Wonder Woman needs another chance.
Following any Wonder Woman project isn't unlike reading some gossip rag about producers and directors dealing with a talented, but demanding actress. "Challenging" is the reason filmmakers give when Wonder Woman projects fail. "We are still trying right now, but she's tricky," is a DC Comics executive Diane Nelson's explanation of why the company hasn't moved forward with a film. In a self-perpetuating cycle, studios constantly wonder if enough people will buy tickets to a Wonder Woman movie, or if she has enough star power to anchor a film on her own. Inevitably, the first question journalists usually ask hopeful producers is why they'd ever take on such a "hefty" project.
"She's always on trial. It's like, why isn't she good enough, why doesn't [the comic] sell enough, why isn't she representative of this or this or this?" Grant Morrison, comic legend and the author of an upcoming Wonder Woman graphic novel, told The Guardian. And that's why he's centering his 120-page graphic novel on that idea—a clever, meta-take on our preoccupation with why Wonder Woman can seemingly never catch a break. "And so I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to just base the story on an actual trial—have the Amazons put her on trial, and tell the origins story via that," Morrison said.
Morrison's graphic novel seems more promising than most recent Wonder Woman projects — for example, the panned 2011 television pilot by David E. Kelley or the 2007 feature film by Avengers director Joss Whedon. It just might be the break Wonder Woman needs. (It is not clear yet when the graphic novel will be released.)
The real question is why this is happening to Wonder Woman. Part of the reason may be that comic books remain a sexist industry dominated by older white men. As DC's most iconic feminist, Wonder Woman is an outlier, and not always a beloved one.
"She [Wonder Woman] stands as an unapologetically feminist super heroine in an industry that often relegates women to sidekicks, damsels, and girlfriends," Shoshana Kessock writes for Tor.com.
Wonder Woman did not need a man to succeed. She isn't like Hawkgirl, Batgirl, or Zatanna—she wasn't brought in as a daughter or sidekick to a main character. "And while many things about the character have changed since her reinvention in 1987...her foundation as a powerful female character with staunchly feminist views has not changed," Kessock adds.
And therein lies the difficulty for writers.
Because Wonder Woman is an indelible icon of feminism, writers are more reluctant to experiment with her. It's easier to write a more ambivalent, ambiguous character like Batman, whose only real imperative is to fight crime in Gotham. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, stands for so much—feminism, strength, hope, humanity, etc.— and there's a pressure for her to live up to these expectations at every turn. "Why isn't she representative of this or this or this?" Morrison complained, mimicking potential critics. And Kessock points out, "Nobody wants to be the one to do the film incorrectly—whatever that means—and present the studio with a flop starring one of its major characters."
Morrison — the man who reignited the fiercely catty, feminist, twisty character of Emma Frost — is taking a refreshing approach to Wonder Woman by surrounding her with other female characters.
I wanted to get in as many relationships between women as possible – there's Wonder Woman and her teacher, Wonder Woman and her mother, Wonder Woman and the girl she kind of fancies at school. I wanted lots of different female relationships to show that there's not just one type of woman and she's not representative of all women.
That's promising. But the other big concern with Wonder Woman is explaining her wacky creation myth. Some people don't even know what her origins may be. As Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter, "She doesn't have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes."
"And the bondage/feminism problem is only the beginning of the character’s idiosyncrasies," wrote Wired's Noah Berlatsky. "Wonder Woman is explicitly supposed to be bringing peace — but she comes from an Amazon warrior culture and spends most of her time fighting,"
I don't really buy these arguments. Superman is just as idiosyncratic (underwear on the outside) and inconsistent (for someone who is genuinely good, he gets into a lot of fights, too) as Wonder Woman. And as for being afraid of screwing up a comic book legend? There was no such concern with that horrific run of Batman movies that included Alicia Silverstone and bat nipples. Well, but what about people buying tickets? Recall that Wonder Woman is continually voted as one of the most iconic characters of all time. Buy tickets they will.
But I do believe this: a big reason we aren't getting the Wonder Woman film we deserve is because powerful studio execs, producers, and writers are scared.
We shouldn't forget that part of Wonder Woman's appeal is her uncanniness. "I’m glad the character is tricky enough that studio execs can’t quite figure out how to ruin her for a mass audience. May she foil all such attempts to bind and/or unbind her," Berlatsky wrote. In order to show that quality, writers, directors and producers just have to be brave—as brave as Wonder Woman herself.