With critics raving about the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, now’s the perfect time to revisit the first (and worst) movie adaptation.
With the Wonder Woman embargo lifting late last night, the internet is now flooded with early reviews for DC’s latest superhero film. We curated our own collection of critical responses this morning; while they acknowledge that the film isn’t perfect – what film is? – they are overwhelmingly positive in both the quality of the film and the direction of the character. And this newfound positivism seems like as good a time as any to look back at the character’s first foray into the film world, the 1974 made-for-TV film adaptation of Wonder Woman. If you want to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been, and we’ve been to some dark, dark places, friends.
The years leading up to ABC’s Wonder Woman movie had seen a lot of changes for the Amazonian princess. In 1969, at the behest of writer Dennis O’Neil and illustrator Mike Sekowsky, the character had been completely overhauled in an attempt to connect with a new generation of female fans. Gone was the golden lasso, crown, and brightly patriotic uniform; in its place was a “modern” ‘70s woman lifted directly from the page of the popular Avengers television series. “What they were doing in Wonder Woman, I didn’t see how a kid, male or female, could relate to it,” Sekowsky would later admit. “It was so far removed from their world. I felt girls might want to read about a super female in the real world, something very current.” And so a new Wonder Woman was born, one without superpowers but who served as a secret agent for the American government.
For a full history of Wonder Woman in the seventies, check out this great ComicsAlliance piece on DC’s misguided reboot of the character.
And it is this version of the character that found its way into ABC’s Tuesday Movie of the Week on March 13, 1974. Starring former professional tennis player Cathy Lee Crosby, Wonder Woman follows Diana – or Dee, as her male colleagues infuriatingly refer to her as – as she embarks upon an undercover agency to recover the stolen names of American undercover agents. This quest takes her to France, where she faces off against George (Andrew Prine), his boss Abner Smith (a delightfully smarmy Ricardo Montalban), and their identically dressed twin assassins. Wonder Woman has plenty of globe-trotting, sex jokes, and even culminates in a fight scene between Diana and her Amazonian sister who has deserted her culture in search of (groan) nice jewelry. Oh, and there’s a chase scene involving a donkey and a prolonged escape sequence where Montalban’s character tubes down the Colorado River. Yeah, you read that right.
There are some nods to the character’s classic comic book history. We first meet Diana preparing to leave Themyscira and head into the world of man; as she says goodbye to her sisters, her mother reminds her that she is to adhere to the principles of “justice and right” that have driven their culture for so long (never mind that she also tells Diana to hold onto her “sensitivity” that is also the “real strength” of her family). This Diana does also work alongside Steve Trevor – albeit as his undercover secretary, because of course – and wear the ’70s take on the Bracelets of Submission. For those of you looking to tick off the big features, Wonder Woman even jokes with Montalban’s villain about her invisible jet. If the film gets anything right, it is Montalban and his proto-“M’Lady” international thief.
But whatever was special about the character of Wonder Woman is buried beneath a staggering pile of television spy tropes. “From what I understand,” Crosby told CBM back in 2012, “Warner Bros. wanted to do it more James Bond and ABC wanted to do it more comic book. So I guess it went halfway down the middle.” The Bracelets of Submission? A high-tech tracking device that Diana uses to chase her suspects around. The Lasso of Truth? A rope that uncoils from Diana’s belt.
There are crosses and double-crosses and overly elaborate torture sequences – one involves releasing a snake on Diana in her hotel room – and more sexual innuendo and faux-feminism conversations than you could ever imagine in a comic book adaptation. Oh, and the character’s star-spangled jumpsuit seems directly lifted from the closet of Evil Knievel, so of course, she rides a motorcycle around the Grand Canyon. Gotta find something for every demographic.
The disappointing nature of the film was not at all lost on contemporary audiences; critics were all-too-ready to tear Wonder Woman to shreds. “I feel strongly about the disgraceful thing ABC did to Wonder Woman,” the Newsday critic wrote in a review peppered with insults, “because she is part of my literary heritage of the 1940s and because of my sympathy for the women’s lib demands for equal time in the 1970s.” Mary Murphy of the Los Angeles Times was no less scathing in her review but also hit upon a sad – and oh-so-familiar – truth of the stakes of the female-driven superhero film. “Male television executives say audiences don’t like to see women in life-or-death situations,” Murphy wrote, “And if Wonder Woman does not do well, they’ll probably blame its failures on this myth and scrap the whole idea.”
Her prognosis was only half-wrong. While ABC decided not to move forward with Crosby’s Wonder Woman as a television or film series, it did give the green light to Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman only a year later, a version of the character more in line with her Golden Age origins. As such, the 1974 Wonder Woman remains more of a superhero curiosity than a strong film, finally being released on home video by the Warner Bros. Archive Collection in 2012. Fans of Dee – sorry, Diana Prince – might be interested to see how far off the rails the studio once allowed this character to get, and devotees of spy series like The Avengers and Mission: Impossible might find some fun in the woefully outdated storyline and character work. The rest of us, though? This article might be all the exposure to Wonder Woman that you actually need.
Wonder Woman TV Movie Pilot (1974)
Before Lynda Carter took the heroine back to World War II for her “New, Original” incarnation, statuesque Tennis Pro turned performer Cathy Lee Crosby swung the magic lasso in a very different TV incarnation. As developed by scribe John D.F. Black (Star Trek, Shaft), and seemingly i…