After long months of development, a very public production phase, and relentless back-and-forth waves of online buzz and counterbuzz and double-reverse-counterbuzz, the verdict is in: Wonder Woman will not be a TV show. At least not on NBC. David E. Kelley’s TV reboot now joins Joss Whedon’s film in the dustbin of Wonder Woman projects that never were. (And that dustbin is already quite full — check out EW’s full report on Wonder Woman’s tangled web of unfinished film projects.) This won’t be the end. As reported by the LA Times, the new President of Warner Bros. wants to get all the Justice League superheroes on the big screen, so it’s entirely possible that we will see a real flesh-and-blood actress playing the most iconic female superhero sometime in the next decade.
But putting aside the financial benefit, maybe we comic book fans should take this latest disappointment as a lesson. Maybe Wonder Woman just shouldn’t get a TV show, or a movie, or any live-action adaptation. It’s simply impossible to imagine any take on the project that can address the character’s fundamental problem: She is meant to be an inspiring feminist icon, but she represents a vast array of things that feminism despises. By which I mean, she dresses like a stripper.
Or maybe it’s more fair to say that strippers dress like Wonder Woman. We are getting into complex territory when we talk about Wonder Woman and modern sexuality, because the character has variously defined and been defined by seven decades of extremely confusing cultural evolution. Updating the character for a modern audience isn’t simply a matter of rejiggering her timeline — like having Iron Man taken prisoner by Middle Eastern rebels instead of Vietnamese soldiers — or replacing a radioactive spider with a genetically-engineered spider. Wonder Woman’s creator — the brilliant polymath William Moulton Marston — created her with a purpose: He wanted her to be a liberated, forward-thinking woman character, something that was dreadfully absent in a comic book world dominated by dudes in capes. But Wonder Woman’s original incarnation can’t help but look square today. (She was the Justice Society’s freaking secretary.)
I’m not saying that Marston was a closet sexist. The 1940s were a different time. Various writers have certainly done their best to update Wonder Woman throughout her long history. But there is an unresolved paradox at the center of Wonder Woman’s history. She is the most famous female superhero, and there is every reason to be proud of the fact that she is considered an equal to Superman and Batman. But she also perfectly represents a whole assortment of fundamental problems with the treatment of women in comic books. Let’s not forget: The mainstream comic world is dominated, in readership and authorship, by men.
You could reasonably argue that even bringing Wonder Woman’s sexuality to the table is itself sexist. Certainly, Angelina Jolie has made a career out of playing essentially androgynous action hero roles (most famously in Salt, which was originally a Tom Cruise project.) You could give Wonder Woman a similar desexualized treatment. The latest reboot of the character mostly wiped away the whole “Island of Women” origin story, replacing it with a Jason Bourne-style search for identity. Joss Whedon told EW that he side-stepped a feminist take on the material, focusing instead on a tale of corporate chicanery.
And that’s fine. But that’s not Wonder Woman, not really. The character is supposed to be a proud exemplar of forward-looking womanhood. To ignore that fact means just turning her into another action hero. Not to mention the fact that just dressing Wonder Woman is an impossible proposition. Either you go classical and put her in a steel American-flag bikini, or you give her pants and somehow make her look even more ridiculous. There’s also the not-inconsiderable fact that Wonder Woman is supposed to be a truly physically imposing lady, while action heroines in modern Hollywood trend toward lean, Jolie-types like Olivia Wilde or Zoe Saldana. (In this, you have to give credit to Kelley for castin: Adrienne Palicki was at least a foot taller than any of the guys on Friday Night Lights.)
Believe me: I badly want there to be a Wonder Woman movie, a film that captures the character’s playfulness, her code of honor, her proud sexuality, and her plain old fashioned badassery. But it’s incredibly difficult to imagine any Hollywood project capturing that mix, especially in these anxious times when even R-rated movies can barely approach the topic of human sexuality. There are plenty of other great female characters in comic books who deserve bigscreen adaptations: Death from Sandman, say, or the Wonder Woman-inspired Promethea. I didn’t think much of the Birds of Prey TV series, but the idea of those three characters working together feels like it could inspire something better.
Maybe I’m just cynical. Future screenwriters can certainly try to reboot Wonder Woman backwards and forwards. You can give her a real human job besides “being a superhero.” (She was a nurse back in the ’40s, which according to the Jane Foster Principle of Occupational Evolution would make her an astrophysicist now.) You can give her the Dark Knight treatment and make her a killer. You could even set the movie in the ’60s and make her a feminist activist, racing against the clock to stop an assassination attempt on Betty Friedan. (Hey, is that really crazier than sending in a crack team of mutants into the Cuban Missile Crisis?) You can even do the absolutely correct thing and cast Beyonce as Wonder Woman. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the movie being particularly good. Comic books and Hollywood don’t have a good history with female characters; It’s hard to imagine that their union could do right by Wonder Woman.
PopWatchers, am I wrong? Do you think there’s a legitimate onscreen take on Wonder Woman that honors her complex history without turning her into some sort of renegade Charlie’s Angel?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich