Now that the first definitive Wonder Woman movie has hit the multiplexes of America, it is interesting (and instructive) to look back at the troubled history of bringing this iconic character to the big screen. Created in 1941 by controversial psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman gathered a huge following over the following decades, but translating her to television and movies proved a long and tortuous project. Her most popular reincarnation was Lynda Carter’s version in the Wonder Woman TV series which ran three seasons from 1975 to 1979. But following that promising opening, Wonder Woman once again lapsed into Hollywood development hell.
Why was Wonder Woman so difficult to bring to the big screen? After all, her male counterparts in the Warner Bros./DC Universe (Superman and Batman) made the transition decades ago, racking up 15 movies in total. Theories generally revolve around sexism and the prevailing Hollywood view that young males would not identify with such a strong female character; however, the character did pose unique challenges for script writers and directors. Her back story and mythology were obtuse and challenging. In a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, Allan Heinberg, a Wonder Woman screenwriter, cites the narrative arc of the character as a special problem: “In the comic books, not a lot of time is spent on her psychology – what she wants and what drives her … also, her mythology is so complex and dense. That’s been off-putting for a lot of people” (Sperling 24).
The struggle to bring the character to the screen began in earnest in 1999, when Matrix producer Joel Silver acquired the rights. Silver kept the rights until 2009, and his most serious effort was hiring Joss Whedon to write a script in late 2005.
At the time, writer and director Joss Whedon was fresh off his Serenity movie project. He had time on his hands and was anxious for a meaty script. Silver seemed to have a coherent vision for the movie, and actresses were lining up to snag the starring role. But it all went wrong, quite horribly wrong. Arguably, it stands as Joss Whedon’s biggest failure.
Whedon is an astoundingly successful creative force, although he has had a few famous “failures” in his portfolio. Technically, even the much-loved Firefly was a failure, at first. Whedon himself disparages the movies made from some of his scripts, especially the 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alien: Resurrection. The failures were generally the fallout from clumsy directors or short-sighted studios. Nonetheless, those projects were all actually made; they had their chance to be seen, for better or worse. Wonder Woman was simply a failure. It was not only never made, but the script was never finished. (A version was released online in May 2017, but its authenticity can’t be verified.) The project consumed almost two years of Whedon’s life, at a time when he was at a popular and creative peak. (Before we feel too sorry for the guy, he was paid $2-3 million.)
What went wrong? Some details have emerged over the years, and Whedon has periodically discussed the project in interviews. There are also good summaries in the definitive Whedon biographies by David Lavery and Amy Pascale. Whedon’s core motivation was to leap into the world of huge blockbuster summer movies (an ambition he eventually filled with The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron). He wanted to be more than the quirky indie creator. He craved playing in the really big leagues. His own fierce competitiveness and ambition drove him into the project, but there were limitations that hampered him from the start.
First was Whedon’s unfamiliarity with the character. He was well steeped since boyhood in the mythology of the Marvel Universe, but he was less comfortable with the DC side of the ticket. He had to do a lot of basic research to get up to speed. Second, he encountered all the problems that other writers had experienced with Wonder Woman: the complex mythology, the unreliable back story, even the strange weaponry. She was a character without a definitive story, or even a definitive version. Whedon himself identified the challenge as “the meaning, the feeling, the look, the emotion, the character, the relationship with Steve Trevor” (Robinson 146). That’s a lot to digest.
Whedon came with a stellar reputation for his sympathetic understanding of women characters, but he couldn’t seem to get a handle on Wonder Woman. At times, he seemed to blame the producers for not getting his vision:
“At first it was great … but then I figured out it was like Firefly – they were letting me run with it, because they didn’t like any of it” (Legel).
He couldn’t seem to get any direction from the producers:
“I asked Joel Silver point blank: ‘Well, if they don’t want what I’m doing, what do they want?’ He said ‘They don’t know'” (Robinson 147).
