Friday, November 15, 2013

There's Nothing "Tricky" About Wonder Woman

I keep seeing the muckety-mucks in DC's upper echelons wringing their hands and trying very hard to use specific words when describing how difficult it would be to make a Wonder Woman movie. I cannot disagree with that assessment emphatically enough.

Would it be technically difficult? Not any moreso than making Superman, or Spider-Man, or any other heavy CGI-effects-driven tentpole movie.

Would it be a "tough sell" for a modern-day audience, most of whom don't read comics? I dunno, why don't you ask Marvel how difficult it was putting a second-tier character like Iron Man over.

In truth, it'd be no more difficult than making the Captain America movie. After all, it took Marvel 75 years to get that one right, but in the end, they did. They did it, like they did for so many of the other characters in the Marvel Universe Movie Franchise, by getting out of the way and letting someone who "gets" the character adapt the material to the movies. Let them pick and choose what to include, so as not to overwhelm "the straights" with forty years of, say, Asgardian infighting, for example.

"But Mark," you say, "DC DID that...remember Green Lantern?" Unfortunately, yes I do. And I have said this publicly and elsewhere that Johns made the rookie mistake of putting all of the eggs into one basket. He frankly didn't know, or didn't consider, that this would be a long-term project--or maybe they told him to do this--but that movie was crowded with everything that someone would need to launch a Green Lantern toy line, and not enough of anything else to make a movie.

But we're not talking about that. We're talking about Wonder Woman. The last of DC's "Big Three, after Superman and Batman." One of the most recognizable characters in DC's line-up. Perennial cosplay favorite. Visible in at least a couple of monthly books. Written by some of the best talent in the industry. Exactly what is the problem, then?

Oh, the different versions of the character.

There's probably a bondage component
to this that makes me uncomfortable.
Yeah, see, even before I saw the TV show, I owned a Wonder Woman comic. This comic, in fact. It's Ric Estrada artwork in it, and the story is pretty okay, as far as stuff from that time period goes. Nothing rang false in my six year old brain when I read it. I didn't know until much later that this was actually part of a kind of trope in the Wonder Woman comics wherein she is routinely shrunk down to miniscule size in an effort to diminish her power. Read into that as much as you'd like. You're probably correct.

But what really introduced me to Wonder Woman was this. Go ahead, give it a look. I'll wait: The Wonder Woman TV Show Intro.

God, but Lynda Carter was...still is...a knockout. Brunette, curvy, and very girl-next-door. This set my sexual preferences in stone at a very early age and they haven't really moved since. But enough of that. This was live-action super hero hi-jinks, played out in prime time, at the exact same time that the Batman TV show was in syndication in the afternoons. This was not a coincidence. The Wonder Woman TV shows were about one-third less campy than the Batman TV shows, which made them barely tolerable as opposed to unwatchable. But I was six, what did I know? Not much, I tell you. So I watched them.

What a great costume. Then and now.
The first season had Wonder Woman fighting the Nazis, which I really liked. Hey, I was reading Captain America, too, back then. But the following seasons brought Wonder Woman up into the modern world, where all of her adversaries used crystals for their super powers and wore pants suits. Not cool. Not cool at all. Honestly, the best thing about the show is the theme song. Even when they changed the lyrics for the second season, it was still groovy. And I do like the opening sequence, even though it's as corny as Nebraska.

I tried to re-watch these a few years ago, and they do not hold up. At all. They are the worst kind of terrible. But Good Golly, Lynda Carter in that suit...

I'm okay.

After the show went off the air, I frankly didn't think about Wonder Woman very much for about ten years. She was in the Justice League, and I would occasionally see a Golden Age story reprinted in a book, or read about her creator, William Moulton Marston, who also invented the modern polygraph machine. Interesting stuff. He was pretty progressive. Look him up. Your jaw will hit the floor. The Golden Age Wonder Woman stories are a mixed bag, by the way. In between smacking the Germans around and spouting off about personal liberty, Womder Woman was also very pre-occupied with trying to get Steve Trevor to marry her. Mixed signals, anyone? In the sixties, this trope moved to the forefront, and it wasn't until Wonder Woman joined the Woman's Liberation movement by having her powers stripped from her that the "I must marry Steve" subplot went away. Well, mostly.

