Back to entry: wonder_woman_filmtv | Show links blue

Wonder Woman Film/TV

Only thirty years after its introduction in 1942 did the first media adaptations of Wonder Woman appear with three successive, variously named US tv series (1974-1979) and their pilot films, all technically based on the Comic book created by William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) for DC Comics. The complex Television production history falls into three parts, being sections 1 to 3 below.

1. Wonder Woman. US tv film (1974). ABC/Warner. Produced by John G Stephens. Executive producer, story developer and writer John D F Black. Directed by Vincent McEveety. Cast includes Cathy Lee Crosby, Anitra Ford, Kaz Garas, Ricardo Montalban and Andrew Prine.75 minutes. Colour.

Unsuccessful ABC series pilot. Sent from an all-woman Island community of Immortals to persuade the outside world that it should recognize women's sensitivity over the crassness of men, Wonder Woman (Crosby) becomes secretary to Trevor (Garas) – who knows much of her secret – at the US War Department, taking the name Diana Prince. She recovers forbidden lists of spies from international arch-crook Abner Smith (Montalban), who had stolen some state secrets, and his psychopathic sidekick George Calvin (Prine). The plot is complicated by Ahnjayla (Ford), another woman from the island, who has come into our world intent on crime. The fantasy elements in this cheaply made movie almost always occur off-screen. Though Wonder Woman has some Superpowers (she had lost them by this point in the comic, which had become increasingly stifling and misogynist), these powers are restricted to keen vision and supernatural strength; her skill in martial arts is entirely mundane. The black-haired woman of the comic has been transmogrified into a blonde (!) icon of female frailty; her relative weakness and secretarial role numbingly reflect the corrosive sexism of the time (see Feminism; Women in SF). Aside from the fantasy premise, Wonder Woman is barely distinguishable from other trendy spy/crime capers of the time. [JGr/JC]

2. The New, Original Wonder Woman. US tv film (1975). Bruce Lansbury Productions/Douglas S Cramer Company/Warner Bros/ABC. Produced by Douglas S Cramer. Directed by Leonard J Horn. Written by Stanley Ralph Ross. Cast includes Lynda Carter, Cloris Leachman, John Randolph, Stella Stevens and Lyle Waggoner. 90 minutes. Colour.

This second pilot movie based on Wonder Woman – the first was 1 above – returns to the original World War Two setting and look of the early DC Comics books. While flying over the Bermuda Triangle, American pilot Steve Trevor (Waggoner) is forced to bail out over supposedly empty ocean. Luckily, he lands on the uncharted Paradise Island, the hidden Island home of the Lost Race of Amazons, whose Queen (Leachman) holds a contest to find a warrior to return with him to fight the Nazis. The winner is Princess Diana (Carter), who as the Queen's daughter is forbidden to compete, so wears a mask and reveals herself only after winning. She takes the identity of Diana Prince, an aide to Trevor, and together they battle to stop a deadly Nazi plot.

This movie was far more successful than its predecessor, due largely to the casting of Lynda Carter in the lead role, possibly because her relatively skimpy costume helped draw the desired male audience. One of the more memorable effects was the transformation from Diana Prince to Wonder Woman – a rapid spinning, so fast that she blurred, which returned the Amazon warrior to her true Identity. The story continued the following year in the series The Adventures of Wonder Woman. [BC]

3. Wonder Woman. US tv series (1976-1979; vt The New Adventures of Wonder Woman). Douglas S Cramer Company/Bruce Lansbury Productions/Warner Bros/ABC, CBS. Produced by Wilfred Lloyd Baumes, Charles B Fitzsimons, Mark Rodgers; supervising produced Bruce Lansbury; executive producers Baumes, Douglas S Cramer; directed by Jack Arnold, Bruce Bilson, Michael Caffey, Barry Crane, Leonard J Horn and many others. Writers: Alan Brennert and many others. Cast includes Lynda Carter, Carolyn Jones, Ed Begley Jr (Harold Farnum), Cloris Leachman, Beatrice Straight, Lyle Waggoner and Debra Winger. 59 60-minute episodes. Colour.

