Ask Chris #193: Let’s Pitch A Wonder Woman Movie
Q: I am sick of hearing that a Wonder Woman movie is too hard. I know how I would do it, but what's your pitch for a Wonder Woman film? -- @Bibphile78
A: A few weeks ago, I probably would've backed off of this question, for two simple reasons. The first is that I was pretty sure my specific tastes don't really match up with what goes into a big-budget Hollywood film, but that was before we knew Marvel was spending a ton of money on a live-action arena show involving dirtbikes and skateboard tricks, and that they'd cast someone who once played Velma in a Scooby-Doo movie to play Aja in a big-budget Jem and the Holograms picture. At this point? I'm pretty sure I've somehow ended up being the target market for mass media, and believe me, I'm as surprised about that as you are. So what the hell, let's pitch a Wonder Woman movie.
Oh, right, the second reason. Well, that one's a little tougher to get around. As I've occasionally mentioned before, I don't actually like Wonder Woman. Like, at all. That might complicate things.
Okay, so before anyone gets too terribly mad at me about that, I should probably clarify here: I want to like Wonder Woman. I really do, I promise. And I don't think Wonder Woman is a bad character, and I certainly don't think she's a character who doesn't have any value. She's not, say, Gambit or Wonder Man or any of the other characters that I think comics would be perfectly fine without -- you'd have to be an idiot to not at least recognize her importance as a symbol and a pop culture icon that's completely separate from her role in the comics. I get that, and it's actually one of the reasons that she's so frustrating to me as a reader.
For me, the problem is that Wonder Woman has been around for almost 75 years, in comics that have been published pretty consistently since 1941, and there just aren't a lot of those stories that are actually any good. There are good ones, and there are even good runs, but for the most part, they just don't compare to what else was going on.
I realize that's entirely subjective, and I'll admit that I haven't read every single Wonder Woman story ever published -- though I have made an effort to read a pretty big chunk of what's in print thanks to Chronicles, Showcases and most of the major modern runs as well -- but I think that's all part of the same problem. If you ask me to give you a list of three or four stories that will give you a good idea of what Superman or Batman are all about, I can do it. With Wonder Woman, it's a lot more difficult. There's not as much of a consensus on Who She Is And What Her Deal Is. We can all sort of agree on what other prominent characters are about (with a handful of notable sticking points) that form a core that can stay true across different kinds of stories and different kinds of genres. I always like to point out that Brave and the Bold was on TV at the same time as The Dark Knight was in theaters, and I feel like those are both equally valid takes, but with Wonder Woman, most of the time, it doesn't feel like that core is really there.
Personally, I think it's a case of shockingly consistent mismanagement. It starts with the Golden Age, and it's important to remember that comic books and the superhero genre were a new medium that was being created by people who, generally speaking, had no idea what they were doing. If anything, they were taking their cues from newspaper adventure strips and trying to figure it out as they went along, and I doubt that any of them had any idea that these characters would be around in the next century. It's a problem that's particularly relevant for Wonder Woman because in her original form, she's inextricably tied into World War II. She wears an American Flag, for cryin' out loud, but unlike Captain America, who will always have that whole "Super Soldier" thing tagging along, the rest of her identity doesn't really support it. Wonder Woman is not particularly patriotic, but that costume has stuck around in some variation for ever. So right from the start, we have this weird inconsistency, this conflict between character and design, intent and reality, and that's without getting into anything else from the Golden Age.
Side note, I'm not a huge fan of the "New 52" redesigns because they are almost universally wretched, but I actually do like that Wonder Woman got a costume that wasn't so thoroughly built around that wartime imagery. It's not perfect -- I'm not crazy about the darker colors and it could use a few straps -- but if nothing else, it gives her her more of a visual identity of her own, rather than just putting her in the same colors as Superman. Plus, Cliff Chiang makes it look pretty great.