Then in the late 1980s, DC relaunched Wonder Woman. They gave the book to George Perez and Len Wein, a veteran team responsible for some of their best comics. Perez went to town on the character and did what a number of creators were doing at the time--the old "returning to their roots" trick. Only in this case, it wasn't a trick. It stuck. Suddenly, Wonder Woman had a much richer and more nuanced back story. Now firmly ensconced within the Greco-Roman pantheon, she had a nemesis, in the form of Ares. It was a complicated relationship, one they explored in several great story arcs.

The wraparound cover to WW #1, drawn by living legend
George Perez with his usual eye for composition, drama
and exquisite detail. Still one of the best artists working.
It was a critical and sales success for DC, but like most creator-driven runs, Perez and Wein ran out of stuff to write and draw, and they turned the book over to other, capable people. Some of them got it. A few didn't. But Most of them tried their hardest, and interestingly, most of them did great work on the book whenever they went back to the mythology well for inspiration.

Since then, many other writers have taken a crack at Wonder Woman in other books, other forms, and other media. Some of the writers have just so happened to be women, for a novel change of pace. Darwin Cooke really highlighted one of the unspoken problems with the character in his critically-acclaimed series New Frontier, when the generals who needed her help defeating the Nazis give her their heartfelt thanks and politely but insistently tell her, "We'll take it from here." Ouch.

Paul Dini and Bruce Timm used her quite well in the Justice League cartoons for several seasons. Likewise, so did Mark Waid in Kingdom Come. There have been a number of excellent examples of how the character can be taken seriously, portrayed as both powerful and compassionate, and function as a cross between Captain America and Thor in the DC universe.

Difficult, they say. "Tricky." Yeah, right.

To me, it comes down to a few core things: Intention. Are you going to re-introduce the Wonder Woman you currently have on your plate to a new audience? Or are you going to try and overthink it, like you did with Superman?

Competency:  There's no reason in the world why you can't have the same kind of franchise Marvel is enjoying at the movies now. You just have to jettison the idea of continuity and write the movies with an eye towards being chapters in a larger work.

Character: Is the Wonder Woman we see on the screen a Wonder Woman we recognize? Does she act, behave, and perform like how we "see" Wonder Woman in our minds? It's okay if there's pieces and parts of certain eras all mashed together. The end result had better be part of the group-think Wonder Woman. This means, no pants.

You also have to respect the Canon, the source material. This is something that I think Warner Brothers is pathologically incapable of doing, and something that DC comics under their current leadership can't articulate in the first place. But let's press on. I wasn't kidding when I said Wonder Woman is a cross between Thor and Captain America. For the purposes of the movie, that's how we proceed.

Here's my pitch for a Wonder Woman movie that would satisfy the core audience, introduce her to newcomers who don't know anything about her aside from the costume. And it sets up sequels and things that percolate for later movies.

Wonder Woman: The Dogs of War
The movie opens with a quick re-telling of the history of the Amazons according to DC Comics, their subjugation, and their eventual home on Paradise Island. We establish they live very long lives. Then at the end of the flashback, we're on modern day Paradise Island. All seems well. Except for the Oracle. She's in her temple, back arched, eyes rolled back, mouth open, locked in a vision of horror.

We go into her vision and we see Ares, weakened, nearly drained of power. In his hand are the ends of four chains, leading to...what? He says, "Go, my minions. Sow the seeds of war that I might come to power again!" He lets go of the chains. We see them zip down the corridors, like they are attached to rockets.

Back on Paradise Island, the Oracle comes running out of her temple, screaming for the queen.

Overhead, arcs of fire shoot out in different directions, like comets. The amazons look up, confused. One of them turns and runs away. We follow her as she kicks open the door to the palace. "Mother! What was that?" It's Diana. Hippolyta and the Oracle and a few advisers are deep in angry discussion. The queen tries to shoo Diana away, but she defiantly remains. The oracle insists that Ares is bent on a re-awakening. No one else believes the oracle. The queen promises to meditate on it and dismisses them.

Later, she and Diana talk and they have their recurring fight about obeying the Queen, if not the Mother. Diana asks the queen what she will do. The queen says, "If Ares is coming back, then who will be next? We have to investigate." There is a montage sequence, including spinning newspaper headlines, showing the build-up to World War II. We see Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and Roosevelt and of course, armies on the move. All of this through the eyes of the oracle.

