Note: this article was originally published at DC Infinite.
Much has been made of the recent news of the Justice League movie and other properties Warner Brothers has in development. While the announcement of Zack Snyder directing “Justice League” after “Batman vs. Superman” is newsworthy in itself, statements regarding the final member of DC’s trinity, Wonder Woman, have sparked the most debate. In the Wall Street Journal exclusive, Warner Brothers President of Worldwide Marketing, Sue Kroll, states — with regard to a possible Wonder Woman movie — “With the right script, that could be viable. The world is ready for her.” There’s a lot of debate about Wonder Woman being underrepresented in mainstream media, particularly on the big screen. Critics point to rival Marvel Studios pushing lesser known properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy and an almost inevitable Black Widow movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as the titular heroine, as an example of confidence lacking at Warner Brothers. Others say Warner Brothers simply does not know what to do with the character. Both arguments are valid, but I do not think either is the case. Rather, I believe the lack of a Wonder Woman movie is due to the character being too important to get wrong.
Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston. Unlike most comic book creators at the time, whose primary vocation involved for-hire work at National Publications (the precursor to DC), Marston was an inventor and psychologist. Marston believed that society was destined to be run by women, which was a common theme he pushed in the early Wonder Woman comics, along with the idea of “loving submission.” This is evident by the images of bondage and wrestling which frequented the pages of Wonder Woman. This was a different character, one that emphasized compassion, love, and harmony over vengeance.
This is not to say that Marston’s creation lacked teeth. As he stated in 1943, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” As a result, not only did Wonder Woman possess empathy, but a fighting spirit akin to Rosie the Riveter and other symbols of strong women during World War II.
Following the war, Wonder Woman and other comic characters lost their edge and sunk further into goofy and absurd storytelling. The 1950s were particularly unkind to Wonder Woman, as she reflected the diminishment of women’s roles outside of the home. In the Justice Society of America, she was reduced to the team’s secretary. In her solo title, rather than fighting against the unjust she battled for the affection of love interest Steve Trevor. As the Marvel Age of Comics launched in the 1960s, Wonder Woman would remain stagnant. Even legendary writer Dennis O’Neil, who had reinvigorated the Batman franchise with “The Demon Saga”, could not regain the spark of the Marston era. He replaced the classic stars and stripes with a white jumpsuit and swapped out her powers for a mastery of martial arts. This incarnation of Wonder Woman, at O’Neil’s own admission, was a grievous step back for the character.
It was during this forgettable era of Wonder Woman comics that the feminist movement was gaining traction in the United States, lead by many prominent leaders including Gloria Steinem. Among her many contributions to the feminist movement, Steinem co-founded the magazine Ms. in 1972. The debut issue featured a larger-than-life image of DC’s flagship heroine (in her classic garbs) towering over society. Accompanying this image was the bold statement “Wonder Woman for President.” With the publication of this magazine, Diana of Themyscira was no longer a comic book character, but a symbol for generations of women both past and present.
Wonder Woman’s new status as a cultural symbol was amplified by the popular, if short-lived television series starring Lynda Carter. Though dismissed by some due to the evolution of television storytelling, it’s still revered by many. Carter’s Diana is an ambassador of peace and justice above all else. Even though her gender is a large part of who she is, it does not define her. She seeks to resolve conflicts peacefully, but can throw a mean right hook when absolutely necessary. This incarnation of Wonder Woman would be the launch pad for a myriad of properties starring strong female leads, including The Bionic Womanand The Hunger Games.
This idea is explored further in the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Released in 2012, the film includes interviews from women — many of whom are influential on today’s pop culture — from a wide range of generations. For example, Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of 1990s punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, sites the iconography of Wonder Woman as a motivating factor in the pursuit of her dreams. The same goes for Jane Espenson, writer on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, andGame of Thrones. The documentary’s youngest interviewee, fourth grader Katie Pineda, demonstrates the influence the character continues to have on younger generations. Katie believes in what Wonder Woman stands for, that girls can be strong and be more than the damsel in distress.
Wonder Woman, as a symbol for female empowerment, has made it important and necessary for Warner Brothers to produce a stand-alone movie. However, it’s even more important that they produce the best movie possible. Because of the ideals she symbolizes — beginning on the foundation established by Marston on through the influence of Steinem and the feminist movement — coupled with her lack of a prior big screen presence, a Wonder Woman movie is more important than any other in this age of frequent comic book adaptations.
People have questioned why a Wonder Woman movie is not currently in development when rival Marvel Studios is producing movies featuring a talking raccoon and Ant-Man. The answer is that, frankly, no one outside the comic community gives a damn about either. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to adapt those characters. The same can be said for Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games franchise. Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman caused passionate reactions on both sides, but the character has enjoyed eight big screen appearances of varying tone since 1966. The same can be said for Superman, the benefactor of six films since 1978.
Wonder Woman, unlike the characters mentioned above, has such an important place in the cultural zeitgeist that any film adaptation will be placed under a proverbial microscope. Unlike the heroines which have become cultural icons due to their movies, she remains even larger than them despite lacking a big screen presence. She comes with built in expectations that other comic book characters do not need to live up to in the transition to live-action. For this, any Wonder Woman movie that falls short of “great” will be viewed as a failure, regardless of box office performance. I am upset about Warner Brothers’ trepidation in greenlighting a Wonder Woman movie, but after trying to understand her importance to the world beyond comics I can understand their hesitance. It’s too important for them to get wrong.
Note: Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Heroines is available for viewing on Hulu.