How to Make a Live Action Wonder Woman Work
Wonder woman has been depicted in live action before, and she will be again. But watching her fellow Justice Leaguers get variation after variation, in almost every form of entertainment, makes me think studios don’t know how to do Wonder Woman right. I’ll admit that not all of her assets would translate well to live action. Her old weakness, of losing her powers when she was bound by men, was a powerful political statement to young minds of the time. Today, it just seems kind of silly. In an effort to modernize her, I agree with the modern comic’s decision to leave this weakness behind.
I also happen to think that an invisible jet and a truth lasso make somewhat lame accessories. The lasso is a little too ingrained in the character to let go, but it can certainly be modernized. Something like a retractable grappling hook might look cooler than something first popularized by westerns. But the jet has already overstayed its welcome from the moment Wonder Woman learned to fly. Superman doesn’t fly in a jet, so why should she? Considering her background in Greek Mythology, a jet, invisible or not, feels out of place, no matter how well its presence is explained.
And, on the subject of her costume, can we ditch the ear-rings already? She’s an Amazon warrior, why is she wearing earrings? I’m not saying it’s impossible for a warrior to have pierced ears, but the visual just doesn’t match with her fish-out-of-water personality and screams of the concept of a “girl” superhero, rather than just calling her what she is: a superhero.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I want to draw attention to two Wonder Woman stories that I think should serve as template for big screen, or small screen, adaptations. The first is a 2009 direct-to-dvd movie titled simply “Wonder Woman”. This film, starring the voice talents of Keri Russell, came from the same team that is consistently churning out quality DC movies to its loyal cartoon fanbase. It sought to tackle Wonder Woman’s origin story (pre-New 52) and it did so with style and grace. Not necessarily intended for children, this movie proved you could tell her somewhat complex story in a standard 1-2 hour format. Were it adapted, word for word, shot for shot, it would be one hell of a live action movie.
The second story is a short run in the Wonder Woman comics (also pre-New 52) called Odyssey. In it, Wonder Woman has lost her memory and is fighting on the streets with a new costume and a lot of questions. This story spoke to me from the first time I saw the concept art, because it gave Wonder Woman what could be considered a “realistic” outfit. And, by not setting it against the backdrop of Themyscira, her home island, it made her more accessible to audiences not familiar with her origin. I know this because Odyssey was the first Wonder Woman comic I ever read, for both of those reasons. Adapting a more grounded interpretation of Wonder Woman, that introduces her history gradually, sounds like it’s already a series on the CW. So, now that we have our basis, how can a live adaptation do this character justice?
An epic retelling of Wonder Woman's origins. One of DC's best animated movies!
Get the Goofy Out
There are depictions of Batman that are hopelessly goofy (Adam West) and people love the character all the same, sometimes more because of it. But I agree that cheesiness isn’t what Wonder Woman needs right now. Particularly when some viewers’ only introduction to her was Lynda Carter twirling in circles. No offense to Lynda Carter, but Wonder Woman needs a Dark Knight style depiction that takes its time setting her up, so that when she dons the suit, and first kicks ass, we are ready to stand up and cheer.
This is why I think certain elements of her costume and accessories need to be updated or else omitted. So I will give credit to 2017’s Wonder Woman for adapting the look well – a cross between a roman gladiator and the MCU’s version of Thor. She looks like she could kick your butt and that is crucial.
And, while I have mixed opinions about her New 52 origins, I do acknowledge that a demi-god is easier to explain than a child made of clay that is struck by divine lightning. But the point is that there are enough aspects of Wonder Woman that we can set aside what doesn’t work, and emphasize what does. And, she is an enduring character that can survive multiple different interpretations.
Odyssey is a great introduction for those unfamiliar with Wonder Woman. And a great comic in its own right.
Show her Human Side
Wonder woman isn’t human, per-se, but it’s a human story nonetheless. One about family, leaving home, and honesty, just to name a few of the story’s themes. And doing it justice means showing more than just Wonder Woman fighting stuff. It needs that too, but the juxtaposition is what gives us another angle on the same character. We need to see mild-mannered Diana Prince just as much as we need to see Wonder Woman. Much like Clark Kent and Superman, her alter ego says something about her, and it is something that I think has been under-utilized in her many interpretations. At her core, she is the warrior princess. But, how does she interpret a disguise? Having not grown up with humans, like Clark did, she has very little to use as reference. Which leads to entertaining misunderstandings that provide great comic relief for an otherwise serious character.
And there is also the why of her disguise. Some interpretations don’t make a distinction between the two, as in she is never ‘hiding’, which raises the counter-question of ‘why not?’ In both cases, the important question that needs answering is: who is Diana when she isn’t being Wonder Woman? One could argue that she is always being Wonder Woman, and it’s a valid point. That’s just who she is. And, I admit that I’m a sucker for those moments in superhero fiction when a hero is forced to be heroic in their street clothes. It’s a reminder that they are the hero, not their flashy suits. And it suggests that anyone around us could be a superhero.
Superman III may have been a misstep in its movie franchise, but as a kid, I loved the scene where Clark fights evil Superman in the junk yard. There is a lot of symbolism in that scene and it’s the kind of thing I want from Wonder Woman; more angles on her character to see the light of day in a live action production.
Show she is a Badass
Wonder Woman is one of the top three DC heroes and, when Superman goes nuts because of some cosmic disease or mind control, it’s Wonder Woman who they call to stop him. A character this strong needs to show it in more ways than just breaking a lock on a door or leaping over a tall fence. Understated superheroes are great too, but Wonder Woman isn’t understated. She needs to be just as epic and unapologetic as her story requires.
Again the 2009 cartoon provides a good template as it pits her against Ares, the God of War. Cheetah is often the go-to Wonder Woman villain, but for her big screen, or even small screen debut, she needs someone more formidable. And, the Greek gods fit that role well. Ares is the most logical choice, but the New 52 storyline has shown the other gods can easily fill that role as well.
In my mind, one of the difficult aspects of bringing female superheroes into prominence is that badass factor. Not that they aren’t badasses, but that mainstream audiences have only seen them in supporting roles as either copies of their male counterparts (Supergirl) or love interests (Lois Lane). Again, no offense to those characters, both of which have great character development. But Wonder Woman doesn’t require any existing male character to work. And, I can think of no better character to break the mold of modern superhero adaptations. She has always been an iconic symbol for women and her origins are rooted in a world entirely her own. If that can be married with the same action, spectacle, and wow moments of a male superhero movie, then there is no reason why they can’t take a bigger place on screen. If the Hunger Games and The Force Awakens has taught us anything, it’s that a female lead does not inhibit a blockbuster. So it’s on the writers, studios, and directors to do it right. Will they read this article for pointers? Probably not, but I was drawn to Wonder Woman because she was something different from what the live action superheroes had to offer. And, from the stories and characters I found, I’ve learned that her time to join those ranks is long overdue.