The series began by continuing the successful formula of the second pilot movie – 2 above – and is initially set during World War Two. The Queen is played variously by Carolyn Jones, Cloris Leachman and Beatrice Straight. Most of the early plots centre on battles against the Nazis – who in one episode create their own Wonder Woman – and against saboteurs and spies. Following thirteen episodes on ABC, the series moved to CBS, where it was re-titled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. With the change of networks, the setting became the present. The new story begins with Steve Trevor's son, Steve Jr (both conveniently played by Waggoner), crashlanding on Paradise Island. Wonder Woman had returned there after the war, but Steve brings her back to fight a new set of Villains.

Once again Wonder Woman (Carter), bringing with her a golden belt (for strength) and a golden lariat allowing her control over those she lassoes, adopts the disguise of Diana Prince. Both she and Steve work as agents of IADC, the Inter-Agency Defense Council, fighting a wide variety of problems. Several stories deal with mind-enslaving Aliens; others feature a Telekinetic Japanese soldier who does not know the war is over, political blackmailers, a Mad Scientist who can create volcanoes, and a Time Traveller taking advantage of Wonder Woman's knowledge of the past. Perhaps the most unusual episode finds her helping a leprechaun recover his stolen gold. When the new version appeared, the ongoing comic, which had been shifted back to the past to parallel the series, was returned to the present.

The ABC series The Adventures of Wonder Woman was perhaps the best of Wonder Woman's three television phases; its writers included Jimmy Sangster, and its directors Herb Wallerstein and Stuart Margolin. It was scheduled erratically by ABC, so never really had a chance to win an audience. The less absorbing The New Adventures of Wonder Woman from CBS was shown on a regular schedule, and became the most commercially successful phase; it was the version that was most widely circulated outside the USA. Writers included Stephen Kandel and Anne Collins. In both these phases Wonder Woman appears a figure of fantasy remote from William Moulton Marston's original conception [see Wonder Woman for details], rather resembling a busty, glitzy cheerleader. As with so much sf on Television, there was an air of camp Parody about the whole thing (rather as in the Batman series whose great success 1966-1968 set the pattern for this sort of Superhero-on-tv enterprise); it might be noted, however, that mocking female pretensions (see Feminism) from a position of power has a radically different effect than when guys spoof guys. [BC/PN]

4. Wonder Woman (2009). Warner Bros direct-to-DVD animated feature. Directed by Lauren Montgomery. Written by Gaile Simone and Michael Jelenic. Cast includes Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina and Keri Russell. 75 minutes. Colour.

This film is loosely based on the Wonder Woman continuity of the 1987 DC Comics reboot under George Pérez (1954-    ), in particular the "Gods and Mortals" story arc, leading to such Science and Sorcery bizarreness as the War god Ares (voiced by Molina) leading an army of the undead – including Wonder Woman's (Russell's) own long-deceased Amazon kin – in an assault on Washington, District of Columbia. In retaliation the US President, mistaking the origin of the threat, orders a nuclear strike on Paradise Island (now renamed Themyscira) which is narrowly averted by Steve Trevor (Fillion) in the traditional invisible jet plane. All eventually ends well.

Joss Whedon was involved in early plans for this film, but parted company with the project in 2007. The novelization is Wonder Woman (2009) by S D Perry. [DRL]

5. Wonder Woman. US film (2017). Warner Bros, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, DC Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder. Cast includes Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Ewen Bremmer, Emily Carey, Gal Gadot, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Chris Pine, Eugene Brace Rock, Said Taghmaoui, David Thewlis, Robin Wright. 2 hours 36 minutes. Colour.

