The History of Wonder Woman: Unlocking Her Cinematic Potential
Seventy-three years ago, Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics #8. Created by psychologist turned inventor William Moulton Marston, she has been everything from a symbol of female superiority to a pop-culture icon. Sometimes an advocate for peace and forgiveness, other times a relentless warrior and force of nature, Wonder Woman is hard to pin down. A fact that her publisher, DC Comics, has wrestled with since acquiring her. Despite her difficulty, the world has fallen in love with her over and over. So much so she has moved beyond the comic page and into animated and live action television. And in 2016 she will make her cinematic debut in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice soon followed by a solo venture.
For many fans a cinematic debut is long overdue. When asked why such a long wait Warner Bros and DC Comics call her “tricky.” Some would fault Wonder Woman’s difficulty on her mythological background. Others might fault it on the fact her villains are not as archetypal or memorable as others. When it comes down to it, she’s difficult to market. But as history would tell, she can be marketed well. Take a look at her animated incarnations such as Super Friends (1973 to 1986) or Justice League (2001-2006) or even her animated solo film Wonder Woman (2009). She even worked in live action, as shown by the 1975 Wonder Woman television show starring Lynda Carter. By taking a look at her history we can pinpoint how to successfully market her and what awaits her on the silver screen.
The Golden Age
Wonder Woman was first published in December 1941. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was a psychologist and inventor whose personal life brought much controversy. A well-educated man, Marston is credited with creating the systolic blood pressure test, thus paved the way for the modern polygraph. Marston also wrote several essays on popular psychology. In his 1928 book Emotions of Normal People he explored the DISC theory of psychology. This theory posited that people fell under four personality traits, dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. These traits were influenced by how a person viewed their environment. If they favored it they would induce it or submit to it. If they did not favor it they would seek to dominate or comply with it. This theory played into his creation of Wonder Woman. Through his study of psychology, Marston came to believe women were destined to be the next leader of the human race. He believed women as a group were more compassionate, honest, and reliable than men. Inspired by his wife Elizabeth Holloway and their partner Olivia Byrne he created Wonder Woman, an Amazonian princess and superhero.
Wonder Woman was born Diana of Themyscira. She was not a result of a union between a man and a woman, rather she was crafted from clay by her mother Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and given life by the goddess of Aphrodite. The Amazons live on Paradise Island, sometimes called Themyscira, an island hidden from the world of man by the gods of Olympus. The Amazons live a peaceful life with not much turmoil or war. Still, they train daily and stay vigilant in case the rage of men would invade their home. In the first issue of Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor an US army pilot, crashes into the Themyscira. The Amazons nurse him back to health and when he was well enough, they discussed how to bring him home. Hippolyta decides whoever proves to be the bravest of the Amazons in a contest will bring him home. Little does the Queen know, Diana has fallen in love with the army pilot and won’t be parted from him.
Diana is of course forbidden to enter the contest by her mother. Disguising herself under a helmet, Diana soon proves to be a champion and the Queen reluctantly lets her leave. With her dream of leaving her home in her grasp, Diana is given the clothes of a foreign nation to symbolize peace. She was also given tools such as the lasso of truth, indestructible bracelets, and a tiara that can be used as a boomerang. Her powers are what you might expect from a character often called the female Superman; super strength, speed, and advanced healing. Once in man’s world, Diana takes the place of an army nurse named Diana Prince, who wanted to head home to see her husband. Hidden from prying eyes, Diana is able to live in man’s world and protect Steve and the rest of the world from harm.
The early Wonder Woman stories focused on World War II issues and unlike Superman and Batman, Diana actually joined in the fight. While Wonder Woman fought the Germans and the Japanese, Diana Prince, her civilian identity, was worried about Steve Trevor falling in love with her. She had made a group of friends called the Holiday girls who assisted Wonder Woman when the need arose. Her stories were meant to inspire young girls and women, in a time when the men were off fighting in the war. She became a model for what real women should aspire to be.
