Friday, March 18, 2011

Armchair Screenwriter: How I'd pitch the Wonder Woman movie(s)

DC Comics' Wonder WomanImage via Wikipedia
Ally McBeal creator David E Kelly is making a Wonder Woman TV show for NBC -- here's the "costume" she'll be wearing -- so I figured now is as fine a time as any to recycle my old Wonder Woman movie pitch. I wrote this on June 9, 2009.
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A while ago, Rich Lovatt wondered whether we hadn't dodged a bullet in not getting a Wonder Woman movie. This week, Graeme McMillan over at io9 asked why Wonder Woman gets no love. Rich answered this first by saying what nobody is ever willing to admit about Wonder Woman, she's the world's most famous superheroine by virtue of seniority, rather than her actually being a great character.

Wonder Woman's origin is goofy, her powers are all over the map, and she doesn't have any great mission other than being a "warrior for peace," which is such a paradox it became a punchline--from Batman, no less--in Mark Waid's seminal Kingdom Come.

Batman, by the way, is the elephant in the room during this whole "Why can't we get a decent Wonder Woman?" movie conversation. Dark Knight blew the doors off the box office last summer, and in some measure legitimized superhero movies, largely on the basis of its dark, timely, political tones and Heath Ledger's post-humous Oscar buzz.

Thus, the world is primed for a high-profile, serious, major studio production of Wonder Woman. But, as McMillan pointed out in an earlier post, just because Wonder Woman is popular doesn't mean making a good Wonder Woman film will be easy. Nick Nadel over at Sci-Fi Scanner has 5 tips for making an awesome Wonder Woman movie, and I agree with four of them. Sorry Nick, but I'm keeping the Invisible Jet.

Okay, so enough stalling, what's my take on Wonder Woman?

In no uncertain terms, Wonder Woman is the ultimate feminist icon. She's strong, she's wise, she's empathetic, she's Superman's equal, but she also embodies some of the more absurd extremities of knee-jerk feminism. Princess Diana of Themyscira literally comes from a world without men, a world which is presumed to be a paradise, to the point it's often called Paradise Island. And yet she walks around in a pin-up silver-gold-and-American-Flag bathing suit that is just this side of a pro wrestler getup.

So let's explore that contradiction. Let's use Wonder Woman as a character to examine some of the more intriguing and provocative notions of feminist ideals. Diana's not just an icon of feminism, she's an experiment in feminism, a road-test for all the "women are equal but different" notions that have been professed for the last century. There's your Joss Whedon ingredient: A kickass pulp heroine as complex psycho-social metaphor. Thanks, Buffy. (Though I'd style Diana as more a mix of Zoe Washburn and Inara Serra, but that's for a later discussion.)

Given the choice, I'd do a Wonder Woman trilogy set in multiple eras, even though producer Joel Silver said he wouldn't go for any period pieces. Still, my dream film Wonder Woman series would be one part Mad Men, one part Warren Ellis, a dash of Joss Whedon, a sprinkle of Dark Knight, two scoops of Y: The Last Man, the tiniest pinch of Boogie Nights (seriously) and a generous frosting of Gail Simone-inspired kickass. For details (and geek-to-normal translation) see below.

I think doing a multi-era Wonder Woman series would best bespeak her feminist iconicism, as feminism is a moving target, and notions of what constitutes women's equality changes. Here's where the Mad Men comes in. Mad Men is a period piece, brilliantly done, that is ingeniously feminist in its portrayal of how unfeminist--and by extension unpleasant--the 1960s business world really was. There are lots of other themes at work in Mad Men, but this is the one I'd borrow. Thus, when I pitch Wonder Woman, I'm not pitching one movie, I'm pitching three--and two are period pieces.

Wonder Woman I - The classic World War II era, which would thrust Diana into a world where women work in factories but can't fight in wars, where Rosie the Riveter is a national icon, and Eleanor Roosevelt might be in charge, but no one can admit it. Also, that whole Nazi ideal of purity and superiority would make for interesting thematic points, too. Baroness Paula von Gunther would be the villain, hoping to get her hands on the Amazonian genetic technology to breed a race of Aryan superhumans.

