Some say a Wonder Woman movie is impossible to write or that men won’t be interested. I say I’m a man and I’ll pitch three different Wonder Woman movies right now.
Over and over, when the concept of a Wonder Woman movie is floated, I hear the same objection from my fellow geeks. “It’s not doable,” they say. “The character’s mythos is too convoluted, there’s no clear character hook, she doesn’t have any good villains. Like she’s going to spend two hours fighting the Cheetah and Egg Fu? Nobody cares about Wonder Woman.”
Plenty of people have already pointed out that this supposedly unlikable, unwritable character has already carried a successful TV series for three seasons, which is three more than most superheroes have done. (Ever see the Captain America pilot that didn’t get picked up? Or the Spirit pilot that didn’t get picked up? Or the Doctor Strange pilot that… well, you get the idea.)
Thing is, I don’t want to totally dismiss the notion that she’s got a complicated and confusing backstory, and a mythos that’s often completely at odds with itself. Because it’s true. She’s a feminist icon who’s also a bondage fetish icon. She’s from a lost island of Amazon warriors, except they’re pacifists, except they’re futuristic, except they’re ancient and old-fashioned. She’s the daughter of the queen, except that she’s actually a statue brought to life by the Greek pantheon. Oh, and the Greek pantheon is real. Except when it’s not.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to write a movie; it just means that you’ve got a whole wealth of possibilities to choose from. I’ll pitch three different Wonder Woman movies right now, and I think any of them could work. These aren’t fully-developed pitches, just off-the-cuff ideas with a basic three-act structure and some room to do cool stuff.
First, let me dispose of the idea that Wonder Woman doesn’t have a clear character hook. She does and she always has. More so than most superheroes, Wonder Woman really does have a specific mission: she is here to show us a better way. Her job is to come to our messed-up, hurting world, to “man’s world” as she used to call it, and say It doesn’t have to be like this.
So let’s take that basic hook and see how many ways we can spin it into a movie.
1. Dark and paranoid
Let’s get this one out of the way first. In this version, Paradise Island/Themyscira is an undersea colony established centuries ago by the Amazons, a weird offshoot of Greek culture that has been developing super-technology in isolation for millennia. Diana, Wonder Woman, is the princess of this place, the greatest master of their strange weapons and healing rays.
The world finally intrudes on Themyscira in the form of a sinking refugee ship that threatens to come down right on top of them. Wonder Woman of course saves said ship in your basic spectacular act-one setpiece. Upon learning that the outside world is wracked by war and general awfulness, she defies her mother and leaves Themyscira to help bring justice to man’s world.
The war refugees are coming from a nearby war, where a rich and powerful country is invading a much smaller country for reasons that aren’t really clear. Act two features plenty of action with her bending tank barrels, blocking bullets midair, catching missiles in mid-flight, and generally trying to stop a war singlehandedly. As the media profile of this superhuman Wonder Woman rises, not only do attacks start targeting her personally, but they’re coming in the form of increasingly spectacular super-technology.
Finally one such attack, a drone gunship that interrupts a press conference in our act two setpiece, provides her with a clue. She’s able to trace that clue back to a small oligarchy of military suppliers and contractors. Between them, they own enough of the government of the big, rich country that they can gin up a war out of nothing if they want to, so they have. The war is happening because it’s an easy way for these guys to get the world’s richest country to just hand them slightly over one trillion dollars.
What’s better, though, is what Wonder Woman herself is doing for their business. She’s the largest single black-budget line item in their history, as panicked governments throw taxpayer money at the masters of war in hope of developing a weapon that can stop her. They don’t care how many of their weapons she destroys because they’ll just be handed more money to replace them.
Wonder Woman, unsurprisingly, does not endorse their business model, and thinks it’s better for the world if they all just disappear.
There’s a place in Themyscira where people like them can be taken, where they’ll never hurt anyone again and where they will learn, a little at a time, to be good human beings. They try to explain to her that this won’t accomplish anything, that tomorrow new guys will have their same jobs, that the economic forces involved make their work inevitable, but she rejects their worldview. They say nobody in the world can fight money, she says nobody in their world has ever tried.
As she’s taking them off to Themyscira in her invisible plane, their latest autonomous mega-drone system finally picks up its target and closes in, all missiles and lasers and targeted EMP systems and sub-drone swarms and anything else that’s in the budget. And as the baddies panic in her increasingly-disabled plane, Wonder Woman fights like hell to save their lives. She wins, of course, and the douchebags were wrong; things get better with them gone, with her setting an example, with more people seeing that the world can be less awful.