That being said one of the problematic aspects of the early Wonder Woman stories is that she is idealized to such a degree she proved too hard to emulate. Her hair was always clean. She had the perfect body. She was firm in her ruling but she was also compassionate and sensitive. She made mistakes rarely. if at all. Everyone loved her men, women, and children. Even her female villains learned to love her and eventually joined her crusade. One of the best examples of this is Baroness Paula Von Gunther, a Nazi occultist and mad scientist, found herself facing off with Wonder Woman shortly after her daughter Gerda was taken from her. When Diana learns that Von Gunther’s whole reason for joining with the Nazis was to find her daughter, Wonder Woman sets off on a heroic mission to find her. With her daughter in her arms Von Gunther is rehabilitated and becomes an honoree Amazon herself.
The men of Wonder Woman didn’t fare as well as its heroine. Steve Trevor, one of the few men in the early stories, were helpless and dimwitted. Instead of assisting Wonder Woman in her escapades, he watched from the sidelines and fawned over her. Other men that populated her world were bullies and women bashers. One villain that came out of this era was Doctor Psycho, a telepathic dwarf and misogynist. The doctor sought to put Wonder Woman back in her place; out of man’s world and back in the home where she belonged. Despite his hatred for her, Diana had the remarkable ability to forgive him and even tried to rehabilitate him. But because he was man, he was beyond redemption and continued to wreak havoc when we could. In terms of the gender superiority, it’s clear which side Marston was on.
The Seduction of the Innocent, by German American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, was published in 1954 and reflected on the influence comic books had on young children. The book suggested that comic books could cause young children to turn to delinquency, violence, fascism, and homosexuality. Wertham believed that many comics contained graphic depictions of violence and sex. Along with her fellow heroes, Wonder Woman was under fire. Wertham suggested that Diana was a sexual deviant. He pointed out that she came from a land entirely populated by women. He cited that many pages of her comics featured women tying other women up. Wonder Woman also spent a good deal time being tied up. These accusations were taken very seriously, so much so that the comic book industry was forced to act. Thus the Comic Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority as a way to avoid censorship.
The Comics Code Authority didn’t stop anything from being published, but publishers had to tweak the content so they could get a stamp of approval. A comic approved by the code had a greater chance of being bought by children, their primary demographic. Criteria for the stamp of approval included elimination of the words horror or terror in the title, no scenes of excessive bloodshed, lust, depravity, or sadism, and no suggestive or salacious illustration to name a few.
Marston easily admitted the bondage subtext was intentional. He said of bondage “The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound… Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society… Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.” Marston borrowed many of these beliefs from his study of DISC theory. Wonder Woman induced being tied up in her home because her environment was favorable. In man’s world she was dominant because she deemed the environment unfavorable to her and other women. Much of the early stories contain scenes of the Amazons tying each other up for fun and pleasure. It was a common practice between the women warriors and Diana enjoyed it.
To combat the bad press, DC Comics hired writer Robert Kanigher who reworked her origin. Instead of just Hippolyta and Aphrodite helping realize her into being, many other Greek gods came to bless her. She was blessed by Aphrodite, Athena, Hercules, and Hermes. The idea here was to show she didn’t just have two mothers but fathers as well. It wasn’t just her origin that got a reboot. Diana spent far less time, saving the world and much more time looking for a husband. Gone were her group of friends, the Holiday girls, and gone was her need to break free from the hands of man. Her stories became soap operas with a superhero twist. She was no longer competent enough to deal with her enemies by herself and often times she needed help from male heroes like Superman. While the Golden Age Diana was a symbol of female superiority, Silver Age Diana was decades behind female empowerment.
