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Why Is Wonder Woman So Difficult to Adapt to Film and TV?

After Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) and Warner Bros. recently cited “creative differences” to explain why the Gal Gadot Wonder Woman movie due out June 23rd 2017 no longer had a director, The Hollywood Reporter asked if Wonder Woman is simply cursed for film and TV.

It’s a fair question. In this case, the director’s chair didn’t stay empty for very long, with Warner Bros. hiring Patty Jenkins (Monster) mere days after MacLaren’s departure. Jenkins has actually been on the opposite side of this before, walking away from Thor: The Dark World during pre-production, later replaced by Alan Taylor. Now MacLaren is dejected and walking back to the dugout while Jenkins is stepping up the plate with optimism and determination.

It’s a familiar dance for those who dare to adapt Wonder Woman’s to film or TV. Many men have known such defeat, but very few women have, just a couple of screenwriters in the early 2000s (Becky Johnson, Laeta Kalogridis) and now Michelle MacLaren. She was hired because key WB people believe Wonder Woman’s strong association with the notion of female empowerment begs for an authentic female voice behind the camera, even though Zack Snyder is technically getting the first crack at her in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The mere act of hiring MacLaren was itself a sign of female empowerment, making her the first woman to direct a big-budget, CG-laden tentpole release.

That honor now falls to Jenkins, but some would characterized it more as a giant burden. Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander told Fast Company she wanted no part in making Wonder Woman, “Imagine the weight on my shoulders. How many male superhero movies fail? So now, we finally get Wonder Woman with a female director; imagine if it fails. And you have no control over marketing, over budget. So without any control, you carry the f—ing weight of gender equality for both characters and women directors. No way.”

It seems fitting that so much of the conversation about the solo Wonder Woman movie is centered on what it represents (Finally!: a female-led comic book movie, and a big budget movie directed by a woman) as opposed to what it’ll actually be about. That’s because if most people stop and think about it they’ll probably realize they know very little about Wonder Woman the character.

She first showed up in the comics in 1941 in the back of a team book (All Star Comics) populated by established heroes. Less than a year later, she starred in three different comic book series of her own, occasionally outselling Superman. She was the first and for many years only female member of the Justice League, sadly relegated to secretarial duties much of the time. Her place as a feminist icon was cemented when Gloria Steinem put her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine in 1972. Many grown women fondly recall childhood afternoons twirling in circles in front of the TV, re-enacting Lynda Carter’s famous spin into costume in the old Wonder Woman TV show.

TCDWOWO EC007And, of course, it’s become a kind of fun-fact for people to trot out that Wonder Woman was actually created by the guy who helped create the lie detector test, and he was a BDSM enthusiast living in a kinky relationship with two women.

Why She’s So Difficult to Adapt

Let us never speak of this again

But what’s Wonder Woman’s real name? What’s her origin story? Where she is from? Who are her main villains? Does she have a love interest? Why does she even fight crime? And does she seriously fly an invisible plane?

Now ask yourself all of those same questions about Superman and Batman (or Spider-Man on the Marvel side). It’s a lot easier to do that with them, isn’t it?

I am a lifelong geek, but just three years ago I couldn’t have answered a single one of those questions for Wonder Woman. It’s only because of the animated series Justice League/Justice League Unlimited that I can tell you her name (Diana Prince), place of origin (Paradise Island), basic backstory (Amazon island with no men, guy crashed there during WWII, told them about the Nazis, Diana was the only one compelled to leave the island and help the world of man in its fight against evil), one of her villains (Cheetah) and love interest (Steve Trevor). I can also somewhat sadly confirm she indeed flies an invisible plane.

