Woman’s costume is vital to project success and, when changed, it should be changed to something that is not completely ridiculous. Changing a beloved character’s costume is not without precedent – Batman’s costume has evolved through the decades, and even Superman’s iconic outfit has been subtly altered. Of course a female superhero in 2013 cannot be expected to use a costume that has barely changed since the 1940s, but it can be changed in a way that respects both the character and her die-hard fans, while accommodating the required modernisation. And she doesn’t need to look like a porn-star just because she’s a woman, either.
So, with no Wonder Woman project forthcoming from NBC, The CW network began developing a Wonder Woman ‘origin’ TV series called Amazon, in September 2012. Hopes were high, as The CW is the home of Smallville – the highly successful Superman origin TV series – and was also seeing a great response to their new show Arrow (based on the DC superhero Green Arrow, and created by Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti – screenwriter of Green Lantern). Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, as plans for Amazon were reportedly postponed in favour of development of a project for the character of The Flash.
It would seem the plan is for The Flash to first appear within the show Arrow (in season 2), before – potentially – being spun off into his own show. The Flash, while being a much loved DC comic book character, was killed off in the comic book realm in 1985 and remained absent for 23 years – returning in 2008’s Final Crisis by Grant Morrison. This is in stark contrast to Wonder Woman, who has remained in the top rankings of comic book titles, consistently, for decades. When asked by the press why a Wonder Woman project seems to be so problematic, CW Network President Mark Pedowitz said, “It’s the trickiest of all the DC characters to get done.” It’s about doing justice to the character, and the franchise, apparently.
Is it, though? Why should Wonder Woman be regarded any differently to either Batman or Superman? All three are independent, powerful superheroes with complex origin stories. All three have featured in the comic book realm consistently and with phenomenal success for decades, through re-boots and re-launches, giving a wealth of material for filmmakers and TV writers to draw upon. All three have historically enjoyed successful stints on mainstream television in both live-action and animation.
The only difference is that she is a woman. It is, apparently, irrelevant that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was an international success, and the global phenomenon that was Alias means nothing. It matters not that women-driven action film franchises consistently become box-office hits. Just ignore the fact that Salt made $293.5 million, and the first Resident Evil movie alone made $102.5 million. Nobody mentions the fact that the first Tomb Raider film – on it’s own – generated $274.7 million in box office, or that the Underworld franchise brought home over $458 million. Then there is Alien – a film whose box office receipts were in excess of $104 million, and had a female lead so strong, she kick-started one of the most highly respected film franchises in history. Most recently, there is Gravity – a film in which the camera does not leave the side of its female star, and yet it has generated over $600 million in global box office receipts in just 66 days. Those achievements count for nothing in the current film and TV industry and, none of those female leads are original comic book superheroes (though the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer was so successful it spawned its own comics). In film and TV, the stand-alone comic book superhero is currently a Boys-Only club.
The systematic sidelining and dismissal of Wonder Woman as a powerful character in her own right was never more apparent than at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con. Despite her undeniable status as a legendary comic book headliner, Wonder Woman was barely mentioned in connection with a possible Justice League movie. When director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) announced the development of a Batman Vs Superman movie, the crowd understandably went wild – but it was still sadly lacking. Only recently – months later – has it been revealed that Wonder Woman will feature in that film – in a supporting role, played by Gal Gadot. While many are excitedly embracing this tiny morsel of acknowledgement from the filmmakers, the question remains – why must Wonder Woman be relegated to a supporting role? Surely, the most dramatic and epic clash between Batman and Superman happened in her comic, Wonder Woman Vol 2 #219, when Maxwell Lord used his mind-control capability to make Superman try to kill Batman with a brutal beating? Were we to live in a world where characters are treated on their merits rather than their gender, Batman and Superman would have supporting roles in a Wonder Woman movie, with the two male superheroes being rescued, single-handedly, by the Warrior Princess, sacrificing her own reputation to save them. Exactly as it happened in her comic. But, we don’t live in that world. Batman and Superman playing second-fiddle to a woman? Goodness knows, we can’t have that.
Sadly, the fact remains that TV and film makers, studio and network executives, all perceive a stand-alone Wonder Woman project as a ‘risk’ because she is female, rather than a ‘sure thing’ because she is a superhero. It’s that simple.