Now that The Man of Steel has set a new record for June movie openings, Warner Bros. is rushing ahead with plans to create a DC Universe on screen. Which means one thing: we'll finally get a big-screen version of Wonder Woman, and she'll probably be created by Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder. That's a terrible idea.
Nobody knows exactly how the DC Universe will coalesce on the big screen over the next few movies — probably not even Warner Bros., at this point — but it seems likely that the next few films will try and assemble the pieces of a cinematic Justice League. (Our opinion on how to do that hasn't changed: First, make a Superman/Batman film, then make a Trinity movie, teaming Supes and Bats with Wonder Woman. Then do Justice League.)
But whatever happens, it seems likely that the first appearance of Wonder Woman on screen will be in someone else's movie, or in a team-up movie. And given his success with Man of Steel, Snyder seems likely to be helming whatever movie that is. And I just don't think Snyder can make Wonder Woman the compelling hero she needs to be.
Edited to add: Some people in comments are questioning the assumption above that we won't get a solo Wonder Woman movie any time soon. I would love it if we got a Wonder Woman movie in the next few years — but it seems more likely that Warner Bros. will follow their oft-stated plans to get to a Justice League film first, and then possibly spin off solo films featuring Wonder Woman and the Flash. So the first place we see Wonder Woman is likely to be in the Justice League movie — and Zack Snyder has strongly hinted that he's interested in directing that. With that out of the way...
In a lot of ways, Wonder Woman has the same problem as Superman. She's a product of a much simpler time in comics storytelling, with some internal contradictions that are harder to ignore now.
In the case of Superman, he's an alien visitor to our planet, with near-godlike powers and a mission to save and inspire humans. His presence ought to freak us out, and maybe in real life everyone would agree with Lex Luthor that he's a scary alien. The Man of Steel spends a lot of its running time grappling with this conundrum, before handwaving it away.
In the case of Wonder Woman, it's even worse, though — she's an Amazon warrior, trained to kill. But she's been sent to the outside world, where men are still in charge, to teach us about love and peace. She ought to have a lot more problems adjusting to a world of male authority figures, and people might be kind of terrified of a mythological warrior woman on the rampage.
Lots of people have tried to translate Wonder Woman to live-action, and the only time it's worked was with Lynda Carter's sublimely campy 1970s version. Even Joss Whedon's Angelina Jolie-inspired version doesn't sound like it would have been that great.
There have been two scrapped TV pilots — David E. Kelley's revoltingly convoluted version, and Amazon, the Allen Heinberg pilot where she eats ice cream and makes orgasmic noises. People seem to have a hard time getting their heads around this character, and boiling her down to a simple idea — Heinberg's version was a lot closer to the classic character, in spite of the weird "fish out of water" comedy elements.
There are basically two ways to go with Wonder Woman:
1) You can embrace the fact that she's an Amazon and tell mythological stories about Greek Gods and monsters. This is the approach that Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have mostly taken in her solo comic since the New 52 continuity started up, and it's been well-received and has boosted the character's popularity. The trouble is, this approach probably doesn't work as well in a shared-universe context where she's sharing the screen with Batman and Superman — which is why Azzarello's Wonder Woman seems so different from the version appearing concurrently in the Justice League comic.
2) You can handwave the "Amazon" thing away and go with "generic female badass whose origin is told in one scene." This is probably what'll happen, realistically, if Wonder Woman is introduced in a team-up film or as a supporting character in someone else's film. We'll be told she's an Amazon from an island of women warriors, or we'll glimpse it in a flashback, but there won't be time to dwell on what this means. Or we'll fall back on the idea that Wonder Woman's mission is to spread love and truth, making her the "nice" character — or the superego, in contrast to Batman's id and Superman's ego.
(Or she'll just become Superman's love interest on screen. Which, luckily, they already have Lois Lane for that.)
The big problem, though, is what motivates Wonder Woman? Why does she want to leave her perfect island in the first place, and what makes her want to spend her time fighting Darkseid or other villains? Why does she want to hang out with Superman and Batman? What are her goals, and how does this superhero stuff help her reach them? I never really liked her becoming an "ambassador" who gives speeches and writes self-help books, because I never understood why a trained warrior was doing that.
As hard as it is to give Wonder Woman an origin that makes sense to modern readers, it's even harder to show her as part of a shared universe, without turning her into a one-dimensional character who's either "a warrior woman," or "sweetness and light."