To the non-geeky among us, Wonder Woman is “important and beloved as the most famous superheroine of all time, a bastion of female representation in a male-dominated genre, but she’s a symbol more than a living, vibrant character […]She’s become a blank slate to which we attach our modern ideas.” When the comic books recently paired her with Superman in a romantic relationship,  headlines often read “You Won’t Believe Who Superman’s New Girlfriend Is!” instead of “Wonder Woman Has a New Boyfriend!” For that last one to be effective people would have to actually know Wonder Woman had an old boyfriend.

People are aware of her existence, but they don’t know as much about her as they do Batman or Superman. That hurts, but a really good movie or TV show can make up for that, much in the way so many of us are now amateur experts about Iron Man whereas before the 2008 Iron Man movie we probably just knew how cool his suit looked.

Her traditional costume looks remarkably impractical, which the Gal Gadot version is trying to work around by depicting her as more of a Xena/Sif from Thor-like warrior.

There’s the consistent DC bugaboo of struggling to make god-like characters relatable, and that’s not going away.

Those all add up to present some pretty big barriers, but if you listen to people actually tasked with bringing Wonder Woman to the screen the main reason she’s a challenge to adapt is because the comics simply haven’t provided material worth adapting. As DC Entertainment President Diane Nielsen told THR a couple of years ago, “She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes […] She has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.”

That Time Joss Whedon Tried To Make a Wonder Woman Movie

Joss-Whedon-Wonder-Woman-Movie-Could-WorkIn 1999, The Matrix gave us a Wonder Woman for the modern age. Her name was Trinity, she emerged as the film’s most popular character during test screenings, stunning producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard). In response, he decided it was time to make a Wonder Woman movie, moving through multiple screenwriters and discarded screenplays before heavily courting Joss Whedon, the man who created Buffy Summers. Whedon had to be talked into it, finally agreeing to write the script in 2005, just as he was finishing Serenity.

When he sat down to crack the story he realized he didn’t know much about Wonder Woman, having mostly only encountered her in Justice League comic books. He was particularly hazy on her origin story, probably because her origin story has constantly shifted over the years. As summarized by WhatCulture, “Originally she was just a badass Amazonian warrior, helped out by her magic lasso and arm bands. That was retconned to suggest Diana was formed from clay by the Queen of the Amazons and was imbued with the attributes of the Greek and Roman gods by Athena. Then people felt weird about that, and she was an Amazonian woman again, with her powers being blessing from Olympian deities.”

It’s so much easier to write for Batman, Whedon lamenting, “Batman is the only Marvel character in the DC universe. He’s got the greatest rogues gallery ever, he’s got Gotham City. The Bat writes himself. With Wonder Woman, you’re writing from whole cloth, but trying to make it feel like you don’t […] She doesn’t have good villains (Circe, Cheeta, Ares). So you pretty much have to start from scratch there.”

Literal years went by with Whedon continually updating story outlines and struggling to actually complete a script. Meanwhile, one by one, actresses with some connection to Whedon (e.g., Charisma Carpenter, Eliza Dushku Gina Torres) and many others without (e.g., Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, Megan Fox) were publicly connected to the project.  Eventually, Whedon found his “in” to the character, “She’s fascinating, very uncompromising and in her own way almost vulnerable. She’s someone who doesn’t belong in this world, and since everyone I know feels that way about themselves, the character clicked for me.”

Thor Court martialThat sounds awfully similar to the fish-out-of-water story Marvel eventually did with Thor. However, Thor used that device as a way to humble its hero and ultimately endear him to audiences, answering the question of “How do you make audiences care about a literal god?” with an obvious “You take his powers away and make him human.” Eh, that’s kind of what Whedon had in mind:

“The fact that she was a goddess was how I eventually found my in to her humanity and vulnerability because she would look at us and the way we kill each other and the way let people starve and the way the world is run and she’d just be like, None of this makes sense to me. I can’t cope with it, I can’t understand, people are insane. And ultimately her romance with Steve was about him getting her to see what it’s like not to be a goddess, what it’s like when you are weak, when you do have all these forces controlling you and there’s nothing you can do about it. That was sort of the central concept of the thing. Him teaching her humanity and her saying, OK, great, but we can still do better.”

