“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise. The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her. While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her. While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting. Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life. But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman. That’s all we know at this point.
What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave. Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats. Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player. The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s. The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal). And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings. The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist. But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that. Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury. (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)
The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff. That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story. And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence. While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play. For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman. Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man. But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female. Woman becomes Everywoman. So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.
And they won’t be able to help themselves. Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection. You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever. Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character. Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings. Fancy that assignment? Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?
If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct. I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins. What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise. Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up. They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people. Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men. Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys. The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy. Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup. (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)
What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize. (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.) A character with some real weight and depth. A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head. That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.
Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot. Show us the Wonder.