And that's why Zack Snyder taking on Wonder Woman — or, more broadly, anyone recreating Wonder Woman in the same style as Man of Steel — is potentially a nightmare.
After watching 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel, there's plenty that I admire about Snyder's film-making. He's great at creating arresting visuals, and he has a deep appreciation for the grammar of comic-book storytelling, creating splash pages on the screen.
But he has a problem with capturing real emotions, as opposed to surfaces, something the cold and depthless Man of Steel confirms. And he especially has a problem with female characters, because his love for pulp imagery leads him to explore women as fetish objects. It almost doesn't matter if, as some have discussed, Snyder is trying to turn this fetishization on its head or show how it's harmful — it still tends to dominate.
Take Watchmen — arguably the reason why Snyder's film fails to come together as a story isn't because he's lacking the graphic novel's ending, and he doesn't have anything strong enough to replace it. The real problem comes earlier: the crux of the story, in many ways, is the moment when Laurie Juspeczyk realizes the Comedian is her father. Which in turn convinces Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth from Mars.
This moment should be powerful and emotional, and tie together all of the complicated plot threads and themes about these characters and their histories that we've spent so much time learning about. Instead, in Snyder's film, it doesn't really work because we don't care that much about Laurie, and she doesn't have enough agency as a character.
Over in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, there's a pretty great explanation of how the movie version of Laurie is a weaker character than the graphic novel version, in large part due to the drive to fetishize her instead of understanding her. A couple of choice quotes:
Snyder uses frequent cuts and tracking shots during the sex scene to highlight and fetishize Laurie's body, destabilizing her erotic power, which should be present in the scene, and instead favoring empty titillation. Laurie's thigh-high boots are given extensive coverage by the camera as it tracks up her leg, all but conferring more attention on her costume than on her actual body. She does not wield the erotic power; only her costume wields it...
Although both [version] show how Laurie learns the truth about her father, the Comedian, while with Jon on Mars, Jon becomes the expository mouthpiece in the film, telling her about the familial connections rather than letting her come to them via epiphany, as Moore and Gibbons construct the scene.
In Man of Steel, meanwhile, Lois Lane actually comes off pretty well in the first hour when she's hunting Superman — it's only after she meets up with Supes that she starts to lose a lot of her agency and becomes coded as his sidekick/love interest. Even then, she gets to help move the plot forward and plays a key role in the resolution.
On the other hand, though, Man of Steel's other major female character is Faora, who's very much a one-note "sexy badass" character whose main affect is smirking and talking smack. She's basically Zod's right-hand henchwoman, but most of her screentime is spent dwelling on the unveiling of her face, over and over, as her cool helmet turns transparent to reveal her weirdly seductive smile.
And then there's Sucker Punch. After years of exploitation films, I have no problem with watching women in schoolgirl outfits fight dragons and zombies. But Sucker Punch's asylum-dwellers/strippers/superheroes are — like Laurie in Watchmen and Clark in Man of Steel — all surface. There's no way to root for them, and it's hard to care what happens to them beyond feeling a vague sense of excitement that monsters are being fought. And the movie's structure turns everything into a metaphor for a metaphor for a metaphor, increasing our sense of distance from the actual narrative, which is largely about victimization. (Yes, I know one of them gets away.)
For what it's worth, my personal objection to Sucker Punch was never political — it's more that Sucker Punch is a boring film, because it's slow and I don't care about any of the characters.
Snyder is clearly keeping a lot of his stylistic tics in check for Man of Steel, but now that he's got a huge success under his belt, I worry that he's going to take that as license to go nuts the next time around. Or the time after that.
In any case, Wonder Woman is a character who has a complicated problem — she's a Golden Age character whose origins barely make sense today, and it's hard to identify with her motivations for traveling amongst us and fighting our battles for us.
And there's a simple solution: make her a character that we naturally root for. Show her caring about stuff, so we care about her. Show us how she struggles to do the right thing, and why. Give her a heart and soul, that audiences can latch on to. Unfortunately, these are exactly the things Zack Snyder seems to have had the hardest time doing.
Given how important Wonder Woman is, I don't think we're going to see Zack Snyder turning her into a stripper. He's going to be under a lot of pressure to make her into someone who can sell action figures. But I also don't think he's going to be able to give her what she really needs: a new lease on life.