Wonder Woman: The missing superhero
Lynda Carter brought the heroine to network TV, but it's been a decades-long battle to get the sexy superhero to the big screen
Wonder Woman and Superman are suspended above Earth’s atmosphere, circling each other like floating prizefighters. The Man of Steel has been hypnotized into believing that Wonder Woman has murdered his beloved Lois Lane. Her pleas of innocence — ”Listen to me! Whatever you’re seeing, whatever you think is true… it’s all a lie!” — fall on deaf super-ears. His face filled with rage, Superman lunges, delivering an atom-bomb-like blow, sending Wonder Woman jackknifing into outer space. His parting words: ”Die… Bitch…!”
These have not been the best of times for Wonder Woman. The never-filmed scene described above — from Justice League, a script Kieran and Michele Mulroney wrote for Warner Bros. in 2007 — is about as close as she’s come to making a live-action appearance on the big screen, and even that was as part of a superhero ensemble. But like scores of other scripts featuring Wonder Woman, written by scads of other writers over the past decade — including one by pop culture eminence Joss Whedon — Justice League never got off the ground. Warner Bros. put the project on ”hiatus” in 2008, and once again Wonder Woman was left dangling in that Phantom Zone known as development hell.
At a time when every other comic-book hero in the universe seems to be getting a green light — even Thor, for Hera’s sake! — Hollywood still hasn’t figured out a way to make a Wonder Woman movie. Last month, there were reports that Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley was pitching a Wonder Woman show to the networks. She’s found a home on TV before, in the campy ’70s Wonder Woman series, with Lynda Carter in the title role and a young Debra Winger as Wonder Woman’s little sister, Wonder Girl. After the show went off the air, there was some movement to bring her to the screen in the 1980s. Larry Gordon (Die Hard, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) was asked to produce at one point. (”For a few weeks,” he recalls.) But nothing ever came of it.
”She’s a girl,” says Whedon. ”Hollywood is still twitchy about that.”
Of course, Wonder Woman isn’t just any girl. She’s one of the most popular and enduring creations in all of comic-book mythology, right up there with Superman and Batman in the pantheon of superherodom. She was created in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston (also the guy who invented the polygraph machine), who based her in part on the female Amazon warriors of Greek mythology — only with an invisible plane and bullet-deflecting bracelets. During World War II, her silhouette adorned American airplanes over Europe and Japan. In the 1960s and 1970s, it adorned lunch boxes. An icon of female empowerment even before modern feminism, she led the charge for equal rights during the early days of the women’s movement, appearing on the very first cover of Ms. magazine. (”It was an election year and we wanted to depict the women’s vote — we weren’t going to put Nixon or McGovern on the cover,” remembers Joanne Edgar, who wrote the article.) Even today, she remains popular. According to Rubie’s, one of the largest costume manufacturers in the U.S., Wonder Woman is among the best-selling female superhero outfits every year. ”As a brand, she’s still very respectable,” says Rubin Beige, the company’s vice president of operations. ”She’s not as big as Lady Gaga, but she always sells.”
Warner Bros., which owns the film and TV rights to the character (and which, like EW, is a subsidiary of Time Warner), wouldn’t comment for this story, other than to offer vague assurances that the studio is still planning to make a Wonder Woman movie someday. DC Comics, Wonder Woman’s publisher, wouldn’t comment either. As for Joel Silver, the veteran action producer (Predator, the Lethal Weapon and Matrix series) who until recently had long been in charge of developing a Wonder Woman franchise, you’d need a Lasso of Truth to get him to open up. Silver declined repeated requests to talk to EW.
Still, there are plenty of other screenwriters, directors, and producers willing to help piece together a picture of what’s been holding things up. And, in fairness, it isn’t all about Wonder Woman’s gender.
