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The long, troubled history of Wonder Woman on screen

XBox 360 Injustice: Gods Among Us video game Wonder Woman

She’s often considered the third member of DC Comics’ great triumvirate, after Superman and Batman, but Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Princess Diana of the magic island Themyscira, has struggled mightily to make it to the big or small screen these last 40 years. From Linda Harrison to Lynda Carter, Adrianne Palicki to Keri Russell, The few successful renditions of Wonder Woman have been hamstrung by repeated failure, which begs the question: will they ever do Diana right?

Batman has seen two imaginings on film for a total of seven movies, while Superman is about to get his third modern iteration with Man of Steel, following Superman Returns (2006) and the four Christopher Reeve movies (1978-1987). That tallies to six Superman films for those counting at home. Add in the hilarious Superman Lives fiasco of the ’90s and he’s had as much studio attention as Batman.

Even ringslinger Hal Jordan had his crack at the big time when Ryan Reynolds donned the green ring and CGI suit for Green Lantern in 2011.

We’ve had 35 years of the DC Universe on the big screen and 60 years of it on television, but we have yet to see Wonder Woman get her day.

Wonder Woman has never had a live action, big budget feature film because – for some reason – DC has long viewed her as a property better suited to television. Her only real breakthrough came on TV, but she’s also had an embarrassing number of false starts, too.

Fans would certainly like to forget her first crack at TV, when campy Batman series writer Stanley Ralph Ross scripted the pilot for Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? in 1967. Ross had frumpy Diana Prince living at home with her annoying harpy of a mother who constantly nags her to go out and land an “M-A-N!” Ellie Wood Walker plays Diana, while Linda Harrison – the mute chick Nova from Planet of the Apes – plays her magic alter ego, Wonder Woman.

Diana becomes Wonder Woman when the world needs her, but – judging from the five minutes of the series they actually filmed – she’s easily distracted by her image in the “mirror”.

Ellie Wood Walker and Linda Harrison Who's Afraid of Diana Prince Wonder Woman mirror scene

First rule of mirror images: look in the same direction.

The derivative pilot was intended to be a comedy, but it never got past those five minutes of film. Keep that in mind, because it’s going to become a trend later.

Cathy Lee Crosby next brought Wonder Woman to life in the more serious, James Bond-style TV movie Wonder Woman (1974). Her Diana Prince/Wonder Woman doesn’t wear the traditional costume and spends the movie chasing down Ricardo Montalban for the US government. She does have bullet-deflecting bracelets and possesses superhuman agility, but the similarities don’t go very far beyond that.

Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman costume

And no, she didn’t steal the costume from Evel Knievel.

Crosby’s film drummed up enough interest for the ABC television network to commission a new pilot in 1975. Again working from a Stanley Ralph Ross script (he was the goofy Christopher Nolan of his time), The New, Original Wonder Woman was instead more faithful to the comics and met with success in its first season at ABC.

The series borrowed a page from Marvel’s Captain America by setting all-American Wonder Woman in the 1940s and pitting Diana Prince/Wonder Woman against the Nazis. She spent much of each episode as Diana Prince, but when the danger escalated she invariably transformed into her alter ego and put her super strength, bullet-deflecting bracelets and Lasso of Truth to use.

Former Miss World USA Lynda Carter got her big acting break when she was cast as Wonder Woman. She would go on to define the role and become synonymous with the character for decades to come. The series ran from 1975-1979 and quickly became a cultural touchstone that lives on today through internet images, if not in syndication.

Lynda Carter Wonder Woman 1970s TV Series

Lynda Carter filling out the Wonder Woman costume and foiling a Nazi trap.

The series had great success with ABC for one season, but the network balked when it came up for renewal because the 1940s setting meant higher production costs than were required for modern dramas.

That didn’t stop rival CBS, though. They scooped up the show, changed the time period to the modern day and rechristened it The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. They used Diana’s Amazonian heritage as the explanation for her youth, but they got lazy when it came to her supporting cast. Hunky heartthrob Lyle Waggoner, who played Steve Trevor in Season 1, returned as Steve Trevor Jr., an identical version of his “father,” so they could keep his female fans on board for the switch.

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman Lyle Waggoner aka Steve Trevor Jr. from Playgirl

Steve Trevor, a.k.a. Steve Trevor Jr.

