Wonder Woman. She has recently been dubbed the 20th greatest comic book character by Empire Magazine, and ranked fifth in IGN’s 2011 Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time. She stands as one of the icons of the comic book world, and has been featured in dozens of comic titles since her debut in 1941. The character has also found success in other media, appearing in a popular live-action television series in the 70s, as well as several animated series (including Super Friends and Justice League). Now that DC Comics has produced several serious superhero films—Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Snyder’s Superman blockbuster, and presumably an upcoming Justice League film—the question on everyone’s mind is simple: when will we get a Wonder Woman movie?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple. Wonder Woman is and has always been a problem for DC Comics, a company with a history of underutilizing, underwriting and just plain ignoring their biggest female icon. Now on the brink of launching their own motion picture juggernaut, they’re hitting the stumbling block they’ve been tripping over for years. Let’s analyze the problem of Wonder Woman—and maybe even talk some possible answers.
Wonder Woman is a complicated character with a complicated creation story. The brainchild of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was created by the noted psychologist turned comic writer and his wife (some say with the help of their girlfriend too!) to be the epitome of gender equality and woman’s liberation in the 1940s. When she first appeared in All Star Comics #8 in 1941, Princess Diana was an Axis-fighting pro-democratic Amazon, leaving behind the island of her all-female society on Themyscira to help America crush its enemies. Over the years, Wonder Woman evolved as a character from her two-dimensional, somewhat bondage-heavy origins into a staple of DC Comics. She became a symbol for powerful, forward-thinking female characters in comic books as she espoused values like valor and honesty in the name of equality while living in a Man’s World.
It’s that last part that sets Wonder Woman apart from other comic book women. Wonder Woman is a radically feminist character packed in a stars and stripes bathing suit, a superwoman in need of no super man to qualify her. Where many other DC heroines are built on the legacies of popular male counterparts (Batgirl, Supergirl, Hawkgirl), Wonder Woman is a legend all her own. And while many things about the character have changed since her reinvention in 1987 after the Crisis On Infinite Earths storyline, her foundation as a powerful female character with staunchly feminist views has not changed.
That is one of the reasons Wonder Woman has had a difficult path in the comic world. She stands as an unapologetically feminist super heroine in an industry that often relegates women to sidekicks, damsels, and girlfriends. She’s also a character mired in a complicated backstory that is not only supernatural, but also steeped in a mythology that is difficult to translate to modern audiences. All of this has led to difficult years for Wonder Woman comics. One would think that the opportunity for a rewrite would have made the transition to modern comics a little easier. Yet the “reimagined” Wonder Woman featured in DC’s New 52 has done the character no favors.
The modern rewrite of Wonder Woman has suffered, like many of the New 52 characters, from a crisis of identity. She is a stern and often humorless character who sometimes takes a backseat in her own title to a myriad of ancillary characters. On the Justice League she serves as Superman’s new girlfriend, a super-powered relationship that has seen her agency as a character give way to lots of cheesecake covershots. Even her newest comic line, entitled Superman & Wonder Woman, seems focused on a lot of super-necking rather than comic book adventure. This is what the New 52 has created—a Wonder Woman lost in the backdrop of her own comic book, relegated to the role of armcandy for her super boyfriend.
With this to build on, it’s no wonder Hollywood is having problems with our Princess Diana.
Comic book films have emerged from years of cheesy, almost parodic movies in the 80s and 90s to solidify themselves as legitimate, character-driven films thanks to good direction and blockbuster budgets. So it’s no wonder that Wonder Woman makes a dangerous gambit for DC Comics. Nobody wants to be the one to do the film incorrectly—whatever that means—and present the studio with a flop starring one of its major characters.Wonder Woman stands as an enigma for studios wondering how to properly package a pro-feminist, butt-kicking, Amazon warrior. Focusing on her strong equality message risks alienating one audience, but favoring sex appeal over substance risks betraying the essence of the character. And you could get laughed off screen altogether, like the atrocious 2011 NBC Wonder Woman pilot. It’s a catch-22 that has kept the film in limbo for years.
And the failures of other comic book films with female leads (Elektra, Catwoman) are used as examples to argue that superheroines wouldn’t draw an audience to make the effort worthwhile. There’s also the problem of the vanishing movie heroine in today’s cinema. Even outside of comic book films, fewer movies feature women as their lead characters every year. Go to a cineplex and you’ll find women taking a backseat everywhere. But you couldn’t do that to Wonder Woman and get away with it—her character (and fanbase) demand a starring role worthy of her.
So scripts have come up and been rejected. Directors have been attached to potential projects. The CW announces a potential TV series for Wonder Woman, and then we don’t hear anything again. And people speculate on who would make the “perfect” actress for Diana in the films, critically viewing Hollywood actresses for everything from acting chops, fighting capability, and of course the ability to fill out the spangled bathing suit. And while Zack Snyder has hinted he’d love to helm a project about Wonder Woman, the debate continues.
But is the problem of Wonder Woman so difficult? Not really—because it’s been solved before.
One only has to turn to DC’s animated films division to see the Hollywood problem answered. DC has been putting out well-written animated versions of Wonder Woman for years now, including her portrayal in the acclaimed Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoon series. There was even a fantastic 2009 Wonder Woman animated movie with Keri Russell voicing Diana alongside Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor. These animated portrayals were able to capture the essence of Wonder Woman and provide quality comic book entertainment by adhering to one basic rule: they never forgot where they came from.
Wonder Woman is a comic book character with all the grandeur and earnestness that the medium holds. The animated versions have managed to embrace that characterization without getting too preoccupied with making the films realistic, which frees them from being anything but intense, fun, well-done stories. They don’t tiptoe around the fantastic, as live-action comic films seem to do, and transcend the hemming and hawing about what makes these films super so they can focus on just being good stories. Christopher Nolan understood that when he adapted Batman, opting to mix the modern sensibilities of a live-action film with a thoughtfult homage to the comic book stories that made fans love the Dark Knight. Hollywood could take a lesson from this—or else just go and hire the animated Wonder Woman writers and be on their way.
And as for the controversy over who would portray the Amazon princess, there are plenty of talented actresses in Hollywood waiting patiently for a film that will finally put them front and center again. There is never going to be a “perfect” Diana because, in truth, she’s created as a comic book ideal. But Hollywood is full of capable women who could see the character done well. Names like Eva Green, Michelle Ryan, Katrina Law and Bridget Regan come to mind, or even an outlier like MMA fighter Gina Carano could fill the princess’ bracelets. Each of these women and plenty more could stand as great choices for one incarnation of Diana or another—if given half a chance.
So will we see Wonder Woman on the big screen sometime soon? I don’t doubt that we will. If DC wants to make a Justice League movie, they need a Wonder Woman. The question is, will they take a shortcut and make her just another member of the ensemble cast, or will they have the bravery to treat the character like they would her male compatriots in the Big Three and give her a vehicle for her own story? That remains to be seen.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.