At other times, he conceded that he was just not getting the job done, possibly facing writer’s block:
“It took a long time for me to break the story structurally to my satisfaction … when I did that it was in an outline, and not in a draft, and they didn’t like it. So, I never got to write a draft…” (Robinson 146).
Later, in 2014, he came to a final, bitter conclusion: “The fact of the matter is, it was a waste of my time. We never [wanted] to make the same movie; none of us knew that” (Gopalan).
The truth, as with many Whedon narratives, probably falls uncomfortably in the middle.
On February 3, 2007, Whedon announced his withdrawal from the project on the website Whedonesque, with a simple conclusion: “I had a take on the film that, well, nobody liked. Hey, not that complicated.”
Burwick, Kevin. “Read Joss Whedon’s Canceled Wonder Woman Movie Script.” MovieWeb, 12 May 2017.
Dibdin, Emma. “5 Joss Whedon Projects You Never Got To See: Wonder Woman, Ripper, Batman.” Digital Spy, 23 June 2014.
Dyce, Andrew. “Joss Whedon on Failed Wonder Woman Movie: ‘It would’ve worked.’” Screen Rant, 5 July 2013.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. “How to Make a Wonder Woman Movie.” After the Avengers: From Joss Whedon’s Hottest, Newest Franchises to the Future of the Whedonverse, edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel, PopMatters, 2015.
Freeman, Molly. “Wonder Woman: Details on Joss Whedon’s Cancelled Movie Adaptation.” Screen Rant, 20 Feb. 2017.
Gevinson, Tavi. “Yay, Geometry: An Interview With Joss Whedon: Our Hero on Shakespeare, High School, and His New Movie. No, His Other New Movie.” Rookie Magazine, 7 July 2011.
Goldberg, Matt. “Joss Whedon Talks about the Story for His Failed Wonder Woman Movie.” Collider, 8 Nov 2011.
Gopalan, Nisha. “Joss Whedon on Life after Wonder Woman.” Entertainment Weekly, 2 Aug. 2007.
“Joss Whedon’s Unrealized Projects.” Wikipedia.
Lavery, David. “Chapter 11: Not Making Wonder Woman: In Which Whedon Fails in His Potentially Greatest Challenge.” Joss Whedon, a Creative Portrait: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Marvel’s The Avengers. Tauris, 2014, pp. 131-36.
Leane, Rob. “Examining Joss Whedon’s Binned Superhero Films: The Joss Whedon Takes on Batman and Wonder Woman That, Ultimately, Never Were…” Den of Geek, 3 June 2015.
Legel, Laremy. “Comic-Con: Exclusive Interview with Joss Whedon.” Coming Soon, 3 Aug. 2007.
Pascale, Amy. “Chapter 26: Strong Female Characters.” Joss Whedon: The Biography. Chicago Review Press, 2014, pp. 265-78.
Robinson, Tasha. “The Onion A.V. Club Interview with Joss Whedon (2).” Joss Whedon: Conversations, edited by David Lavery and Cynthia Burkhead, UP of Mississippi, 2011, pp. 143-61.
Sperling, Nicole. “Finally. Decades after Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman Gets a Movie All Her Own. The Untold Story of Why It Took So Long – and the Heroines Who Made It Happen.” Entertainment Weekly, 26 May 2017.
Vineyard, Jennifer. “Joss Whedon Won’t Write, Direct Wonder Woman despite Doing ‘a lot of legwork.‘” MTV News, 2 Feb. 2007.
Whedon, Joss. Wonder Woman. 2007.
“Wonder Woman (2017 Film).” Wikipedia.
Don Macnaughtan has recently retired as reference librarian at Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon. He is a native of New Zealand who has worked in US academic libraries for 30 years. His publication catalog is on Academia. His main work focuses on Joss Whedon, the celebrated screenwriter, producer, and director. His first Whedon book is The Buffyverse Catalog. A second research guide to all of Whedon’s work will be published later in 2017. He is also author of the definitive critical bibliography on Whedon’s work for Oxford University Press. He is a charter member of the Whedon Studies Association.