To catch the zeitgeist on the wing, as for a few precious months in 2017 Wonder Woman seemed to do, is an accomplishment to be honoured, even after it has become difficult to re-experience the sense of being there at that moment of harmony when world and iconic representation dance together the light fantastic (see Fantastika) toe. To honour that moment does entail some control over the almost instantaneous half-resentful disillusion that, once the frisson of the moment has passed, commonly afflicts the briefly entranced spectator. This disaffection, which is hard to distinguish from nostalgia, should not however obscure the fact that Wonder Woman granted its briefly entranced viewers a glimpse, for an instant, of some alternate version of the Superhero tale currently so dominant in world cinema, a version whose female protagonist – here known as Diana Prince[ess] (Gadot), and never actually referred to as Wonder Woman – could be immune to the coercive misogyny of hegemonic patriarchy (see Feminism; Women in SF): indeed it was almost as though Diana's unimpacted gaze upon the superhero world had dissolved the nightmare for real out here. So the first part of the film saw women (and men) breaking into tears of relief and joy: this memory should be honoured.

More mundanely, this fifth filmic iteration of the Wonder Woman franchise gave a new lease of life to the DC Extended Universe, a Cinema/Comics/Media Landscape empire whose products had in the early twenty-first century increasingly been characterized by a toy-town suburban humourlessness, by laddish insouciance regarding the collateral damage inflicted upon hoi polloi (which is to say us) at the hands of the Superheroes whose locker-room brawling destroyed entire Cities to "save" the world, and by a manipulative ill-concealed contempt for women. The decision to allow Patty Jenkins to direct (after years in the wilderness) was clearly calculated. The slow defaulting of the tale to convention, even though Diana retains her autonomy, was also clearly deliberate. That the last half hour of action haemorrhaged into po-faced CGI wham-bamery was, perhaps, the cost to pay for the oxygenated sequences at the beginning of this long film, when Diana discovers what the god Ares (Thewlis) has been up to after Zeus failed to kill him at the dawn of things. It will be Diana's task to thwart him.

Wonder Woman begins at the Louvre in present-day Paris, where Diana has been doing research. She is handed a briefcase by an employee of Wayne Industries (see Batman) which contains a photograph of her and four companions posing together triumphantly in a shattered townscape in the middle of what viewers may immediately recognize as the Western Front, circa 1917-1918. A note from Bruce Wayne says he's interested in the tale behind the image.

This query cues an origin story. We are on the mystically fog-girdled Island of Themyscira in the Mediterranean, home of the Amazons more or less since, aeons earlier, Ares the God of War had apparently been killed by Zeus for cause. As a young child in the care of a Black nanny (the "feminism" displayed in Wonder Woman is one-issue), Diana (here played by Aspell) longs to learn martial arts from her blonde aunt Antiope (Wright), though her equally blonde mother Queen Hippolyta (Nielsen) objects for obscure reasons. Snippets of provenance are cited occasionally, serving essentially, here and elsewhere, to evoke Diana's back-story as a kind of embedded Plot Coupon [for Amazons in general and Plot Coupons see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Antiope defies her sister and begins to train the child, but Hippolyta soon discovers them. Abandoning her attempt to protect her from a daunting destiny, she decides to pre-alert Diana by telling her some more Amazon back-story. The footage that now unrolls, along with Hippolyta's explanatory voiceover, slavishly channel Galadriel's voiceover prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) directed by Peter Jackson; a main effect of this is obscurely but unmistakably to conflate Themyscira with the Shire, though to much less thematic consequence than a similar overlay at the start of Noah (2014) directed by Darren Aronofsky. With this knowledge under her belt, Diana's training continues into adolescence (she is now played by Carey); at one point, under pressure, she deflects Antiope's assault with her gauntlets. Only a divinity could do that, we are meant to reckon. By this point we have gathered that Diana's father is indeed Zeus, that she is indeed a goddess (see Gods and Demons), that Ares is indeed a very close relative, and that the true "God Killer", a Weapon that is supposed to be fatal to the God of War, is not a sword (see Sword and Sorcery) but Herself.