Wonder Woman II - Set in the 1970s, the go-go period where Wonder Woman gave up her powers and costume, learned karate, and joined the disco set. (Since Diana's "powers" will be different, she need not give them up in this version.) Contrast that with the era when the women's liberation movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe vs. Wade and the Me Generation came into cultural focus. The tiniest Boogie Nights or--if you prefer--Life on Mars verve would do well here. The Cheetah would be the main villain, in all her disco-esque sass. She's a product of genetic manipulation made possible by Amazonian super-science that has crept into the world, but the catch is that she turned herself into a overtly sexualized werecat as a warped form of self-empowerment.

Wonder Woman III - Set in the modern day, with "I can be anything but can I have everything?" the central concern of the modern American woman. Gay rights--which, for someone who came from an all-female culture would seem a strange distinction--and the sudden possibility of woman president. Here, the villain is Circe, a rogue Amazon out to conquer Man's World and set up a beneficient matriarchal rule--with men as second-class citizens. The notion of some women as more equal than others will inform the action. (This version of Circe will be a blend of the comic Circe, Veronica Cale, and the animated fury Aresia.)

And yes, I do mean there to be action. This won't all be pontificating and prostletyzing about the notion of women's place in the world. Wonder Woman will beat your ass with her Amazonian superpowers. And, so, about those powers...

Backstory and plot outlines:
First the bad news, Olympian fanboys, but we're scrapping the entire mythical overtones of Wonder Woman. This is going to be a sci-fi movie, with a liberal nod to what Warren Ellis hinted at in the Planetary issue "Magic and Loss." The Amazons are a race of matriarchal separatists that broke off from the Ancient Greek civilization during its apex. They never suffered through the Dark Ages, so their science represents largely uninterrupted progress that puts them centuries ahead of the contemporary world.

However, as necessity is the mother of invention, much Amazonian super-science is powerful to the point of being near-magic but lacks certain other basic technologies we would take for granted. For example, they have highly advance cloning and genetic engineering abilities but have never built aircraft. They have a functioning cloaking device that shields their island from detection but don't have much modern weaponry.

In past centuries, the Amazons made regular journeys into "Man's World" for supplies and to propagate their society but in the last few hundred years have resorted to cloning and gene manipulation to create a race of self-sufficient super-women. They've sealed themselves off from the world, becoming celibate, insular, and xenophobic. Men have become a near myth amongst them, and their segregation has fed upon itself, creating a culture that not only doesn't need men, but is alternately fearful, hostile, and ignorant of men.

Into this world is born Diana, eldest daughter of Queen Hippolyta--yes, this is a monarchial matriarchy that still worships the Greek pantheon--who is among the first generation born not just genetically perfect, but genetically enhanced. She is stronger, faster, smarter, and more insightful than any human being, Amazon or otherwise, has ever been, and she is curious about a world beyond the narrow confines of the isle of Themyscira.

Those genetic enhancements include a rough form of telepathy and psychokinetic super-abilities, which as you Golden Age comic guys remember were the main tenates of Wonder Woman's power arsenal back in the day (she could even speak with animals). Put simply, she can apply the force of her will--through training--into feats of super-speed and super-strength. She applies these abilities in pacifistic ways--with indestructible bracelets that let her deflect (through super-reflexes) bullets. The telepathy is focused through the Lariat of Hestia, an unbreakable cord that is reshaped and animated by Wonder Woman's will, and which gives her a telepathic link when anyone else it touches--allowing her to read minds and compel truthful confessions. Again, this is a non-lethal weapon, as she is an ambassador, not a conqueror.

The plot is initiated when World War II pilot Steve Trevor crashes on the "invisible" island after a divebomb run on a German destroyer. Trevor is nursed back to health by Diana just as the destroyer, which tracked Steve's plane to the island, arrives and begins to send out search parties.