In 1968 under writer Dennis O’Neill, Wonder Woman gave up her powers to live permanently in man’s world while her fellow Amazons headed to another dimension after their home had been destroyed. Diana stayed behind to help free a wrongly convicted Steve Trevor, who dies shortly after he’s set free. Powerless and homeless Diana began running a fashion boutique and was trained by a martial artist to resume crime fighting. After Steve’s death she became more emotional and shrill. She was no longer the regal heroine we had known in the golden age. The idea behind these changes was to make her a modern woman. They wanted to liken her more to espionage thrillers and not mythology and fantasy. During this time, the Wonder Woman title was not selling well. DC assumed women weren’t reading the title so they sought to make her more modern. They thought men weren’t reading it, so they likened her to a women they might be attracted to. Selling Wonder Woman proved even harder during the 70s.
In the United States the late 60s saw second wave feminism come into being. Issues like reproductive rights, domestic violence, marital rape, and others came to the forefront of women’s minds. Books like the Feminist Mystique criticized the media for how women were portrayed in media and accused the media of limiting the possibilities for women. It’s during this time that activist and freelance journalist Gloria Steinem chose Wonder Woman for the cover of Ms. Steinem chose Diana to be on the cover for a very simple reason; “Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life: a diminishing both of “masculine” aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.”
Before Wonder Woman made it on the cover of Ms, she had been criticized by Steinem. In one story, under writer Samuel R Delany, a final battle would take place at an abortion clinic. When Steinem objected DC feared that she wouldn’t want Wonder Woman on the cover and needing the press, they fired Delany. In Wonder Woman issue #204, Diana’s powers were returned and along with it came the feminist title. While the title got many young women interested in the heroine, it also in some respect lessened her appeal. Although feminism refers to equality between the sexes not female superiority, many people believe the latter. As a result Wonder Woman didn’t appeal to enough people, that sales were plummeting once more.
70s Wonder Woman may have not been selling well comic book wise, but she was selling in other media. In 1973 Super Friends an animated TV series following the adventures of several DC characters as they battled with the forces of evil. The primary cast included Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. The heroes often faced aliens or mad scientists and occasionally a villain from the comics would appear such as Wonder Woman villains Cheetah and Giganta. Today, these shows are known for being heavy-handed with the morals. For young kids though, there was nothing cooler. Action figures of the heroes were released and Wonder Woman had the pleasure of being one of the only female action figures.
Wonder Woman wasn’t only for kids though, in 1974 a TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby was put into production. This film featured a powerless Wonder Woman much more in line with the secret agent Diana from 1968. Crosby had barely any resemblance to her comic book counterpart either, and as result audiences didn’t really care for it. A year later, they cast model Lynda Carter to star in a new TV pilot that modeled off the Golden Age iteration of the character. This version was such a hit that it ran for three more seasons. As second-wave feminism came to close Wonder Woman became less and less significant. The next decade, however, made many welcome changes to the character.
The next decade ushered in plenty of changes to DC Universe. A crossover event entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths sought to get rid of the inconsistencies from the Golden and Silver Ages. The event concerned every significant character in the DC parathion, including Wonder Woman. Writer and artist George Perez revisited her history with the Greek deities, and this time all the gods played an equal part in bringing her to life. Additionally, Steve Trevor was less involved in her origin. He was a now an older gentlemen and no longer a love interest. The leader of her former Holiday girls, Etta Candy, came into the picture as a friend of Diana. Writer Josh Byrne brought her to the next level by involving her in the creation of the Trinity. The Trinity are the three most powerful and dangerous heroes in the DC Universe and includes Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The Trinity is not only recognized by the creators but the other characters in the universe as well. Before then, Superman and Batman stood alone as defining the DC Universe. For the first time in her history Diana was on same the level as her male counterparts.
Although Wonder Woman was now on level ground with the male heroes in terms of power, DC decided to throw a curveball, by allowing Diana to use lethal force. The DC heroes are probably best defined by their moral standing. They will not kill, no matter the cost. Wonder Woman was raised as a warrior and as such there are practices, like killing your enemies, ingrained in her. Diana will not kill if it can be avoided, but she’s not above it. If there is no other way to protect the people she loves, she will not hesitate ending their life.
