There is nothing more frustrating than a squandered opportunity. In 2011, as the Smallville series was reaching its finale, Warner Bros. Television and DC Entertainment attempted to capitalise on the interest in its superhero brands (thanks to the huge commercial success of 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight) with the production of a television series based on a character, first introduced to comics readers in October 1941: Wonder Woman.
Much like Christopher Nolan’s efforts, producers Bill D’Elia and David E. Kelley felt that a new spin on the Warrior Princess Of Themyscira was the key, a full sixty years after her first appearance, bringing her into the 21st Century with more in the family-friendly vein of the Smallville reinterpretation of the Superman mythos. But then, as many creative forces have learnt over the years, sometimes a new spin can be a spin too far.
The changes are radical in the extreme, taking plenty of liberties with the classic mythology, in some kind of attempt to provide rationalisation in a contemporary context. However, where Nolan applied logic and reasoning to his Dark Knight, D’Elia and Kelley took a more… sideways approach. A napkin may have been involved.
Before the credits have rolled, we are introduced to the crime fighting ‘brand’ that is Wonder Woman: a superhero vigilante, ass-kicking, bad-guy-chasing and taking down nondescript bad guys, legal due process be damned. The popularity of Wonder Woman appears to render her immune to the realities of legal process – think of Batman but wrenched out of the shadows, copyrighted, trademarked and on the shelves of boys and girls everywhere. (Much like the real world, then!)
We also find, away from this very public persona, there exists a ‘public alter-ego’, that of Diana Themyscira. Diana is the CEO of Themyscira Industries, a corporation created to be the corporate arm of the Wonder Woman brand, built on a line of merchandising and Amazonian technologies, funding her heroics – clearly the writers felt that the ‘Ozymandias business model’ concept from Watchmen had merit and ran with it..
On top of this, Diana has also squirreled away a third identity of ‘Diana Prince’, just to keep things interesting. I’m reminded of the speech at the end of Kill Bill, vol. 2, where Bill talks about Clark Kent being Superman’s critique on the human race. Clearly being a lonely cat lady in a modest little house, shunning personal contact, watching chick flicks and eating popcorn – because, of course, that’s what passes for ‘normal female behaviour’ in the Wonder Woman universe. More annoyingly, this whole additional alter ego isn’t dwelled on too long – by episode’s end. you ask why it was even included in the first place.
Friday Night Lights‘ Adrianne Palicki does what she can in the role(s) she has been given here but even she’s unable to hide the fact that she can’t quite determine what direction the show is going, or what her Wonder Woman is supposed to stand for, more so than the showrunners – is the show aiming to be a gritty urban thriller? Is it a critique of Corporate America? Is it a shiny, action superhero thrill ride? Is it a deep personal drama? This was Palicki’s third dalliance with the DC superhero universe, after a one-episode stint in Smallville and another doomed pilot, 2006’s Aquaman. (Thankfully, someone saw the potential in what she could do in the genre, eventually joining Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the much more fully formed Bobbi Morse, “Mockingbird”.)
The supporting cast also seem lost and adrift – there have been roles in the past where actors such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) or Elizabeth Hurley (Bedazzled) have been treated with casual disdain but here especially there seems to be not enough on the bones here for anyone to flesh out. Elwes is particularly wasted, his Themyscira Industries CEO, Mr. Stuffy McBusiness-Suit, is utterly forgettable the second he leaves the screen. (There’s a scene in which Prince and Hurley’s baddie Veronica Cale meet face-to-face for the first time for some verbal sparring – I actually completely forgot that Elwes was in the scene at several points. And that wasn’t because I was distracted by the ‘scintillating’ dialogue, either.)
The rest of the cast list are equally paper-thin, with nothing to tether them to the slight story we’re presented with. Everything and everyone appears to have been carbon pressed out of the genre mould with no feeling of proper backstory, no sense of real history and, most crucial of all, no sense of rhyme or reason to the entire endeavour. Everyone blunders around, taking their roles in the pantheon, because they’ve told that’s where they’re meant to stand.
The aesthetic of Wonder Woman is also out of kilter: the classic superhero costume is written off as a marketing gimmick designed to sell toys, sell the WW brand and fund her vigilante activities. A boardroom meeting scene shows Diana’s frustration at being pimped in such a sexest manner, saying that she ‘wasn’t in the meeting’ when her boobs were being enlarged on her action figure. But when were you in the meeting, then, Di? And therein lies the underlying problem with the show.
Everything appears to ‘start’ in the Wonder Woman universe, the second the opening credits roll. There’s a half-arsed attempt to present some kind of character history or backstory – Diana still has a relationship with Steve Trevor (played forgettably by Justin Bruening, also struggling with the Post-It note of characterisation provided) but breaks it off to pursue her chosen destiny of corporate-funded crime fighting. But of course! Everything feels like Westworld, where the narrative begins when the sun rises.
We also have to deal with the sketchy moral tightrope that is our lead character, as presented by D’Elia and Kelley. Wonder Woman is also presented as a law of nature unto herself, beholden to nobody and skirting if not around then certainly above the law. In one scene, she goes so far as to inflict torture to get the information she wants; in another, brutal, lethal force upon entering the warehouse ‘lair’ of Cale Industries.
In the comics, Wonder Woman had the conceit of her magic lasso that would have the bad guys voluntarily give up the truth: now, in Wonder Woman ‘11, a lethally administered leadpipe to the throat is seemingly justified. They are shocking moments that give the audience a sense of unease about why they should be behind this violent thug in the first place, however tight those hotpants are. It is incredibly difficult to root for a so-called heroine with blatant disregard for the laws of man – or woman for that matter. If an DC Expanded Universe did exist here, Batman or Superman – hell, the entire Justice League and their mates – would be knocking rather hard on Diana Prince’s door.
Watching the pilot, you do try and work out in your head what could have been changed to make the plot tidier and more cohesive, what could have been written in to tie the thing together into a more satisfying whole – ultimately, however, you discover that Wonder Woman on shaky ground from the outset. The one thing I think could have given some substance to the show would have been any kind of connection to Diana’s Amazonian roots, which could’ve also provided some kind of drive to her character. Instead, there’s no backbone, no drive and ultimately – you’re really not going to like me for saying this about such a feminist icon – no balls.
Maybe future episodes would have filled in the gaping plot holes and massive lack of character development but a show must have some kind of solid foundation to grow from – and this half-arsed pilot is as solid as quicksand. It would take another three years – with the launch of The Flash series, developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and, rather tellingly, DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns – before the capes gathered some cohesion on the small screen and finally took to the skies. It’s just a shame that the heart and soul of Wonder Woman had to be driven into the ground to get there.