The New Wonder Woman Adventures ran for two seasons at CBS before falling victim to excessive tinkering. The end of Season 3 saw Diana moved to Los Angeles and joined by a new supporting cast, including a chimpanzee.

But even the chimp couldn’t save it. CBS stopped producing the show in favour of Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard, perhaps because they wanted the stars and stripes on a car instead of a pair of panties.

The demise of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman meant the end of the live action character for decades to come. Instead, DC Comics shifted Wonder Woman into more of a team role as part of its various Justice League cartoons. She was prominently featured alongside Batman and Superman in the Super Friends and, in the 2000s, the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons, as well as in the various Justice League DC Animation films.

Justice League Unlimited TV Series Wonder Woman with Batman and Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz

Wonder Woman with Batman and Martian Manhunter in Justice League Unlimited.

After a 23-year live action absence for the character, Joss Whedon finally got the nod in 2007 to develop a Wonder Woman for the big screen, having proven with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly – just about everything he touched – that he could write strong female characters. Unfortunately for fans dying to see Diana get the Buffy treatment, DC’s film studio partner Warner Bros. dragged their heels too much, and Whedon ultimately bolted to direct a little flick called Marvel’s the Avengers.

Instead of that possible live action film, in 2009 Warner Bros. came out with an animated feature film titled Wonder Woman, with Keri Russell of Felicity fame voicing Diana in an origin story for the character. Nathan Fillion, Rosario Dawson and Alfred Molina rounded out a strong voice acting cast, and the release was warmly received.

Despite losing Whedon, DC wasn’t satisfied with just an animated film, and they still wanted to give Wonder Woman to a director known for strong female characters. With Buffy’s creator off the table, they went to their Plan B: a TV series by Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley.

David E. Kelley's Wonder Woman Princess Diana aka Adrianne Palicki in Pants

Pants: the missing ingredient for Wonder Woman’s success.

Kelley cast Adrianne Palicki as corporate CEO Diana Themyscira, a Tony Stark/Iron Man type with the vigilante Wonder Woman as her public alter ego. Kelley complicated things further by giving Ms. Themyscira a third alter ego: that of Diana Prince, a single girl who owns a cat, an apartment and a Facebook page. Diana Themyscira battles rival pharmaceutical CEO Veronica Cale; Wonder Woman runs down superhumans on Hollywood Boulevard; Diana Prince tackles the L.A. dating scene.

Needless to say, it didn’t get beyond the unaired 2011 NBC pilot. When Joss Whedon was asked about Kelley’s pilot, he told Crave Online that “if you don’t have that burning desire to talk about these people who have these insane powers, then some other agenda is going to come forward and you might accidentally turn off the dark.”

That’s exactly what happened when Kelley put Diana in a boardroom. You can watch the pilot here, or you can google it for countless images of Palicki running through downtown traffic wearing star-spangled jeggings.

Adrianne Palicki Wonder Woman Unaired Pilot for NBC running through traffic

Watch out for that Oldsmobile!

All that brings us to 2013. Fresh rumours abound of a TV series, a solo film, or a straight up Justice League debut, but no concrete announcements have been made. Whedon’s departure from Warner Bros. has left them trying to play catch-up with the now wildly successful Marvel movie model. It’s unclear if or when a Justice League movie will happen, and we don’t know if Man of Steel will be part of that cycle or not, but Wonder Woman needs a debut. Batman needs a reboot. Superman may or may not need a reboot, and even Green Lantern is rumoured to be up for a new take.

The future is certainly foggy for Wonder Woman, because no one seems to know how to do her right.

No directors, at least; Hollywood effects man Jesse V. Johnson recently made a fantastic Wonder Woman short, and even managed to wrangle some voice work from Marina Sirtis and an acting performance from Peter Stormare to give it some legitimacy. Check it out.

Perhaps the right approach is to follow Brian Azarello’s lead in his New 52 comic iteration of Wonder Woman. Azarello’s Diana is a kindhearted Xena of sorts, brushing shoulders with gods and demigods while spending equal amounts of time working in the modern world. There’s no need for a secret identity, since Wonder Woman is more of a title than a persona. Wonder Woman could be DC’s answer to Thor, adding godly elements to the Justice League film world.

Nothing else has worked since Lynda Carter donned the gold breastplate and crown.

After four decades of failure, isn’t it time somebody figured this out?

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