“She has no city,” Whedon says, ticking off a list of problems he had with the character when Silver hired him to write and direct a Wonder Woman film five years ago. ”She has no great rogues’ gallery [of returning villains]. And she’s distant from people in a way that makes it hard to create identification. Spider-Man is a nerd. Batman is in pain. But Wonder Woman is from an era where superheroes were supposed to be like Greek gods. She’s above us and different from us. That makes it hard to make her emotionally relevant. I tried, and some people think I succeeded, but none of them were the people I worked for.”
Before Whedon got the Wonder Woman gig — for $2-3 million, reportedly — at least five other screenwriters had taken a crack at the character for Silver. The famously bombastic producer, who has been known to threaten powerful agents with future careers as shoe salesmen, laid down one commandment to all his scribes: The story had to take place in contemporary America, not back in the 1940s, when Wonder Woman’s tale traditionally begins with the crash landing of American pilot Steve Trevor on females-only Paradise Island. One script tried to update the narrative by making it about Wonder Woman’s daughter, Donna Troy, who grew up unaware of the powers she inherited from Mom. ”There were several drafts of that idea bouncing around,” says Laeta Kalogridis, the screenwriter Silver hired in 2003, after he gave up on that daughter — of — Wonder Woman concept. ”She didn’t know who her mother was. She thought she was an ordinary girl. It was the same architecture as Spider-Man — an ordinary person gets superpowers. But it wasn’t a Wonder Woman movie.”
Kalogridis, who’d delved into the heads of ancient Greeks before, as co-screenwriter of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, brought the story back to basics. ”The island, the Amazons, chicks kicking butt,” she says. Her screenplay churned through the studio for a couple of years, never getting much traction. Then, in 2005, Silver hired the guy who created one of the most successful female superheroes in recent TV history, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon tossed out all previous Wonder Woman drafts and started from scratch. Right away, though, he hit roadblocks.
”Tone was an issue,” he says. ”People still think of Wonder Woman as kind of silly. They have fond memories [of the TV show] but think of her as a kind of goofy lady.” Whedon felt a change of clothes might add gravitas: ”In my version, she had an outfit that was more classically Greek in the warrior sense,” he says. ”She wasn’t going to be wearing an American flag.” Since Wonder Woman had no iconic villains (mostly she fought Nazis), Whedon looked around for a bad guy elsewhere. ”The god Eris had a son named Strife. When I heard that name, I thought, ‘Perfect.’ ” And then he fashioned a story line that he thought would strike a modern chord. ”I didn’t make it about how we view women. I never got hard-feminist with it. I didn’t need to. She’s a goddess. She’s stronger than Steve Trevor. We get it.” Instead, Whedon’s script was more about ”how giant conglomerates are eating the world and how we are all puppets underneath them,” he says. ”Maybe that’s what [Warner Bros.] didn’t like about it. They never did tell me.”
Whedon’s Wonder Woman never got as far as the casting stage, although at the time both Charisma Carpenter (who played Cordelia on Buffy) and Morena Baccarin (who played Inara on Whedon’s Firefly) expressed interest in the role. In fact, quite a few actresses have dropped hints over the years that they’ve wanted to wear WW’s tiara (Beyoncé Knowles), or have been rumored to be in the running for the part (Sandra Bullock, Megan Fox, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to name a few), or have even lit up Internet chat boards over fans’ fantasies about their casting (Christina Hendricks). While writing his version, Whedon took inspiration from one actress in particular, although, as far as we know, she never came close to the role. ”For me, Wonder Woman was basically Angelina Jolie,” he says. ”She spends a lot of time flying around. She works in a lot of different countries. She’s very global. And she’s appalled by the way people treat each other.”
All these problems — the campy tone of the TV show, the corny costume, the dated 1940s backstory — are reasons it’s been difficult for Wonder Woman to get a movie. But they aren’t reasons it’s impossible. After all, Superman has many of the same issues, yet Warner Bros. is giving the Man of Steel his sixth shot at the screen (Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer is writing the script, Watchmen‘s Zack Snyder is set to direct, and Inception‘s Christopher Nolan will produce). A lot of other superheroes have tough creative obstacles to overcome, yet they’ve been rushing in and out of soundstages faster than the Flash (his movie is slated for 2012, although no star has been cast yet).
