What Film and TV Adaptations Don’t Get About Wonder Woman

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, is undoubtedly the most recognizable female superhero. She’s also the most misunderstood. If you ask most people about Wonder Woman, you might hear about a variety of her accessories: the lasso of truth, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and the image of her iconic red, blue, and gold get-up. Try talking about her origin, power set, or rogue’s gallery, however, and it’s unlikely you’ll get anywhere. While other members of DC’s Trinity — Superman and Batman — have been adapted across various media countless times, to the point where their origins and important stories have seeped into the cultural imagination, Wonder Woman’s history in film and TV is defined by high-profile failures to bring her to the screen.

When William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, he wanted her to be something we don’t quite see in modern superheroes: an agent of change rather than a protector of the status quo. He crafted a hero who, despite her strength, solved her issues not with violence but compassion. Marston supported a radical sort of feminism — he believed in women’s superiority and that they would one day rule the world (read more on his take here). Far too few writers carry on and update Marston’s vision of the character, choosing to present her as a generic warrior woman rather than a complex paragon of feminism.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, out Friday, marks the first live-action, big-screen appearance of Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) in the character’s 75-year existence. Let that sink in. Can Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer, two men who haven't had the best track record crafting women onscreen, to put it mildly, pull off introducing audiences to one of the most important female characters of all time? Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman v. Superman, followed by the upcoming Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, have to contend not only with the fact that her origin  isn’t as widely known as her iconic peers’, but also with the negative myths about the character that have been used to explain why she hasn’t had successful adaptations. Here are just a few:

Wonder Woman doesn’t have any seminal stories. (Really? Hand them The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka.) Her rogue’s gallery isn’t all that interesting. (See: Circe, Medusa, and Ares, all of whose myths have lasted the test of time.) Her definitive origin is too weird. Sure, a woman made from clay blessed by the gods and raised in an all-female society full of immortal Amazons is weird ... like every other great comic-book origin. It’s also much better than the new origin found in Brian Azzarello’s dramatic revamping of the character in 2011. Azzarello’s run isn’t the first time the character’s origin has been changed but it is undoubtedly the most radical, departing from the values Marston instilled. In Azzarello’s re-imagining, Wonder Woman finds out she’s really the daughter of Zeus (like he needs another kid), and the Amazons essentially rape sailors to populate Themyscira, and if they produce male children, they sell them for weaponry. In Azzarello’s hands, the Amazons are feminazi stereotypes. This change embodies the misogynist fear of female power, whereas Wonder Woman, at her best, embodies the celebration of it.

Batman v. Superman has the opportunity to do what no other Wonder Woman adaptation has: Give us a modern view of the character and prove to audiences she’s as interesting as her peers. As we prepare for the latest take on Wonder Woman, we’re revisiting the biggest appearances of the character in film and TV over the years, ranked from worst to best.

10. David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman (2011)


Wonder Woman (2011 TV pilot) by kryptofreak

Being a Wonder Woman fan can sometimes feel like a study in masochism. If you watch enough of her adaptations you start to see patterns in the worst amongst them. While I can give the failures that occurred in the 1960s and '70s more of a pass considering that era didn’t have the same reverence for comic-book adaptations we currently do, I can’t do the same for David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot. There were signs early on that this adaptation was headed in a bad direction: Take the leaked script, which includes such egregious moments as Wonder Woman screaming to her underlings about her action figure and crying over her ex a lot, as well as a downright ugly take on her costume.

The pilot, which you can find the rough cut of above, embodies the patterns you see when creatives fail to understand Wonder Woman. Kelley’s Wonder Woman is divorced from the character’s defining traits, most glaringly her identity as an Amazon. Instead, she’s a crass CEO by day, lonely single woman by night. When she makes time for actually being a hero, she’s not that good at it, choosing to be a brutal vigilante instead of the empathetic warrior that Marston set out to create in 1941.

9. Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? (1967)

Watching the few available minutes of Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? goes a long way toward explaining why so many Wonder Woman adaptations never make it past the early stages. The pilot does away with pretty much everything that defines Wonder Woman. Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? chooses to center around a housewife, the titular Diana, who may be going crazy because when she looks in the mirror she sees herself as Wonder Woman, who we’re not sure actually exists in the first place. It’s not only offensive but a downright bonkers change.

8. Wonder Woman (1974)

Wonder Woman fans are used to producers thinking the best way to adapt the character is by changing her from the ground up, which is exactly what this '70s TV movie does. Cathy Lee Crosby’s version is stripped of everything that makes the character iconic. She’s less a superhero and more a spy lacking any powers or even the traditional Wonder Woman costume. But it’s the choice to have her work as Steve Trevor’s assistant, helping take down people betraying the government, that proves to be the biggest miscalculation. What makes the last detail such a painful jab is that in the comics Trevor, who is Wonder Woman’s main love interest, often feels like a damsel in distress. Hopefully, Chris Pine’s take on the character in her upcoming solo film will adhere more to their dynamic in the comics, where she takes the lead.

7. Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman (2006)
It’s hard to talk about Wonder Woman’s film history without mentioning Joss Whedon’s high-profile failed take on the character. (There are many near-misses in the character’s history, like George Miller’s Justice League or Sandra Bullock being in talks to take on the character over a decade ago.) Whedon’s involvement seemed good in theory. But reading his script, you can feel his disinterest and disrespect for the character.

It’s hard to pick one line that illustrates why Whedon’s take fails. There’s the surprisingly casual misogyny, lack of sisterhood, and uncompelling main arc. But what makes this a bad Wonder Woman adaptation is how Whedon sets up Trevor teaching her what’s right and how the world should be, when it really should be the other way around.

Whedon has a thing for playing with the same character types over and over. Sometimes that creates magic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and, other times, it doesn’t quite come together (Dollhouse). Whedon tries throughout his story to make Wonder Woman fit the kind of woman he’s used to writing (more vulnerable, naïve girls with a penchant for pop-culture quips) but since that doesn’t exactly make sense for the character, she comes across as stilted and foolish. Many writers tend to do this: Grab onto one character trait from Wonder Woman (like her being a warrior) and throw out the rest, which is why she seems to lack the consistency of her peers. The adaptations that get Wonder Woman right are able to marry the various aspects of the character that have cropped up over her history in a way that updates her while respecting where she’s been.

6. Wonder Woman’s cameo in Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2011)

In the episode “Scorn of the Sapphire,” Batman: The Brave and the Bold evokes the kitschy fun of Lynda Carter’s definitive take on Wonder Woman (see No. 2), even using her show’s theme song. When Wonder Woman gives the villainous Baroness an ultimatum — “As a woman, you should know that the path of violence is a barren one. Abandon your misguided ways — join the sisterhood of peace” — we hear the hero’s main drive. But what I love about this appearance is how reliant Steve Trevor is on Wonder Woman. How can that man even function without her? Apparently, he probably can’t.

5. Batman/Superman: Apocalypse (2010)

Since becoming a diehard Wonder Woman fan I’ve learned that the best adaptations of the character are found in DC’s animated films. Despite the title, the main draw of Batman/Superman: Apocalypse is watching the Amazon princess fighting side-by-side with my other favorite badass from DC Comics: Big Barda. The highlight is their fight against the Female Furies: a military group raised by Granny Goodness, previously trained by Big Barda, and loyal to Darkseid, the power-mad ruler of their planet. Even though she isn’t given much of an arc in the film, we are able to see her among her Amazon sisters and to see why she is undoubtedly the best fighter and tactician in the DC universe.

4. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

The New Frontier includes one of my favorite Wonder Woman scenes ever: Set in 1954 Indochina, Wonder Woman liberates a group of imprisoned women and lets them kill the men who raped them and brutalized their town. In this adaptation, Wonder Woman is taller than Superman and she doesn’t back down to him. Plus, she’s voiced by Lucy Lawless, who many, including myself, longed to see play Wonder Woman. The New Frontier illustrates exactly why Wonder Woman is an amazing character by highlighting her feminism and strong moral center.