The Amazons fight off the Nazis--barely, as they are unprepared for the ferocity of their modern weapons--but lose several women as prisoners to the German aggressors. Hippolyta subsequently agrees to ally with the American in return for help rescuing her people, and offers Diana as her representative. Diana fashions an "ambassadorial costume" based on the '40s-era pinups Steve has in his possession combined with American iconography, illustrating her naivete and working in the classic Wonder Woman togs. A smaller version of the island cloaking device is fitted into Steve's Amazonian-repaired plane--which is now an invisible jet--and Diana thus enters "Man's World" on a singular mission of rescue, which of course becomes so much more as she sees the level of female inequality firsthand.

By movie's end, the Amazons are rescued and Wonder Woman agrees to remain as an aid to the Allies in exchange for Paradise Island remaining secret. This sets the stage for a Wonder Woman spin-off series on TV/Web/DVD about her WWII adventures.

However, The Wonder Woman II protagonist will be a second-generation Wonder Woman, Donna Troy, who was raised as a potential ambassador and who is much more world-savvy. Diana is her mother, and Donna is the first Amazon born "naturally" in generations. She will be an outsider in both worlds, and a child of both, making her a prism of ideal versus practical feminism. Plus, 1970s kitsch for the win, and the possibility of yet another spin-off series for this era's Wonder Woman.

The third Wonder Woman will be Donna's daughter, Cassie Sandsmark, who was raised in Man's World and prefers it--for all its faults--to the staid perfection of Paradise Island which, thanks to Circe, is no longer secret. Moreover, 60 years of borrowing from Man's World have allowed the Amazons to ramp up their martial technology and, once revealed, many countries will see them as a threat to be dealt with--a powerful metaphor for both the interdependence of male and female points of view and for the fear of strong women, even in modern, enlightened times.

Recasting Wonder Woman allows us to literally evolve the character, costumes, and methods (and it's cheaper for the studio). The final battle at the end of the trilogy will see all three Wonder Women united in battle against Circe and her aids, with a massive Amazon super-science fleet involved. The result will be a world forced to confront all that Paradise Island and the Amazons represent and, of course, the possibility of yet another spin-off series.

That's my convulted premise, which I think we'll all agree stands no chance of ever getting made.

6 comments:

  1. Jay if you could sell this, I think it's an outstanding idea. I like it!

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  2. I think you almost have to have Le Guin or maybe Octavia Butler involved in the scripting, if for nothing else but to give it some sort of faux gravitas (faux-vitas?) for the feminist audience.

    I like the idea of mixing in the WWII nazi action; very old-school comic! Also, with feminista connection and sensibility, I'd vote to pull on the greek roots and mythos of a-mazo (literally, "no breast") history and have wonder woman or daughter lose a breast violently and intentionally - perhaps through use of a high-powered shoulder weapon designed by a man in a man's world? - thus forcing the sacrifice of her femininity in the service of being a 'warrior for peace.'

    Anyways, you've shown there's clearly enough here for a dark knight style treatment of this bubble-gum character. Sadly have to ditch the costume, but maybe squeeze a linda carter cameo in? ;)

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  3. Jay I like this a lot.

    A LOT.

    The only comment I'd make is that while I like the idea of having a different Wonder Woman for each movie, I doubt that it'd sell well. Try for the same WW changing her perception with the times and I think you're on a winner!

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  4. I love the plot but I do agree with Rich to keep the same ww having her tranfering herself with the time changes a battle of old trad. To new times within herself.

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  5. Wow. You've really thought this through. I generally this is fantastic, but also agree with Rich and Patricia that I'd prefer to see Diana herself throughout all three movies. There's no reason that the genetic manipulation she is the product of wouldn't also include a long lifespan and delayed aging.

    I'm not a fan of her original costume, though I know there would have to be at least a nod to it for the hardcore fans. Why not simply make it a real bathing suit that she needs to use at some point in the story?

    The idea of the women of Paradise Island being celibate contradicts with Cassie's later attitude toward gay rights. Whether they're celibate or all gay, the idea protecting the rights of those different from them would never occur to them either. I like the idea of pulling from the stories of the Amazon that they left the island to find mates when needed. Also, make them less monolithic so that this isn't a prime motivator for every woman on the island -- some want to procreate, some don't, include a mix of sexual preferences as well and that will hold up to your comment about #3. Last, if Diana had been celibate all of her life before leaving the island, make sure she's curious and confident about sex just as she would be in other areas of her life.

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