Another big change that came from this era, was writer Greg Rucka adding another layer onto Wonder Woman’s story. Diana became an ambassador for Themyscira in the world of man. It was her job to negotiate peace between an ancient world and the modern one. She was now quite literally stuck between two worlds her new home and her old one. Giving her the role of peace keeper gave her stories a more political thriller spin which DC hoped would get more interested in her. Still, she wasn’t quite at the level DC wanted her to be. So DC decided a new tactic and brought in popular novelist Jodi Picoult.
Picoult, probably best known for her novel My Sister’s Keeper, is not a comic book writer. So giving her such a big character to play with, was a bit of surprise for many comic book readers. Still, it proved to be shine the spotlight on a well deserving superheroine. Many newspapers celebrated this new direction DC was headed. Unfortunately, Picoult’s run didn’t stick with readers and she was replaced after four issues.
Through the 90s and early 2000s Wonder Woman attempted to make a comeback on television and the big screen. Screenwriters like Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers fame tried to get solo film off the ground. When that didn’t pan out television writer David E. Kelley from Boston Legal wrote a television pilot. The pilot, which was filmed but never released wasn’t what DC had in mind for a Wonder Woman television show. More recently the CW network attempted a prequel series entitled Amazon but this property was dropped after less than year in development. While the live action treatments weren’t working, Diana made an appearance in the animated medium several times. She was a lead character in the 2001 Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoon. She even had a solo film in 2009 that went straight to dvd and starred Kerri Russell in the lead role.
The New 52 & Beyond
In September of 2011 DC Comics had another crossover storyline occurred entitled Flashpoint, which shifted the timeline to such a degree, that all the current titles were cancelled and a new timeline was introduced to bring in new readers. Writer Brian Azzarello was brought in to reimagine Wonder Woman. Although her origin had been rebooted twice before, Azzarello took a huge leap by making her a demi goddess. In the New 52, the title of the reboot, Diana was not shaped from clay as she was led to believe. Instead, she is daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta and is given a whole new family of gods and goddesses. This storyline also introduced a villain called the Firstborn, a child of Zeus and Hera who was buried deep within in the Earth shortly after his birth. Ares, the god of war, who has been a villain of hers for many decades, has become somewhat of a father figure. But the biggest surprise of all in the New 52, was the decision to make Superman and Wonder Woman a couple.
After years of failed live action attempts, Warner Bros announced Wonder Woman would make her cinematic debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice soon followed by a solo film. Little has been revealed about these films, or Diana’s role in them. Recently, a producer of Dawn of Justice announced Diana would have the New 52 origin in the DC cinematic universe. Regardless of what readers may think of the New 52 or her new storylines; it seems they will serve as a guideline. Marketing wise it makes a lot of sense. If they like the movie they will more than likely, buy the comics. When it comes down to it, marketing is what makes comics, TV, and film sell. Depending on how they market her, cinematic Wonder Woman could either be a hit or miss.
In order to secure a hit, Warner Bros. would be wise to pull from Marvel Studios. Marvel and Disney have created an enormous connected universe that is both a critical and audience success. If Wonder Woman had a Marvel equivalent it would be Thor. Thor is pulled directly from Norse mythology. To connect him to our world they connected science to magic. In the first film Jane, a scientist and Thor’s love interest, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” By framing magic and science as one in the same it connects Thor to world filled with scientists, super soldiers, and assassins. A demi goddess could fit into a world of aliens, vigilantes, and androids if magic is explored as a science and not some mystical force.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is expected to hit theaters in March of 2016. Until then the future of the world’s most famous superheroine is uncertain. The only thing for certain is that characters will change with time. The world outside will dictate what her origin will be, the villains she fights, and what she will fight for. A Wonder Woman solo film directed by Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones directed Michelle McLaren is expected in 2017. Let’s hope this time, Diana makes it to the big screen.
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