So it starts there, and in the years since, it's just been a matter of people being constantly not sure what exactly they want to do with her. Should she be de-powered to be more relatable as a "modern woman?" Should she be an adventurer during World War II? Should she be a classic Golden Age Justice Society character or a modern Justice League hero? Is she a brutal warrior or a superhero diplomat? Is she a wide-eyed newcomer or a war-weary outcast? There's a constant tug-of-war between different creators and editorial directions, many of which are going on at the same time, with people wanting to have it both ways. One of the best examples is how DC wants Wonder Woman to be this super important, iconic character, the third member of the "Trinity" -- and with good reason; they have this hugely resonant feminist icon that they are contractually obligated to keep publishing in perpetuity -- but they won't ever commit to it. She's never had a second book.
Seriously: If we have Batman and Detective Comics, and we have Superman and Action Comics, and if they're really the "Trinity" that DC keeps telling us they are, we should have Wonder Woman and Sensation Comics. That's not even a question.
But again, I think that reluctance to commit to it comes down to just not knowing what they want to do, and that comes from everyone looking at this character that has all these different conflicted things going on, and having their own idea how to get in there and fix it.
So of course, I have my idea for how to fix it, and of course, I'm pretty sure my idea is the right one. Which brings us back to this hypothetical movie pitch.
First things first: My version of Wonder Woman would have to be a movie for kids. In this imaginary scenario where I have somehow seized absolute control of Hollywood (and not used that power to revive dirtbike-based action cinema, the finest genre we have yet created), this is the sticking point that I will not budge on. I get in a lot of arguments with my comics cowriter, Chad Bowers, about how my ideas for superheroes tend to all be about making them more kid-friendly, and he makes the very cogent point that kids don't like stuff that's "for kids." He's very fond of pointing out that the comic I read at five years old that made me the life-long fan that I am today was one about a drug dealer whose girlfriend committed suicide, so Robin kicked him off a balcony to his death, which is probably the most non-kid-friendly story that 1988 had to offer. And he's not wrong. But as I always shoot back, it was Batman: The Animated Series that really got its hooks into me, and while that show gets a lot of praise for being more mature and appealing to adults, there's no getting around that it was made to appeal to a ten year-old. Which it clearly did.
The thing is, girls need Wonder Woman. Heck, girls already like Wonder Woman, whether it's from shows like Justice League or just her prominence as an advertising icon, and that has resulted in this massively lopsided, underserved market of potential fans. She's important. She's an icon. She is, in a lot of ways, one of the very few things that was made for them in this crazy, jacked up industry that we have. I can't tell you how many times friends with daughters have complained about how their kids like Wonder Woman and want to read comics about her, but there are never any around that they actually want to let them read, but it happens a lot -- and in six years of working at a comic book store, I had my fair share of dealing with customers who had that same problem. Greg Rucka and Drew Johnson's run on Wonder Woman was probably my favorite take on the character ever, and Azzarello and Chiang's has been one of the high points of DC over the past few years, but, y'know, there's splash pages of Wonder Woman snapping Max Lord's neck to deal with, and there are a lot of parents out there that just don't want to deal with that. I don't blame 'em.
So the solution is to just give them the Wonder Woman that they already want. I think DC's biggest cinematic problem is that they're still chasing Marvel on the big screen. Marvel's characters have always skewed a little more teenage, so on one level, it makes sense for them to be translated to the screen as the kind of PG-13 action movies that we've gotten, full of casual violence and dudes getting Yakuza kicked into bulkheads. I get it, even if I don't always like it, since I'm the most squeamish, hand-wringing polyanna that has ever owned a full run of Punisher comics. But with the DC characters, unless it's spectacular (The Dark Knight), it doesn't work. If they really want to succeed, they need to embrace what makes their characters appealing by making movies that are for everyone.
Seriously, I don't even know why there's even a discussion about this in a world where The Incredibles exists as a movie about superheroes for children that also has jokes about life insurance, dead-end jobs and the disillusionment of growing up as a fan to find out your heroes can disappoint you. It's for everyone, kids included. I just want to sit everyone down and go "do that." It ain't hard, it's been done before.
So in addition to launching an all-ages Wonder Woman title (one of my dream projects that will likely never, ever happen, not gonna lie), you make the movie that kids can go to. Man of Steel and Dark Knight Rises were both marketed to kids on varying levels so all you have to do is make a movie that lines up with the market you're already trying to get. You can make it smart, you can make it dark, you just have to keep in mind who your audience is. And it's so easy. Wonder Woman, the Wonder Woman that we have in DC Comics, the in-continuity canon Wonder Woman, is quite literally a magical princess that can talk to animals. How hard is it to just go with that.