The main narrative now begins. How much time has passed we do not know, but we do reckon by now that Diana is Immortal. Out in the world, it is 1918. Diana witnesses Allied spy Steve Trevor (Pine) crash his plane into the sea, and sink. She dives off the cliff and saves him (at least one alternate take reveals her naked from the waist up, which might have been intended to show her obliterating indifference to questions of female modesty, as well as her pragmatic refusal to be weighed down underwater by an unwieldy costume; but luckily it seems to have been decided that sight of a bare-breasted Diana, regardless of any threat to the film's 12A certificate, would have justly been seen, in the context of this film, as a pyrrhic exercise in catering to the male gaze, and the take was not used). They get to shore, and she stares interestedly at her first man. The mists surrounding Themyscira then momentarily dissipate, revealing a small flotilla of pursuing Germans. The Amazons gather to resist the foe. Their archaic weapons defeat twentieth-century firepower, though Antiope is fatally wounded protecting Diana (who is manifestly indestructible: an extradiegetic suggestion for Antiope's sacrifice would be that Robin Wright had other commitments). Under interrogation, Steve is forced by the Amazonian Lasso of Truth to reveal his mission. General Erich Ludendorff (Huston) is planning to use the poison gas Dr Isabel Maru (Anaya) is developing to destroy the Western Front and win the war. Steve has in his possession a notebook by Maru describing her progress with the gas. The notebook must reach London. Assuming that Ludendorff must be Ares in disguise, Diana insists on accompanying Steve (or, as it begins to seem, allowing Steve to accompany her). She says farewell to her sisters, embarks on a tiny boat with Steve, discusses Sex with him derisively (males may be necessary for procreation, but women give more pleasure), and they arrive overnight (magically) in the Port of London.

London is multi-ethnic, gaslit, very crowded. Diana is semi-comically persuaded to dress a bit like a female of the time, which does not prevent her from disposing of a gang of German spies who have assaulted them. She accompanies Steve to the War Office, where she shocks the senescent Allied general staff which is about to send more thousands of young men off to be slaughtered. Though initially he seems alarmed by her presence, she is treated with circumspect courtesy by Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis), a senior civilian figure who is attempting to arrange an armistice. Knowing they must return to the Front, Steve and Diana assemble a comically dysfunctional array of companions [for Seven Samurai see the Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], with funds supplied by Sir Patrick. They reach the Front, near the small Belgian town of Veld, which Diana saves from the Germans. There is much celebration by the poor inhabitants (as they include women in traditional garb carrying babies, we fear, rightly, that the people of Veld are doomed, in the world to which the DC Extended Universe is adherent, eventually to serve as Red Shirts). A photographer captures Diana, Steve, and the Samurai: this is the photograph Bruce Wayne had sent Diana Prince at the beginning of the film. After being photographed, Diana and Steve go to a hotel room and have sex.

The German High Command is situated in ominous proximity to Veld. A gala party is being held. Steve and Diana, in disguise, attend. She extracts from General Ludendorff the information that Dr Maru's poison gas has now been perfected, and that Veld is about to be destroyed as a test; and then the whole of the Western Front will be targeted. Veld is duly devastated. Redshirts die as they must. Diana has not been in time to save anyone. She is sure that Ludendorff, who now appears in his full regalia, is Ares in disguise. At this point, heroic fantasy and a fragilely extravagant Alternate History begin to mingle juices. Wonder Woman (as in previous comic versions of the franchise) replaces the historical General Ludendorff (1865-1937), second in command of the German armies at the end of the war, and eventually a supporter of Hitler, with its own version, a Villain and Monster on strength-enhancing drugs who soon loses his inevitable fight with the undefeatable Diana.

But if Wonder Woman had been designed to maintain consistently its initial street-cred about Diana's toughness and obliterating immunity to male expectations, it was perhaps unwise to reveal here – at the climactic moment when she raises the sword God Killer above her head and plunges it into Ludendorff's bosom – that her armpits have been shaved, or subjected to CGI obnubilation, in order not to frighten the horses.