Another argument between the council. The queen is convinced, but they are not. Suddenly, the Oracle's face contorts, and suddenly, she looks a lot like Ares. He warns her to cease meddling in his affairs or he will make his castle upon the ruins of Paradise Island. The oracle's neck snaps, and she is dead. A trickle of blood from her nose drops onto the throne room floor. Blood has been spilled.

That's all the council needed. Okay, says the queen. We oppose Ares.

Now we get the whole thing with the Amazons choosing one champion to act as their representative in the world of man. Diana disguises herself, bests Artemis, and reveals herself to her mother. Another act of defiance. But the queen has to send her. They are making their farewells, when--

Cut to: Pilot in Cockpit, flying over the ocean.

It's Steve Trevor! American test pilot, making his maiden flight in the H-1, an experimental craft. After bantering with the control tower, he is told that Operation Houdini is a go. Steve flips a switch, and we can see on the wings a number of mirrors and plates lift up, flip over, and suddenly, the plane is invisible!  But it is a plane, and a prototype, and it's still leaving a trail from the transformation.

Diana looks up, sees the smoke, hears the trail, and shouts, "ARES!" The queen tries to stop her, but she vaults up into the air, smashes through the plane, and is very surprised to see Steve Trevor. The plane crashes, but she saves Steve. There's the brief discussion about a man setting foot on the island, but Diana is again defiant.

They salvage the plane, and Steve fixes it up as best as he can. All the while, he tells the Queen and Diana about what's going on in Man's World. He agrees to take Diana to his base, but he can't promise that they will listen to anything either one of them has to say. "If I tell them about this place, they'll lock me up forever. Even if you do show up like this, looking like that. Maybe especially if you show up looking like that."

The queen heeds his advice, and they craft a Battle Suit for Diana. Using the colors from the American flag, the Eagle as their symbol, and with the usual amount of weapons and accoutrements, she now LOOKS like Wonder Woman. Everything but the name.

They take off in the plane. Steve makes it invisible. The radio is scrap, so they can't call in, and he doesn't want to be shot down. Using the plane, they make their way back to the top secret allied base, where a number of clandestine espionage operations are being prepped and carried out, courtesy of the O.S.S. Once Trevor explains that he's in fact alive, and the plane is damaged but flyable, and oh yeah, here's an Amazon that wants to talk to Churchill, things go very quickly.

They Allied Command holds a meeting in Washington, D.C. They don't know what to do with her. She explains her mission is to help end the war, and root out its causes. No one believes her, of course. Trevor informs her that they are taking her back to Greece, which is where Trevor said he found her. She tells Trevor that she doesn't have to comply with their wishes. He says if she doesn't, then they really won't trust her.

The whole traveling circus piles into several cars and makes for the airport. That's when motorcycles swarm the caravan and machine guns open fire on the cars. It's an assassination attempt! She leaps out of the car through the roof and lands on Churchill's car, in the middle of the caravan. She pulls him out of the window as the motorcycles circle around. Bullets. Bracelets. Lots of punching and throwing and smashing. She single-handedly takes out the hit squad, and uses her lasso on the last goon running away. Under her questions, he tells her she can't save them all. And that's when his head assumes the shape of a black hound, and then his neck snaps. She's knocked back by the psychic force.

"Ares," she says. She gets up and walks over to Churchill. "Are you all right?"

"Whatever you need, you just let me know."

Okay, now she's in. Ares has tipped his hand. In her Prayer/Conference to her mother, she tells her what she say. The Queen says, "It's the dogs of war." Now we have the plot: four black hounds that do Ares' bidding, they are extensions of him, and they have the ability to possess mortals and, well, you can guess what's happened. Hitler: Black Hound. The Emperor? Black Hound. Mussolini? Black Hound. But where's the other one? Never mind that. He'll reveal himself. Take those three out and he'll show up.

Now we've got Wonder Woman in World War II, smashing Nazis, blocking bullets, bending tank barrels, and any other famous Golden Age covers we want to do. Plane catching. Bunker busting. You name it. Steve Trevor is the person who flys her in with the invisible plane, drops her over the zone like a bomb, and then lands and waits for her to show up with intel and equipment.

