In theory, Wonder Woman is one of the tentpoles of DC’s superhero universe. Like Superman and Batman, she was created way back in the Golden Age of comics and has been continually published ever since — though her strip origins (she debuted the month Pearl Harbour was bombed) relate to World War II rather than the late ‘30s of FDR, the Depression and the New York Worlds Fair Land of Tomorrow vibe which informs the earlier superheroes. Also like Superman and Batman, she has a long-standing pop culture presence outside the comics field – which, currently active Marvel and DC multi-media franchises notwithstanding, no other characters can come close to matching. However, Linda Carter aside, Wonder Woman lags a long way behind the other two in terms of film and TV appearances – there was no 1940s Wonder Woman serial (whereas jungle girl Nyoka got two), there has been no modern-day movie blockbuster (though many scripts have been developed and dumped). Rumour has it that WW has only been continually published because a quirk in DC’s deal with her creator, William Moulton Marston, means that they’d lose the rights (and, of course, the merchandising deals) if they let her go into the limbo of characters they own who aren’t toplining their own titles. Simple sexism has dogged the character ever since her supposedly feminist creator was unable to conceal his own personal fetish for having her tied up, shackled and rendered powerless every issue and reached a height when she was only allowed in the Justice Society of America with lightweights like the Atom and Johnny Thunder if she served as secretary (remember – she’s a notional goddess only marginally less powerful than Superman).
Given the likes of Elektra, Catwoman, Ultra Violet and Supergirl, it’s understandable why Warner Brothers have pulled the plug on so many Wonder Woman scripts – the character is too iconic, too important, to be dragged down by a movie millstone, and yet the material is too weird (what with the lesbian overtones, the bondage kink, the melange of Greek myth and pulp adventure before we even get to the secret identity, the crime-fighting and an on-off romance which makes Superman and Lois seem like a stable couple) to be easily served up in a manner that’ll play to audiences who respond to Raimi’s Spider-Man, Burton’s or Nolan’s Batman, the first Christopher Reeve Superman films or Smallville. So far, the most effective Wonder Woman adaptation has been in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series – which have been able to use the character for pathos in a time-trip back to WWII that finally made sense of poor old Steve Trevor (I defy anyone not to mist up when, back in the present at the end of the episode, Wonder Woman visits the aged Steve in his veterans’ home) and actually funny comedy (Circe turned her into a pig, but she still had powers). So, it’s a good sign that many of the same creators (notably producer Bruce Timm) are aboard for this animated feature (well, 74 minutes) which tries to deliver the closest we’re going to get to Wonder Woman: the Motion Picture for the foreseeable future. Like the same team’s Justice League: The New Frontier, which included a genuinely Amazonian WW on the squad, it suffers slightly from not having the running time to get through its epic storyline – though it’s not as crowded as that was.
It opens in ancient times, during a battle between the Amazons and the armies of Ares (Alfred Molina), the God of War (a rare character to be a major player in both the DC and Marvel universes) – which is an especial grudge match since Ares had a previous relationship with Queen Hippolyte (Virginia Madsen) and they have a soon-beheaded son together (the fact that this gives Wonder Woman an older brother is one of many plot points swiftly skipped past). The Amazons win and Hera (Marg Helgenberger) and Zeus (David McCallum) speak from clouds – decreeing that the Amazons’ isle will be cut off from ‘man’s world’ as in the comics, but also that the now-immortal women have to keep Ares a prisoner in their dungeon (which kind of messes with the women-only concept of Paradise Island). Hippolyte fashions a daughter from clay (one of those comics things no one wants to cope with is that the heroine is actually a flesh golem) and she grows up to be Princess Diana (Keri Russell) – a character name she can now reclaim after a couple of decades when it was inadvisable. Eventually, as in the 1941 origin story, a fighter plane crashes on the island, bringing token man Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion, getting most of the good, funny lines) and prompting the comics business about Diana entering a contest to win the right to escort Steve back to the outside world. Her uniform is based on an American flag because that’s how Amazons honour nations they send ambassadors to – not that they’ve ever done it before, and Steve admits the spangly get-up makes it too easy to mistake her for a hooker. Ares busts out, having seduced his Amazon guard, and makes a deal with Hades (Oliver Platt) for extra power after a sacrifice scene modelled on a bit in the first Hellboy film. Wonder Woman gets to make a few harsh judgements of the way women are treated or act in modern America, but Steve points out aptly that her mother copped off with the God of War (and probably told the God of Dependability that she saw him more as a friend). In the climax, Amazons show up en masse in Washington to fight Ares and his hordes – and, the job done, she sticks around to take up superheroing, charging into battle with the Cheetah in the hope of a sequel.
While it zips past too fast to be really memorable or resonant, there’s a lot to like: Russell and Fillion (sweet and funny together in Waitress) aren’t obvious casting (Lucy Lawless was Wonder Woman in The New Frontier) but make the screwball Diana-and-Steve patter work well (especially when he gets his foot caught in the lasso of truth and has to admit to his real feelings), and animation is probably the only way to make Wonder Woman not silly onscreen (her long hair is especially well-animated, she can fill the eagle chestplate without looking like a Russ Meyer fantasy – and we even get a semi-visible invisible jet which makes some sort of visual and plot sense, it’s a magic recreation of Steve’s crashed plane); the villain is satisfyingly malevolent (and male/violent), and there’s creepy myth-menace business going, with a PG-13 level of grue (heads do roll); it’s knowing enough to at least hint at the seething but directionless sexuality of the all-female Amazon society, with Steve ogling bathing beauties, Ares exerting his male prowess to escape and a lot of energy channelled into sword-fighting and that dangerous but cool stunt with ‘bullets and bracelets’ (here, more logically, arrows); ground rules are set up, and this would stand as a decent pilot for a Wonder Woman series (not that one is planned). Supporting characters like Artemis (Rosario Dawson) and Etta Candy (Julianne Grossman) get enough of a build-up to suggest they’d be handy if this continued in some form – though Etta, a surprisingly radical character in the 1940s (a sexually aggressive girl who ate a lot – and yet was never made fun of for her size), is literally reduced to a thin, simpering flirt. The paradoxes of the character will never be resolved – she’s an Ambassador of peace who got her job by beating up all her sisters in a combat tourney, and comes from a society so superior she can’t wait to get away from it but is still smug about the failings of ‘man’s world’. Scripted by Michael Jelenic, drawing from several stretches of the comics and a story co-plotted with current WW writer Gail Simone; directed by Lauren Montgomery, who does a lot more than she did with the less congenial material of Superman: Doomsday.