He made it up to two drafts of a full script before Joel Silver and the studio decided it was best to part ways with him, causing Whedon to later express frustration that no one appeared to know what they wanted the movie to be thus leaving him completely in the dark. He also pointed the finger of blame toward himself, admitting he hadn’t quite written his definitive Wonder Woman script. Ultimately, his parting words on the subject likely echo what Warner Bros. and Michelle MacLaren just experienced, “We just saw different movies, and at the price range this kind of movie hangs in, that’s never gonna work. The worst thing that can happen in this scenario is that the studio just keeps hammering out changes and the writer falls into a horrible limbo of development. These guys had the clarity and grace to skip that part.”

What They Might Try With the Gal Gadot Movie

For anyone who still thinks Gal Gadot’s body type is entirely wrong for the role she pulled a Chris Pratt and posted a selfie from a workout session

Since Whedon moved on, DC has offered yet another Wonder Woman origin story, starting over in the New 52 and revealing Diana’s actually the secret daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus, making her a demigod who grew up completely unaware of her true parentage, kind of like Loki from Thor. This is another reason you can make a convincing argument Warner Bros.’ should model their Wonder Woman movie after Thor, one in which Loki is the hero and not the villain. Their animated division might agree, playing Wonder Woman for Thor-like humor in the animated film Justice League: War:

However, the truth is we don’t really know what WB’s up to with the Gal Gadot movie. They were reportedly considering a Captain America: The First Avenger approach, making a period piece prequel to Batman v Superman depicting Wonder Woman leaving Paradise Island and living among humans pretty much since women got the right to vote in America. It’s now believed that might have been MacLaren’s idea, from Variety, “MacLaren envisioned Wonder Woman as an epic origin tale in the vein of Braveheart, whereas Warner wanted a more character-driven story that was less heavy on action.”  Due to that disconnect, once the first script was turned in WB quickly put five other writers on it, deploying a dual track approach in which competing screenplays are written simultaneously. Now that Jenkins is on board WB is believed to still favor a character-driven approach, ready to test multiple actors for the part of Steve Trevor.

One assumes that the part of MacLaren’s vision which included Wonder Woman having a tiger sidekick/pet she could talk with is off the table though (before you snicker, just know that at one point in the comics Wonder Woman could talk to animals, although now you can snicker about that if you want).

I believe their model should be Thor, but Forbes’ Scott Mendelson begs to differ, “Don’t just make a glorified ‘Thor with breasts’ action adventure film. Make a Wonder Woman movie that could arguably only be made by a female filmmaker, with a story that would only make sense when applied to a female superhero, with ideas about ideologies that explicitly deal with what it’s like to be a woman in America in 2017. And just as importantly, make Gal Gadot into the biggest, boldest, grandest female superhero Hollywood has ever seen on the big screen. Wonder Woman, with the most famous and most iconic female superhero in modern literature, offers the chance to give the young women (and young men) something truly super-heroic to aspire to. Princess Diana, as a fiercely feminist and unapologetically female warrior with true superpowers and a desire to jump headlong into the fire to pull us out, would truly be something special come June 23rd 2017.”

Patty Jenkins

That all sounds fantastic. Making it a reality, though, well, not even Joss Whedon could pull that off. Now it’s Patty Jenkins’ turn.

Sources: Wonder Woman Unbound by Tim Hanley, Joss Whedon: The Biography by Amy Pascale (all of the Whedon quotes came from here), WhatCulture, Forbes, Variety


  1. Honestly, I don’t think that adapting her is really that much more difficult than any other Superhero. I think most writers just struggle with the concept that she constantly rescues guys as if they are damsels in distress (which was always the most fun about the old TV-Series).
    In the end, it is easy. Batman is about justice. Superman is about hope. And Wonder Woman is about truth. So they should built a movie around her searching for the truth in one way or another.
    And yes, her rogue gallery needs some work, but the good thing is that most of them are not known at all. A good writer can come up with more or less everything for them and make them interesting.

