Every so often, the question is raised: In an era in which we are drowning in superhero movies (some good, some bad, some wretched), why has not the premiere superheroine — Wonder Woman — yet received her due? The question has been asked again at this year’s SXSW and I figured what the heck — I’ll bore y’all and toss in my two cents.
At first glance, it’s perplexing and disturbing that Wonder Woman hasn’t been translated to the silver screen yet. After all, most of the big male icons (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America) have made it. Even a bunch of second-tier male figures (Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Green Lantern) have gotten the big screen treatment. And lest we accuse Hollywood of sexism (perish the thought), let us acknowledge that a tiny (very tiny) handful of minor female characters have also hit cinemas (Elektra, Catwoman).
So why not Wonder Woman?
There are a few reasons, in my opinion, and I’ll try to walk through them quickly. First of all, you need to know a tiny bit about the character’s origins. By which I don’t mean her comic book “secret origin,” but rather how she came about in the first place.
Wonder Woman was created in the 1940s by a guy named William Moulton Marston. Now, Marston was a Harvard-educated psychologist of some renown, so he couldn’t have his good name associated with something as pedestrian and childish as a comic book, right? He used the pseudonym “Charles Moulton” for his Wonder Woman work, but his real name is really all he hid. Everything else about ol’ William was out there in the comic, front and center.
See, in addition to being a psychologist, Marston was also an early feminist theorist, as well as someone with very interesting views on sexuality and gender. Some of his views would be considered controversial in certain quarters even today. (For example: Marston lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and her girlfriend.) He was intensely interested in sado-masochism and bondage, as well as the idea of “loving submission” (the notion that submission leads to strength when it’s based in love). All of these ideas (and more) became infused in the character of Wonder Woman — a casual glance through her early history shows her being tied up on almost every cover. And on those covers where she isn’t tied up, she’s usually tying someone else up!
(BTW, Marston also invented the lie detector. So is it any wonder [pun not intended] that Wonder Woman carried the Lasso of Truth, which forced people to tell the truth when bound in it?)
Yes, the character was intended to be a role model for children (specifically, as an “ultimate” female role model for young girls), but Marston’s philosophy is blatantly evident and obvious to a modern adult reader/viewer. An attempt to recreate Marston’s Wonder Woman on the big screen for a modern audience would have parents screaming for the heads of studio executives. It’s just too damn sexual.
Fortunately for parents (but unfortunately for Wonder Woman, as we’ll soon see), the character has changed over the years.
And I say “unfortunately” because it this very change that is a big part of why there has been no Wonder Woman movie: Because no one can agree on who/what Wonder Woman is. Or, more accurately, no one can agree on which Wonder Woman to base the movie!
Since Marston stopped working on the character more than half a century ago, there has been no definitive portrayal of her, as each new creative team imprinted her with its own stamp. Hell, looking beyond a definitive portrayal, there’s been no consistent portrayal over the years. While both Superman and Batman (the characters closest to Wonder Woman in terms of both popular recognition and era-of-creation) have evolved over time (Superman originally being a violent, left-of-center populist and Batman a gun-toting criminal-killer), their major changes happened relatively early. Consequently, they have literally decades of (again, relatively) consistent character portrayals: Superman, the staunch, upright, ethical defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Batman, the darknight detective, whose moral code and scientific genius serve him well when he turns criminals’ greatest weapon — fear — against them.
And Wonder Woman? She’s…
Well, depending on the decade, she’s an S&M fantasy, a figure of loving submission, a “female Superman,” a “pacifist warrior,” an ambassador to Man’s World. Currently, her character seems to be based on the simple notion that she is a sword-wielding, hard-core, out-bad-assing-the-boys pragmatist.
With so many portrayals — and so many of them at odds with each other — how in the hell do you pick one to run with in a movie?
This character schizophrenia may be unfortunate, but it may also be somewhat appropriate. The 20th century, after all, was a time of dramatic gender and sexual upheaval, so it’s probably sensible that a female icon like Wonder Woman would morph into a variety of characteristics and character-types as that century wore on.
Sensible, sure. But, IMHO, toxic to her movie possibilities.
There’s no Wonder Woman movie because no on can agree on who the hell Wonder Woman is.
There’s also the costume.
In a static, unmoving medium like a comic book, the costume works. Truly, it’s no more outlandish than most other comic book costumes. Yes, I know it’s sexualized, but consider this: It shows less skin than you can see in prime time TV or on a Victoria’s Secret ad in a magazine any teenager can buy off the rack. And in a comic book, everyone is wearing something skintight. (Heck, Wonder Woman’s chest plate, when drawn correctly, conceals the lines of her chest better than Superman’s. You can see every detail of Superman’s pecs right through his costume.)
But in a movie? In a movie, you can put Christian Bale in a rubber Bat-suit or throw a decently in-shape guy into a Superman suit and he’ll look all right. But that Wonder Woman costume is absolutely unforgiving on a real person and in motion.
Plus, it’s just nearly impossible to suspend your disbelief that someone wearing that costume could fight crime without suffering a wardrobe malfunction that would crash YouTube.
I like the costume, I confess, and not because I enjoy looking at scantily-clad women. I like it because while Superman and Green Lantern and all the boys cover themselves head-to-toe despite their powers, Wonder Woman is completely at ease with baring her arms, legs, and roughly three hectares of cleavage when she goes into battle. Because she’s just that tough that she doesn’t care.
“So,” you say, “change the costume. Big deal.”
That sound you hear is millions of fanboys screaming in protest. They’re the same ones who decried the changes to Green Lantern’s costume for the movie (my opinion: yeah, it was ass). And while you may not care what they think, the studios do. Because the studios know that those fanboys are the early opinion gatekeepers who can make or break a superhero movie. Dicker too much with the lore and the legend, and you risk a backlash that could kill the movie. So, yeah, any movie would tweak the costume, but you cover those arms, legs, and boobs at your peril, Hollywood.
Are there solutions to these problems? Well, I’m sure there are. (If Warner Bros. would like to throw some money my way, I would be thrilled to share my ideas…) But I don’t know that the solutions are necessarily ones that would make a big Hollywood studio comfortable.
For example — and this one’s for free, WB — if I were in charge of a big-screen Wonder Woman movie, I would totally set it in the 1960s and have Wonder Woman come to “Man’s World” just as the Sexual Revolution is starting. Don’t run away from her feminism — take it head on. (X-Men: First Class proved that you can do a superhero-movie-cum-period-piece, so why not?) But I can see studio execs recoiling already: “Set it in the sixties? And have Wonder Woman speaking out against the patriarchy? Are you nuts? This is about a superhero, not a revolutionary!”
I say: Why can’t she be both?
(In my ideal world, a Wonder Woman movie would have unbelievably cool superhero/mythological action like you wouldn’t believe. It would also make most men watching it distinctly uncomfortable because it would have a very strong anti-patriarchy vibe to it. This isn’t the only way to approach it, of course. Just my preferred way.)
Some smart-aleck would probably describe it as “Mad Men with superheroes” and you know what? A studio executive just might go for that.
But probably not.
And “probably not” is also the answer to most other Wonder Woman compromises.
Will there ever be a Wonder Woman movie? Well, I never thought there would be a Watchmen movie and I was wrong about that, so I won’t bet against it. And she’s such a marketable, recognizable property that someday someone will touch the third rail where gender politics meets comic books.
But will there ever be a good Wonder Woman movie…?
I hope I am wrong and I would dearly love to eat these words someday, but…
(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)