So that's step one.
Step two, and it pains me to say it, is to make it an origin story. I know we're all getting tired of them, and that we're anxious to just move on with the story already, but I think you kind of have to in this case. For one thing, Wonder Woman hasn't been a solo character in mass media in almost 40 years, and for another, if we're really going to do this and use it as an opportunity to boil down the essence of who she is, what she does, and define her for a modern audience, then you almost have to start with a clean slate.
My ideal plot -- and I've thought a lot about this dream project Wonder Woman run I've wanted to do over the past decade -- is that you start by taking Paradise Island away from Earth. It shouldn't be a place you can just go to, there's no crashed planes landing there in World War II and introducing all the Amazons to "Man's World." It's a myth. It's something like Mount Olympus -- or, to stick with the cinematic comparisons, something like Asgard. This forgotten place full of immortal warriors, far from the concerns of what we're doing down here on Earth. But, like Asgard, it's a place where they're aware of Earth, where they can look down and shake their heads and this world we've got here and how bad we're screwing up.
But one of them doesn't think about how much we're screwing up. She looks at Earth, and she sees something she can help. She sees people who need a champion, people who need someone to show them how to rise up, people who need to be defended and inspired and rescued, someone who has trained all her life to fight, but who has nothing to do with those skills because there's no war in Paradise. She wants to make a difference, and she knows where she has to go to do it.
No prizes for guessing who she is.
I'll admit that it's a pretty basic setup (1 part Thor, one part Little Mermaid, mix and season with sets from Xena: Warrior Princess to taste), but I think it works, and you can go in a few different ways with it. The traditional origin story has the tournament, but my preference has always been to see Diana earning her abilities in a series of those classic Greek Mythological labors, like Hercules, Theseus or the Argonauts. A big journey to get what she needs before she finally goes to Earth.
But more importantly than that, it sets her origin apart from the other two heroes that she's always going to be stood beside: It gives her a choice. Superman chooses to use his powers to help people, and that's great, but when you get right down to it, he can't stay on Krypton. That life is gone, and so he's sent to Earth. Batman can't un-shoot his parents, his life is changed by something beyond his control. They're both heroes that are reactive at heart, they have situations forced upon them. For Wonder Woman, the one thing I've always loved about her character is that she doesn't have to be a superhero. She could just stay right there on her magical island. But she knows there are people who would be better off if she was out there, so she goes. She makes the choice to be a hero. For me, that's what sets her apart, what makes her so inspiring, that she has no personal stake in what's going on, but she still chooses to do the right thing. If you start at a core of that kind of altruism and determination, then everything else, the moral strength, the intelligence, the kindness, it all falls into place.
Getting back to comparing it to movies, I think there's a lot there that's appealing in the same way as the character work in Captain America -- you just get a lot more out of the wartime roots with Cap than you do with Wonder Woman, where they're this weird vestigial toe.
So the first movie would be all about Wonder Woman's journey to Earth, an adventure that she has where she leaves Paradise Island behind, in a way that she can never really get back to it, but she knows we need her more. So there's this grand, mythological adventure, a villain (Ares) barring her progress, but it ends with her arrival on Earth. And yeah, I said first movie, because the third thing I'd do is commit to that jazz. Superman has had one good movie out of six, Batman's fared slightly better with two and a half out of seven, and they still keep cranking those things out no matter how badly I want them to stop. There's no reason to go into Wonder Woman not thinking of it as a franchise. Make the effort. Have the cameras rolling on the second one before the first one opens. Put everything you can into making her the star that you say you want her to be.
See, that's the thing: You talk about people saying it's hard to do a Wonder Woman movie. It ain't that hard, folks, and I know that because they have already mapped out how you do it. The character work of Captain America, the sweeping mythology of Thor, the all-ages appeal of The Incredibles, the engaging personalities of stuff like Tangled. It's all out there already, and you're starting with a character who's already on t-shirts, who people already know and want to like. If that's hard, then how the hell did we get a movie about Green Lantern?