    1. And I would disagree. If Joss Whedon could spend literal years admittedly struggling to make something work for Wonder Woman, delivering quotes about how much easier it would be to write for Batman, then I tend to believe that there is something extra tough about her. Just like Superman, she is too powerful and otherworld to be relatable, but unlike superman she does not have a set origin story nor does she even really have her own lex luthor, zod, or braniac villain. Also unlike Superman or Batman she does not have a single comic book arc which is an obvious choice for adaptation, other than maybe her new 52 origin. All of the Christopher Nolan batman movies liberally borrow from iconic graphic novels, and man of Steel is ostensibly an original story even though it actually has a lot in common with several superman comics. Most of the Marvel movies are adapted from graphic novels. Even though they are remarkably loose adaptations, having something to go off of at least gives the writer’s some kind of framework to follow. You do not have that with wonder woman. So, like Joss Whedon said with Wonder Woman the challenge is to mostly create something from whole cloth and pretend that you are not. The fact that batman v superman will reportedly introduce as is ala the 89 Batman both helps and complicates the situation. You can go forward assuming audience familiarity with her, yet now you don’t get to start from the beginning with her unless you do a prequel, which is apparently what MacLaren wanted but the studio did not. On top of all that, you do have to make sure audiences will be able to buy her as the butt kicking lead instead of the Token Female in the action adventure team up, and you have the pressure of not wanting to disappoint those who have adored wonder woman has a feminist symbol for decades. And now there is the extra pressure that the solo movie will be the first film of its scale directed by a woman.

      But before batman begins I know I had never heard of the man who falls or the character Henri ducard. That generally obscure comic inspired Nolan and Goyer, and they took a lot of it and mixed it with Batman Year one. Some equally obscure comic could give us a killer wonder woman story. Eve if not, if Marvel could pull off thor then WB should be able to pull off wonder woman, even if they go with more of an original story the way man of Steel claimed to. And you are right that you can take as a driving force that whereas superman is about hope wonder woman is about truth. Still, I think she presents more of a challenge than any of the superheroes we have seen on film and or tv recently, and all of that before I even mentioned her lasso of truth, bullet deflecting bracelets, revealing costume or invisible plane.

      1. I love Whedon and I love how much he cares about female characters, but he also has a tendency to write certain types of woman and I don’t think that Wonder Woman is a good fit for his usual ideas. The “whole cloth” thing is for example true for Black Widow, too, but he pulled it off because the character fits way better into what he normally writes.

        I give you the lack of story-arcs but that, like most of you other points, are the result of the neglect Wonder Woman got for ages. Batman and Superman are bother better known because they got adaptations. Batman’s original story is actually fairly simple, but due to the popularity of the character it was expanded on over the years. And a lot of stories which get adapted for the screen were actually either problematic or not particular popular, but they nevertheless served as inspiration for something better.

        I see the pressure, too, but again, the pressure built up because DC didn’t care about the character. Sure, it is kind of intimidating to write an “icon”, but that’s a little bit like complaining that you have to start at the top instead of having to make a fairly unknown character popular. Wonder Woman already is popular.

    1. The industry hub-bub is that MacLaren was trying to turn this into an action epic, which made the studio suits nervous because they had hired her thinking the movie would be more character-based in the manner of some of her TV directing. Variety said the suits worried if she could handle the budget she was going even though she had no experience with anything on that scale, which caused many on the internet to point to all of the white male directors who’ve been afforded such patience.

      It stinks that MacLaren is not involved anymore, but the Joss Whedon of 2007/08 (when he walked from Wonder Woman) is right – If the talent and the money people have different movies in mind it is best to part ways as soon as possible because that type of marriage can only resulted in a very compromised and distressed product.

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