Will Hollywood ever get 'Wonder Woman' right?
That's the name you'd think of first when you're thinking of filmmakers to get a "Wonder Woman" feature film off the ground, right?
That was the first name I remember hearing attached to it. That was when I was working on the Universal lot, and Reitman, along with Michael Gross and Joe Medjuck, was set to produce the film for Warner Bros. They had their offices for Montecito Films there at Universal, part of their overall deal. Reitman worked on the film for something like six years, going through several treatments and scripts and writers in the process.
By the time I started contributing regularly to Ain't It Cool News, "Wonder Woman" was starting to heat up again, and the word I heard was that Reitman had one more shot to get it right. That was around 1998.
Didn't happen. So Warner Bros. gave the project to Jon Peters.
Didn't happen. So Warner Bros. gave the project to Joel Silver.
And Joel Silver started hiring writers. Jon Coen, one of the guys who worked on "Minority Report," ended up doing a few drafts, and that same era, Silver seemed bound and determined to hire Sandra Bullock to play the character. Her name ended up tied to the role for several years, and not just by fanboys, but by Silver himself. Todd Alcott ended up writing a few drafts, and I remember reading a few of them around 2000 or 2001, and not really recognizing the character. She was a spy who could fly around the world like Superman, and there was a lot of action, but it didn't strike me as being "Wonder Woman" in any specific way.
Actually, let's flash back to February 23, 2003, when I published the following about the in-development "Wonder Woman" drafts by the writer who followed Alcott, building on the work that had been done by Coen and Alcott both, all supervised by Silver for Sandra Bullock.
Speaking of Michael Fleming, he was the one who floated the rumor last year that George Miller was going to sign on to direct the Warner Bros. adaptation of WONDER WOMAN. In this particular case, I’m thrilled that he turned out to be wrong (not that the infallible Michael Fleming ever mongers rumors or anything), because if one of my favorite filmmakers had ended up saddled with the nightmare that WONDER WOMAN is shaping up to be, I would have been miserable.
I’m not sure what Becky Johnston (PRINCE OF TIDES, SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET) did on the script as compared to Jon Cohen, Kimberlee Reed, or Todd Alcott. I do know that Johnston was the last writer on the film, and I was hoping she would radically rework the script I read last year. I hated it so much that I just couldn’t bring myself to review it. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it was really the direction Warner Bros. wanted to go with the film. I hoped that it was some one-draft mistake, and that they would revise it completely.
Right now, I guess they’re looking for new writers, and drafts have gone out to various agencies. A friend at one of those agencies called me to discuss the horror with me the other day, and I’ll let him describe it to you the same way he described it to me between gasps of laughter:
”Okay, I’m no purist, but I remember a few things about WONDER WOMAN. She was an Amazon, right? Like, from the actual island of the Amazons?”
”As far as I know, yes. A Navy plane crashed on her island in WWII, and she ends up heading back with the downed pilot to check out the world of man. More or less.”
”Dude, that’s so not this film. At the start, there’s this big action scene with Wonder Woman, and her name is Diana…"
”Diana Prince. Right.”
”Only she’s not the Wonder Woman this film is about because about ten pages in, she dies.”
I sighed, knowing what he was going to explain to me. All I could do was nod as he laid it out, since it was the same exact story I’d read.
”And her suit sort of crawls out of the wreck where she died and heads for the nearest city. It finds this girl who’s just some normal girl named Donna...”
”Yeah. That’s Donna Troy.”
”Right. Well, she starts to get these powers, right? She starts changing and doing stuff like smashing doors and flying and... dude, it’s SPIDER-MAN with boobs for 20 pages or so. It’s just silly. Turns out she’s an orphan, but she’s not really an orphan, and her mom is Wonder Woman, but she’s not really dead. She’s in a coma, and when she wakes up, it’s just long enough to tell Donna she’s an Amazon, too, and then she dies again, and Donna has to become Wonder Woman.”