3. Wonder Woman (2009)

When George Perez, Greg Potter, and Len Wein revamped Wonder Woman in 1987, they made several instrumental changes that have come to define the character ever since. They were able to embody the spirit of Marston’s ideas while making her feel modern and more powerful. Gone is the World War II setting that previously defined Wonder Woman. She gains more powers from the gods, including the ability to fly, super speed, resistance to fire, and enhanced senses, for starters. The Amazons are updated to be the reincarnations of women killed throughout history because of the brutality of men.

This brisk, animated Wonder Woman film smartly uses the Perez reboot as its foundation. The film, which is co-written by comic writer Gail Simone, covers many definitive points of her story: We watch Steve Trevor crash-land on Themyscira; Princess Diana takes on the mantle of Wonder Woman after disguising herself in order to win a contest among her peers; she ventures into Man’s World, broadening her horizons and acting as a symbol of peace. It also uses one of her central villains from the comics, who embodies everything she is against: Ares, the god of war.

There’s a lot to love about the film. Watching Wonder Woman learn about the world outside of her home; her banter with Trevor; and seeing her come into her own are a few highlights. But it’s the beautifully depicted relationship with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, that keeps me coming back to the film. Hippolyta and Wonder Woman have a complicated, loving relationship that highlights the feminism inherent to the hero. Their dynamic is refreshing because it is still so rare to see a major hero’s origin story focus on their interactions with their mother … or really any woman beyond whoever is getting killed off to make them more angsty.

2. Wonder Woman (1975–1977)

For most people, Lynda Carter is the most recognizable image of Wonder Woman. As much as I love Carter’s performance, it says a lot about DC Comics’ faith in Wonder Woman that this adaptation is not only the most well-known, despite how the character has evolved since, but the last successful translation of her in live-action. That isn’t to say Carter’s Wonder Woman isn’t amazing, because she definitely is. The show is wonderfully kitschy, heartfelt, and leans into the character’s origins. It also gives us a kind of hero we don’t see enough: the emotionally available type.

Carter predates Wonder Woman’s more expansive power set and, arguably, the character’s best stories. Yet there is a reason she remains the definitive version of Wonder Woman. She evokes the very ideals Marston set out to support when he created the character, and marked a feminist awakening for many, becoming a symbol for the feminist movement. But it’s not just politics that make this take great. It’s a truly fun, enchanting, weird show to watch. Carter’s Wonder Woman embodies every reason why audiences love the character: grace, compassion, with just the right amount of badassery.

1. Justice League (2001–2004) and Justice League Unlimited (2004–2006)

While I love Lynda Carter’s take on Wonder Woman, when I want to see consistently great stories about the character outside of the comics, I turn to the animated series Justice League, and its related counterpart that expands the cast, Justice League: Unlimited. The series streamlines her origin by making one important shift: It’s usually Steve Trevor’s crash landing that thrusts her into the world beyond Themyscira. Here, she chooses to take on the mantle of Wonder Woman, going against her mother’s wishes and traveling to Man’s World to help when a hero like her is needed most.

This highlights what makes Wonder Woman so different from her peers: It isn’t justice that primarily guides her, but a sense of empathy. In the series, we watch her deal with her identity as an Amazon, while her relationships with her mother and the rest of the Justice League evolve in fascinating ways — particularly her somewhat-romance with Batman (which Batman v Superman seems to be referencing in recent trailers).

Yes, we get to see her kick a lot of ass, deflect bullets, and use the lasso of truth inventively. But what makes this Wonder Woman a great hero is her kindness and intelligence. If Gal Gadot’s take on the character focuses on those traits instead of only playing up her role as a warrior, we will witness not only an adaptation that does Wonder Woman justice, but also a weirder, more dynamic superhero than film has had in a while.