In any case, the war has not in fact ended with Ludendorff's demise at the hands of the propriety-conscious goddess, and Diana realizes that he could not have been Ares. Suddenly Sir Patrick Morgan appears, as if by magic, and she realizes the truth: he is Ares. Very quickly we realize that Sir Patrick's gentlemanly demeanour has all along masked his true, dangerously articulate, Loki-like nature, and that his plan to arrange an armistice between the two sides must be a devilish ploy. Confirming our realization, Sir Patrick now scathingly and at some length suggests that humanity, having had a dire effect upon the planet with no likelihood it will cease its unrelenting mayhem, merits destruction. He of course fools no one. Moreover, by virtue of this tirade – as Wonder Woman is an American superhero film made in the twenty-first century, and in a film of this breed excessive articulacy is a normally infallible tell that a villain about to die – we know he is doomed. Or should be. But the Sir Patrick version of the God of War, who has a god-like ability to dodge any weapon, seems immune to Diana's attempts to attack him, creating a fraught impasse. This chill gentlemanly immunity – evocative at points of Sir Ralph Richardson's version of God in Time Bandits (1981) directed by Terry Gilliam – is of course far more terrifying than a lightning bolt; and in a better cinematic world, Wonder Woman could almost have stopped at this point, with the rest of the twentieth century at stake, in a Slingshot Ending.

But no DC Extended Universe movie can end in genuine terror. Suddenly impatient, Sir Patrick invests himself in comic-book armour, complete with flashing speedlines and a devilish mask through which the superb Thewlis peers disconsolately, plus lightning bolts. He now as well seems to forget or to forego his capacity to be anywhere at once. The end is foreordained. After they bang about the ruins of Europe for a space, Diana affectlessly terminates the armour-bound god, using her God Killer self (which is to say her gauntlets) to hurl back some fatal CGI pyrotechnics at her doomed half-brother. In the meantime, Steve has sacrificed himself in order to destroy a great plane carrying poison gas toward the Fronts. Dawn comes suddenly, like Christmas in the Trenches. Everyone has been miraculously saved, but nothing has been resolved. World War One has ended in a fashion which will make World War Two inevitable. As this was his plan from the start, Ares, it seems, has won.

Back in contemporary Paris, Diana realizes she has her work cut out for her, Homo sapiens being too lovable to abandon. She leaps into the air and begins to patrol the night sky in combat mode, her gaze aimed at the future she is going to save us from. She is Wonder Woman at last. This film won a Hugo for best dramatic presentation (long form). [JC]

6. Wonder Woman 1984. US film (2020). Atlas Entertainment, DC Comics, DC Entertainment, The Stone Quarry, Warner Bros. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by David Callaham, Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Zack Snyder. Cast includes Lilly Aspell, Gal Gadot, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Pedro Pascal, Chris Pine, Steve Trevor, Amr Waked, Kristen Wiig and Robin Wright. 151 minutes. Colour.

She is not yet called Wonder Woman, and may never be; but in this chastely rambunctious PG-13 sequel to Wonder Woman (2017) (see 5 above) set in the prophetically distempered America of Ronald Reagan, Diana Prince (Gadol) continues to do derring-do calisthenics in anticipation (it seems to be) of the future she may still be preparing to save us from. The language of distinctions evoked by the term Equipoise would conspicuously overegg any attempts at rationale in this ninth film to be released in the DC Extended Universe: the plot-generating ancient magical wish-granting stone which Prince discovers at the Smithsonian, and the various narrative elements expounding its consequences [for Answered Prayers and Wishes see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], are less equipoise than smorgasbord. Over and above losing her puissance for the middle third of the story, Prince does seem to escape some obvious consequences of her hypnopompic wish to get her dead lover Steve Trevor (Pine) back from the grave in which he lies; he, on the other hand, is forced through a process of Identity Transfer to occupy the body of a contemporary Washingtonian for the romance to proceed. En passant Prince must deal with the insanely self-referential billionaire Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who aspires to become a populist politician and run America, and who could be based on any of several models; she must also cope with a Villain from the Wonder Woman back pages known as The Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), brought (back?) to life through the wish granted to Prince's cackhanded assistant Barbara Ann Minerva (also Wiig), who longs to become an "apex predator" like her vision of her boss, and achieves her goal by becoming the ferocious amoral cat, losing her glasses and her schoolmarm hairdo in the process (see Women in SF). Maxwell Lord becomes all but omnipotent, but Prince reminds him at the last moment that he has been neglecting his son: the insane magnate instantly regains his senses, and his family values, and America is saved. [JC]


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 14:30 pm on 24 April 2024.