”Stop. Please. Stop.” I couldn’t take anymore. He told me they’re looking to hire someone to get this thing ready to cast quickly, which means this is it. This is the story they’re using. This is the way Warner Bros. has “reimagined” the archetype for the year 2004.
I feel bad for DC in this regard. They don’t have a choice in how their films are translated to screen, and they don’t have the muscle within the corporate structure to force Warner Bros. to pull their heads out of their asses. Instead, they’re just like the rest of us... spectators watching this amazing slow-motion car crash, one body piling up after another. I have no idea what is going to happen to this film, and since they haven’t hired a director, there’s still a chance it won’t happen. If you love WONDER WOMAN, my advice is to forget this one. Just let it go. And to Warner itself, I repeat...
Stop. Please. Stop.
It raised a very real question at the time, one that I remember discussing with many people close to the process. Can Wonder Woman even work on the bigscreen in her own film?
After all, there was a detour for a while in 2007 where it looked like the first time we saw her onscreen was going to be as part of George Miller's "Justice League," and I remember the heated race to see who would play the part, with Theresa Palmer and Mary Elizabeth Winstead eventually losing out to Megan Gale.
But before that, there were years where Silver had become convinced that this whole "Donna Troy not knowing who she is" story was the way to go, and several writers in a row had to try to make that work. None of them did, and finally, in 2003, they hired the one writer who has ever, in my opinion, gotten close to making the thing work.
Laeta Kalogridis, or as I like to call her, "James Cameron's secret weapon," has been writing great drafts of films for a while now. I'd say she's been writing great films, but inevitably, they don't use the drafts she writes, and the results are less than they could be. There was a groovy take on "Bride Of Frankenstein" she developed for Alex Proyas at one point that I wish we'd seen, and if the first "Tomb Raider" had shot her draft, it could have actually been a really good movie. But the greatest missed opportunity by one of her former employers was when she came on to "Wonder Woman" and dumped all of the work that had happened up to that point.
I know Laeta casually, and around the time she was starting work on "Wonder Woman," we spoke about what she was planning to do with the character. She was wrestling with some of the fundamental problems that existed with the character, and just articulating them pointed out just why the project had so much trouble over the years. As recognizable as Wonder Woman is as a visual icon, she's fairly poorly defined as a character for most people. Maybe they know that she's an Amazon, but if you were to ask most people, even comic book readers, to name five villains from the Wonder Woman rogue's gallery, they wouldn't be able to. And if you were to ask them the details of her backstory, they'd have a hard time pinning that down.
Laeta's scripts for the project leaned heavily on the mythological background of the character and featured a fairly traditional take not the relationship between Steve Trevor, the US military man, and Diana, the Amazon princess who becomes fascinated by Steve when he accidentally crashes on the island where she and her fellow Amazons all live. Her bad guy in the film was Ares, the actual God of War, and it worked both as origin story and big giant military adventure movie. It would have been a genuinely big movie in scale, and a rough-and-tumble action film.
One of the few problems I had with the script as I read it is something that's almost innate to telling Wonder Woman's story onscreen. As much as the prepubescent me appreciated Lynda Carter's outfits each week on the TV show back in the '70s, and as much as I think she probably helped me figure out my own plumbing, that costume changes the way you shoot and write an action scene. When they do animated versions of Wonder Woman, they can draw her any size they want, doing whatever sort of action scenes they want, but in live-action, there are just logistical problems involved with a nearly-naked model doing the sorts of hand-to-hand combat that they write for her. Laeta's action writing is some of the best in the business, and she built some great sequences for her film, with one of the smartest things about it being the way she introduced practical uses for every element of the costume, making you understand why she is who she is and what makes her special and distinct in a fight.
So of course they didn't make that one. She was on the film for all of 2004, and in 2005, Warner Bros. moved on to the next writer. I wasn't surprised at the time. I think there was some real tension between Joel and Laeta in the sense that they both had very strong visions of what Wonder Woman should be, and those visions didn't match. When Silver hired Joss Whedon in March of 2005, it seemed like the slam-dunk version of things. After all, Whedon's built his career on ass-kicking women, so surely he'd be able to craft a version that would get made, right?