As a kind of ironic counter-point, the newsreel footage of Wonder Woman in action has that cheesy narrator voice-over..."The Allies have a new secret weapon...and she's a knock-out!" Steve walks out of the viewing room, disgusted. "Why are you selling that garbage?" he asks his spy master.

"Would you rather the truth?" the head of cover ops replies.

She captures Mussolini and Hitler and Trevor's spy group plants evidence that tells a different story. The black hounds of Ares burn up the military leaders and leave their bodies. Wonder Woman literally kills the Dogs of War with her Amazonian War Spear.

She's going after the Emperor next. What she doesn't know is that the command has also decided on a little insurance. They are going to drop the bomb anyway. Just to be sure.

Wonder Woman is there when it happens. She sees what man is capable of. She pulls the war dog out of the Emperor before it can kill him as a host, and she takes the dog back to Paradise Island. Trevor comes looking for her. She asks him, "Did you know about this?"

"No, I didn't know."

"Why would they do that?"

"I don't know. We've won the war. Peace has been declared. There was no point, except..."

They get it. The fourth dog of war. It's Truman. Wonder Woman again defies her mother and takes the captured dog of war with them. They fly to DC and confront Truman in the White House. Only it's not Truman. It's not the dog, either. It's Ares. He's weak, but he's back. Wonder Woman tells Ares to leave Truman and he can have the war dog back.

Ares replies by snapping his fingers. Secret Service men rush in, all with glowing red eyes. They literally cover Steve. Ares knows they can't hurt her, but Trever is mortal. She's about to tear them apart when Ares barks a command. "Leave off, or I'll stop his heart!" She backs off, seething. "Let the dog go." The hound leaps out of its magical enclosure and right into Steve. There's a short scuffle, of course. He's fighting it, but it's gaining control. "Now, my pet...kill the Amazon."

Steve looks into Wonder Woman's eyes. She nods. He nods. And he raises the gun and fires. The bullet ricochets off of her bracelet and hits one of his handlers. So does the second shot. She's controlling where the bullets go. He empties the clip. Truman takes a bullet, as does Steve--in his gun arm, dropping the useless weapon.

Wonder Woman is staring at the wounded president. If she lets Truman die, Ares has to leave the host. On the other hand, if she saves Truman, Ares is saved. She's torn. Finally, she asks for help. The Amazons whisk them back to Paradise Island, and make a deal that Ares will remain in Hades until the end of the century. He agrees, a little too quickly, and leaves.

They fix up Truman and re-install him in the White House. Steve wasn't in mortal danger, but they get the dog out of him and kill it, too.

They never find the fourth dog. Wonder Woman's mission has failed. The Queen tells Wonder Woman she was lucky that Ares was so weak, otherwise she'd have never been able to do what she did. Wonder Woman realizes she still has much to learn. She is disgusted with what she has seen of Man's world. Maybe they aren't ready to save, yet. Well, except for Steve. They have a romantic moment on the beach, and then say goodbye. "Will I ever see you again, Diana?"

"You might. If I am needed."

Cut to Steve Trevor getting a medal for distinguished service during the war. He's still got a cast on his arm. They are discussing Wonder Woman, where she is, what she's doing. Steve tells them "I don't know where she is, but I hope we can figure out a way to be better than we are now. I'd like to see her again."

And we pan away from them, to another military type, walking away. A general, but not a real historical figure. He gets into his car, tells the driver to take him home. We see him light a cigar using his finger. It's the fourth dog of war. Completely free to roam the world, building influence for Ares for another fifty years.

The end...for now.

There's your movie, Warner Brothers. It sets up a sequel, or you can go straight into The Justice League movie, depending on how you bounce it. The next Wonder Woman movie is in the modern day, and she's starting over, and it's a whole new set of challenges for her.  But if you put that first movie in World War II, you give a nod to the Canon. You make her competent, and you treat the character with respect. And you intentionally showcase the parts that are endearing and enduring and not stupid and campy.

I know, I know, we can't film it, it's got Nazis, you can't shoot Truman, blah blah blah, whatever. Intention. Competency. Character. Canon. Address those issues and you've got a movie.

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