”It’s just much easier to sell a male action hero to the studios than a female one,” says Matthew Jennison, who co-wrote the last known Wonder Woman script that Silver purchased, in 2007, just as Whedon was leaving the project. ”Also, Batman had just been reinvented by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. had just put out Superman Returns. There was a sense that they had to get this right. There was a concern that Wonder Woman might go the way of Elektra or Catwoman.” Director Karyn Kusama, who had firsthand experience getting a female superhero onto the screen with Charlize Theron in 2005’s Aeon Flux, puts it even more succinctly. ”They’re worried that boys won’t go see it,” she says. ”And maybe even worried that girls won’t go see it. Because the superhero concept really is a male thing.”
Maybe it is a male thing. But not all female superhero movies go the way of bombs like Elektra and Catwoman (and Aeon Flux), just as not all male superhero movies go the way of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Audiences didn’t hold Sigourney Weaver’s gender against her in the Alien movies, and both boys and girls went to see Jolie in the Tomb Raider films. ”We treated Angelina as if she were a male action lead,” says producer Larry Gordon, explaining Lara Croft’s box office success. ”We never compromised with Lara Croft,” he says. ”She kicked ass. We treated her as if she were being played by Sly or Arnold or Bruce.”
Still, short of squeezing Bruce Willis into a bustier and knee-high boots, it doesn’t look like a Wonder Woman movie will be getting a green light anytime soon, even with Silver out of the picture (last year Warner Bros. shook up its comic-book development strategy by making Diane Nelson DC Entertainment president and putting her in charge of superheroes). It’s possible that if David E. Kelley manages to sell his TV pitch to one of the networks — and honestly, who doesn’t want to see what the guy who made Calista Flockhart’s hemlines into a national debate would do with Wonder Woman? — Warner Bros. might be less nervous about a feature film. But don’t count on it. Even Whedon sounds like he’s souring on the old girl. ”If someone else can come along and create a cool Wonder Woman movie and pull it off, that’s great,” he says. ”But I don’t necessarily think we need a Wonder Woman movie per se. We need more female heroes. We need ‘wonder women’ movies. But Wonder Woman may not be the wonder woman we need.” (Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen)
The Wonder Years
She looks pretty good for a 68-year-old. Here’s what she’s been up to over the past seven decades.
1941 Wonder Woman’s Debut
She made her first appearance that December, in All Star Comics, a collection of superhero tales. The first plot: U.S. pilot Steve Trevor crash-lands on females-only Paradise Island, naturally. A few weeks later, she graced the cover of Sensation Comics‘ inaugural issue.
1972 Ms. Magazine Cover
Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the debut cover of her famous feminist magazine. ”When I was growing up,” admits Joanne Edgar, who wrote the story, ”one Superman comic was worth three Wonder Woman comics.”
1976-79 Wonder Woman on Network TV
Lynda Carter had little girls spinning till they dropped in this campy adaptation of the comic book.
1973-85 Super Friends
Her first animated appearance was on the Brady Kids cartoon, but she soon became a Saturday-morning regular on the long-running Super Friends.
2010 A New Look
Comic-book artist Jim Lee gave Wonder Woman a makeover for DC. No more American-flag briefs. Instead: skintight black pants and a cool jacket. — BS
The Man Behind the Superheroine
Dr. William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist- turned-comic-book writer — who also happened to have invented the lie-detector machine — based his Amazon princess partly on his wife, Elizabeth, and partly on his mistress, Olive Richard. Both lived with the doctor under the same roof. Talk about Wonder Women. — BS
These actresses, in one way or another, have been linked to the role.
She already blows people away on Mad Men. In Internet chat rooms, she’s also one of the top choices to fill Wonder Woman’s short shorts.