Wonder Woman’s Cultural Background
For all the complaints about how Superman is hard to write because he’s so powerful, in his heart, he’s one of us. Biologically he might be an alien, but emotionally he’s human. His background is all-American and he thinks and reacts with the perspective of a normal person, mostly. Batman: same thing in a way. He was raised rich, but he’s still long been a member of our society.
Wonder Woman – not so much. First, she spent from birth to age 20ish on a island made up solely of women – and immortal women at that. There’s no interaction with men, and in most versions of the story, those women have serious reasons to want to avoid “Man’s World.” So how do you write that perspective when she comes to our side of civilization?
Wonder Woman’s background makes it hard to get inside her head because she’s made up of so many contradictions. I can imagine a writer trying to get a foothold and figuring, “Okay, she’s a complete stranger to our world. Everything is curious and new to her. She’s also the only one of her kind not to have seen a man or to be betrayed by a man. Not only has she never been around a man, but she’s never really been around people her age. So let’s run with that and treat her like The Little Mermaid.”
Which, okay, is a valid take and lends itself to the pure-of-heart, wholesome personality that people remember from Lynda Carter.
And then the other side of the writer’s brain that says, “She’s supposed to be the latest in line of the most badass female warriors ever! She should be like Red Sonja and Xena put together. She should have more of a warrior’s heart than either Batman or Superman.”
And so the writer either tries to split the difference, or takes one over the other. And of course, the problem is that the characterization of the latter isn’t at all what the general audience associates with Wonder Woman. Like I said, Lynda Carter casts a long shadow, and that’s compounded by the problem that – unlike Superman and Batman – there’s not been a universally consistent take on Wonder Woman throughout her existence.
Superman and Batman have evolved over the years, but there’s always been a strong “back to basics” concept to retreat to. Batman might have weathered the Adam West era, but almost immediately after the show ended, the comics reverted to grounded maturity. Even then, twenty years later people were still shocked that Burton’s Batman was so much darker than the TV show, even though it was far closer to the way Batman had been portrayed for most of his existence.
With Wonder Woman, every writer who comes onto the book feels the need to throw out what’s come before and start over. (Take a look at some of the weird stuff she was put through in the 60s and 70s, then note how her supporting cast and setting got purged with every writer subsequent to George Perez.) And yeah, maybe some of that is that you’re dealing with male writers writing female characters, but it’s a problem that doesn’t crop up as often with other female characters.
More than any other hero, Wonder Woman’s background invites a lot of speculation about her sexuality. It’s the big elephant in the room and one wonders, is she asexual? Lesbian? Is she sexually attracted to the men she sees in Man’s World? If she’s never seen a man, does that mean we write her like she’s sexually naive or is she like a kid going through puberty? In an all-ages cartoon, you can skirt this easily. But since the current trend is to try to make these heroes “real,” it’s one of the first questions that arises once you start digging into Diana’s psyche.
And that’s not even getting into the bondage and domination subtext. If you were to go back and rewrite some aspects of the 40s comics in a more “mature” style, you’d easily come up with a lot of raw material for a fetish film. She’s got a magic lasso that enslaves anyone she ensnares (and Wonder Woman ended up tied up in it a lot). It’s a subtext that’s deep in the DNA of the earliest Wonder Woman stories. It wasn’t until writer/artist George Perez’s post-Crisis relaunch that a lot of that was removed for good. He also brought a more mythic bent. Which may be another problem.
In a perfect world, Perez’s concepts would be what they’d base the feature film on… but there’s a problem with that. See, by taking a more mythological influence, it pulls it away from being a traditional “superhero” movie. Thor faced a similar challenge. Marvel somehow had to make this Norse god fit into the same universe as the much more-grounded Tony Stark. When I saw Iron Man, I doubted Marvel could pull it off, and after I saw Thor, I was incredibly skeptical of how that universe could co-exist in Iron Man’s without ruining it. (This is probably the part where I should disclose that if not for Chris Hemsworth’s fantastic performance as Thor, that movie would be my least favorite of the Marvel films by a pretty big margin. I thought all the material in Asgard was somewhat corny and silly in look and execution.)
Obviously a Wonder Woman film will be developed so that the character can fit into the same world as Man of Steel and the eventual Justice League movie. This is why bringing Greek mythos into a world founded in a more science-fiction style could be tricky.
It’s notable that when The Avengers brought Thor in to co-exist with Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America, it eased that merging by telling Thor’s story entirely from the Earthbound protagonist’s perspective. There’s not a single frame of the film that takes place in Asgard, which goes a long way to making this team-up story work without undermining the grounded feel of the Iron Man standalones. It’s also possible that the filmmakers decided that it was ambitious enough to introduce an alien armada into these mythoi.
Putting that side-by-side with the Norse mythology could have gotten very close to double mumbo-jumbo.
Taking all of this into account, I would hope that Warners takes a good hard look at the Wonder Woman DTV animated movie released a few years ago. It’s probably the best possible version of Wonder Woman that could be adapted to the screen… and unfortunately it was one of the lower-selling DTV releases DC Entertainment put out. That doesn’t bode well for the success of a feature film that follows along the same lines, and thus, I fear that if Wonder Woman ever does make it to the big screen, there’ll be a lot of compromises in making the square peg fit into the round hole.
Beyond that, I’d also urge the screenwriters to check out John Carter and note the characterization of Dejah Thorris. She’s a strong warrior, a brilliant scientist, and also able to be vulnerable without seeming weak. She’s invested with a lot of integrity and is ready to make a lot of personal sacrifices in the name of the greater good.
At WB, anyone with a lick of sense should be thinking, “YES! That’s the take on Wonder Woman we’ve been looking for all this time!”
The Bitter Script Reader (@BittrScrptReadr) has spent many years – “perhaps too many,” he says – working in development and as a reader at production companies and agencies. For over three years, he’s blogged regularly about the missteps he’s seen writers both young and professional make, and implored his audience to avoid those same writing pitfalls. You can find him at his blog and check out his videos on his YouTube Channel.