After the more than decade-long boom of comic book superhero-based films, during which the release of several such movies a year has been routine; most of the best known superheroes have reached the big screen in one form or another (Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, Spiderman, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, etc.); some of these have already been rebooted (like the Hulk and Spiderman); and many much less recognized characters have received similar treatment (like the Ghost Rider and Jonah Hex); it has become routine for genre-watchers to wonder aloud about why those still as-yet unfilmed household names remain that way. And it seems that Wonder Woman is the subject of more of this kind of talk than any of the others.
On the face of it, the fact that not only has a Wonder Woman movie not been made, but that a green light for one remains a distant prospect, seems quite surprising. Nonetheless, it takes only a little consideration of the issue to come up with three not insignificant obstacles in the way of such a film.
DC Comics' Big Screen Track Record
It is a common observation that where film is concerned, Marvel's properties have gone from strength to strength, culminating in the recent success of The Avengers, while DC has typically disappointed. In fairness, Marvel too has had its letdowns (like 2003's Hulk), and DC its successes (Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy arguably the biggest all-around success story of the past decade among superhero films). However, there is no disputing that overall Marvel has done far better, several of its better-known characters turned into successful, long-running franchises (the X-Men, Spiderman, Iron Man), with many others doing well enough to get at least one sequel (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider) – a track record which has made the studios bullish enough about Marvel properties to be relatively aggressive about rebooting the disappointments (like the Hulk and Punisher), as well as successes which appeared to have run their course (as with the X-Men and Spiderman). By contrast, the disappointments make up a much larger portion of DC's smaller total number of efforts, and include not just some of the most notorious flops of the past decade (like 2004's Catwoman), but many of its highest-profile figures (Superman, the Green Lantern). Unsurprisingly, most of the Justice League (including core members like the Flash and Aquaman) has yet to appear in even a single feature film. In this regard, Wonder Woman has been the norm, not the exception.
The Artistic Challenges of Adaptation: Plausibility, Relatability, Quality
The superhero films that have done best in recent years have tended to be relatively grounded efforts rather than over-the-top in tone, let alone broad and jokey – Nolan's Batman films rather than Green Lantern or The Fantastic Four, for instance.1 A related aspect of this is that superheroes with a basis in even the most dubious of pseudo-science have had an easier time at the box office than their magic- and myth-based counterparts. All of this works to the disadvantage of a character like Wonder Woman, with her Themysciran roots and the involvement of Olympian deities and other figures out of Classical myth in the stories; her invisible plane and bracelets of victory and truth-extracting rope; and of course, her famous costume.2
The difficulty of "selling" a Wonder Woman movie, big enough given the aforementioned basics of the concept, may be compounded by the fact that the character is "above us and different from us" and so difficult to make relatable to audiences. Of course, one could say the same of Superman, but the difficulty may be greater in her case: even if Superman is from Krypton, he was raised in Smallville, Kansas, and has made a home for himself in the quasi-New York of Metropolis, connecting him to the everyday world in a way which has no counterpart in Wonder Woman's backstory.
On top of all this, many a critic of the franchise notes that the material is simply weak in crucial respects, a post at Topless Robot, for instance, pointing to such things as its cast of its supporting characters. The series has no iconic villains, which have typically been a key ingredient in successful superhero franchises. (Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman the Joker, and Wonder Woman – the Cheetah?)3 Wonder Woman's friends have similarly failed to capture the public's imagination. (Superman has Lois Lane – while Wonder Woman has Steve Tyler, who seems to have about as many fans as the Cheetah does.)
All of this leaves would-be screenwriters that much more torn between using the material furnished by the comics (as those actually looking forward to a Wonder Woman film would wish, at least in theory), and being forced to create new material from scratch to make the concept more credible to a general audience, enlarging the distance between page and screen and rendering the project that much more risky.
Gender Politics – and Economics
Substantial as the aforementioned obstacles are, the aspect of such a project that has drawn the most attention has, all too predictably, been gender politics, and it seems pointless to deny that this is an issue here (even if it is equally erroneous to discuss it to the exclusion of all else, as many in the blogosphere seem prone to do). During the last decade Hollywood put an unprecedented number of female action heroes on screen, but it is worth remembering that after the failure of the sequels to Lara Croft and Charlie's Angels in the summer of 2003, studios have been much more inhibited about centering first-string blockbusters on female protagonists.4 When not part of a larger ensemble of characters, they more typically play the lead in somewhat lower-budgeted, less commercially ambitious films (like those of the Resident Evil or Underworld series', or even The Hunger Games).5 The tendency has naturally been reflected in the films of the especially costly superhero genre. The last big summer release centered on a major female comic book character was 2004's Catwoman, a notorious flop which cast a pall over other such attempts, with Elektra (2005) and Sucker Punch (2011) not much more encouraging.
The barest overview of the debate over why this is the case (the demographics of the audience for this type of film, the conflicts between the stuff of popular entertainment and political correctness, etc.) would require a piece much longer than the format of this post can accommodate, but that this is the case seems nearly indisputable, and that does make the prospect of a $150 million-plus movie about a comic book superheroine a longshot. The problem is in this case compounded by the heroine's iconic status among quite different groups for quite different reasons, and the character's well-known idiosyncracies (the famous outfit, the implications of her coming from an Amazon culture, the questions about her sexuality), all of which may seem to guarantee that the results of any plausible effort will alienate groups the studio cares about, and perhaps please no one who does matter to it.
The poor reaction to the unaired David E. Kelley pilot for a new Wonder Woman TV series has only proven the point.
Any one of these factors might have been problematic in themselves, but the combination of them – which confronts a would-be producer with the decision to shoot a really big-budget film about the over-the-top adventures of a DC Comics-based superheroine carrying heavy artistic and political baggage – actually makes it seem little wonder that Wonder Woman has yet to grace the big screen. Indeed, it actually seems to me that a Wonder Woman film may not actually be the best way to launch such a franchise, but rather that long-beleaguered Justice League film, which would naturally include Wonder Woman (who, being one member of the group, would not make or break the film herself). If the portrayal ends up being well-received, it would be a logical springboard for a Wonder Woman film (and for that matter, films about other neglected members of DC's pantheon). This is, of course, the opposite of the approach Marvel took successfully with The Avengers, to which it built by establishing multiple franchises first, but given the way these efforts have gone for DC so far this approach looks to me a lot safer and more plausible - at least, assuming that we have not all had our fill of superhero-based films by the time a film like that can be put together.
1. The Avengers may seem an exception, but it remains to be seen that this will actually mean a new trend in superhero-themed films. Indeed, director Joss Whedon already seems intent on going in a different direction with this very franchise.
2. Megan Fox, as usual too frank for the health of her career, dismissed the character as "lame" when the rumors of her being considered for this role came up in an interview. Much as her remarks have been criticized, this does seem rather a common sentiment.
3. Of course, the first two Iron Man films were resounding successes despite their lack of such villains, but again this seems an exception.
4. Those failures were, for instance, a factor in the decision to terminate the project to spin off a Jinx film series from the Bond film Die Another Day.
5. The Hunger Games did go on to become a $400 million hit at the U.S. box office, but as an $80 million budgeted March release it did represent a comparatively limited investment.
My Posts on Superheroes