I still haven't read the Whedon version, but whatever it was he did, he was off the film again by 2007, when Warner Bros. broke every rule that supposedly exists in Hollywood by buying a spec version of the character written by Matthew Jennison and Brett Strickland. One of the first things you are told as a screenwriter is to never bother writing a spec about characters that are owned by someone else, because there's no point. Well, the moment Warner purchased the WWII-themed version of the script that Jennison and Strickland wrote, every fan-fiction author in the world once again believed that they were going to win the lottery. After all, if Warner had Joss Whedon working on the film and they ended up firing him to buy this spec by two guys no one had heard of, then anything could happen, right?
Since that point, "Wonder Woman" has laid dormant at the studio, with Silver eventually giving up his claim on the character. There was the almost with the "Justice League" movie, and now it looks like the small screen is going to be the next place we see her suit up. Yesterday's announcement that Adrianne Palicki is playing the part for David E. Kelly had people debating the merits or demerits of the idea just based on their feelings about Palicki and her hair color or her body shape. That's definitely part of the problem, since it seems like more than almost any male superhero, what is important to people about Wonder Woman is how "hot" she is. It comes down to how she's going to look in that outfit, right?
What people aren't really talking about is just how terrible David E. Kelly's take on the character is, and how once again, the "solution" to adapting the character seems to be throwing out much of the mythology that has defined her for decades in favor of what looks like another David E. Kelly workplace show. It made me nervous when I saw a "Song List" on page three of the script that includes "Single Ladies" by Beyonce, "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, and "Super-Duper Me" by Katy Perry. It may be a terrible script, but at least we'll get to see Diana Prince perform Blondie's "One Way Or Another," right?
We meet Wonder Woman in the middle of a foot chase along Hollywood Blvd., where she ends up running into a bunch of those fake superheroes who pose for photos for tourists and accidentally crashing a movie premiere. It's cute and winky-winky and needlessly complicated, with Wonder Woman juggling not one but two alternate identities as she goes up against Veronica Cale, a manufacturer of dangerous genetic-modification drugs. Much of Kelly's script is given over to the star-crossed love story between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, the man who first brought her from Themiscyra to modern-day America.
In the end, Kelly's version will at least go to pilot. And Palicki is a stunning girl, so I'm sure you'll get some mileage out of images of her in the costume. But I wouldn't watch the show that Kelly's making, and I'm having a hard time imagining comic fans feeling very good about this. We've been seeing superhero films now for a while, and one of the things that we're still debating is just how faithful you need to be to the source material. There's obviously room to mix and match and reinvent, and some of the best of the superhero films use the source material as a mere springboard, but in the case of Wonder Woman, you're dealing with an icon. And while there may not be a great film version yet, maybe this process doesn't have to be so difficult. Maybe looking at what it is that's kept the comic going for fifty years would be important. Maybe it doesn't need to be rebuilt from scratch every single time you try to adapt her to film.
Or maybe Wonder Woman just doesn't work as a movie. That's possible, too. The golden lasso, the invisible plane, the bikini-style uniform and the go-go boots… maybe it's just too silly. Maybe the sex-symbol imagery and the Greek mythology and the butt-kicking just doesn't gel when you try to do it in the real world.
Enough filmmakers have tried and failed that you have to start asking why. And until someone tries a faithful rendition of the character, it'll remain a giant question mark. Until we figure out what it is about the material that freaks out every filmmaker so much that they feel the need to totally reinvent her and her world, I get the feeling no adaptation's going to work. She's an icon for a reason, and ignoring that reason or trying to second-guess it hasn't seemed to work for anyone yet.
And until then? Look forward to a Wonder Woman weeping into a pillow at the end of her adventure to the dulcet tones of Christina Aguilera, and thank David E. Kelly.