This is the version in the Nolan Batman mode; all scary men in suits, military hardware right and left, and a certain weirdly fascist undertone. Back in the old days, Diana was always hauling bad guys off to, I kid you not, Punishment Island, where they were remade into solid citizens through the power of bondage and discipline. So if we make her hippie gulag a bit less porny, we’ve got something audiences are already conditioned to root for.
2. The endless struggle
One of the fun things about Wonder Woman is that she’s immortal. So why not embrace that with our story? Let’s have her leave Paradise Island in the 1940s as WWII threatens to spill over into their little utopia, so we can start off with some old-fashioned straight-up Nazi fightin’. This version leans a little more heavily on her mythological origins, so maybe we see her getting the blessings of some of the gods, like her magic lasso and her armor.
So she fights the Nazis, she romances military intelligence officer Steve Trevor, the good guys win the war, and she sticks around. And around. We get a nice montage of her fighting the good fight through the whole second half of the 20th century. Steve Trevor gets older and moves on, and Diana keeps fighting.
Until one day she’s summoned back to Themyscira to stand trial. The Amazons have convened a tribunal, over the queen’s objections, to pronounce judgment on their princess. Under the impartial eye of Athena, they declare that she has failed. She’s spent seventy years trying to change man’s world for the better, and it’s still violent, cruel, and pointlessly awful all the time for no reason. She is to be stripped of her royal title, and never again leave Paradise Island, on pain of permanent exile.
Naturally, she chooses exile because fuck you.
Afterward, she’s shattered. She covers it up by fighting harder than ever, but she has been told she’s a failure, and deep down she believes it. She’s lost her title, her family, her culture, everything but what she had on her when she left for the last time.
At her lowest point, she sees something in the latest battle she’s intervening to stop. An inhuman bloodlust that comes out of nowhere. Looking back, she’s seen that kind of thing a lot of times. She even saw signs of it at her tribunal. It’s what she should have recognized a long time ago: the mark of divine intervention.
Flying her invisible plane in a direction normal people can’t steer, she heads for Mount Olympus. When the plane dies, she climbs with her bare hands. She storms the gates of the gods and demands to face the one son of a bitch who would do this to her: Ares, god of war.
Ares stonewalls, denying everything, so Diana has no choice but demand her right to trial by combat. Naturally, with the actual god of war against an upstart disinherited Amazon, she doesn’t stand a chance. Naturally, she wins anyway. His innate cowardice coming out in defeat, Ares admits that he had to do it because she was winning. Since she entered man’s world, wars keep getting smaller. Fewer people keep dying in them. The god of war is slowly becoming more irrelevant every year and he blames her.
Of course, the rest of their gods turn their backs on Ares, Diana is welcomed home to Paradise Island and her royal title returned to her. Her mother even mentions that she’s been thinking of retiring so Diana can take over the throne. Diana asks if mom can hang in there a few more decades, because there’s still a lot of work to be done, and Diana of Themyscira is no quitter.
This one’s more of a personal story, humanizing Diana a bit at the same time that it mythologizes her more. Give it a nice epic feel, could be a lot of fun.
3. Embrace the wonder
Now let’s go yet a different way. Given that Wonder Woman is here to show us that the world can be better, let’s look at what better can mean. Sure, she fights against war and injustice and all that good stuff, but let’s throw a little color in here. And by color I mean Etta Candy.
Etta Candy is, as I’ve written before, the best damn sidekick ever, specifically because nobody thinks she should be one. She’s a short, fat, crazy girl whose superpower is giving zero fucks, and who goes on adventures because going on adventures is awesome. That’s an attitude that’s been sorely missing from too many superhero movies.
So we open as usual with Wonder Woman spurred by some spectacular vehicular tragedy to leave Paradise Island and become the ambassador to man’s world. This time, though, her reception is different. Yes, she performs various awesome-looking superhuman feats of heroism and humanitarian goodness, but nobody seems to care.
She’s a “lighter side” story at the end of a news broadcast that’s mostly celebrity gossip. She’s a YouTube remix joke. She’s dismissed as a publicity stunt or a huckster or a hoaxer, everyone too cool to even think of taking her seriously. Everyone except the first person she met, a chubby black teenager named Etta Candy, who thinks Wonder Woman is the only thing in the world that isn’t a bunch of fake crap.
Things are looking up for Wonder Woman when she gets invited to appear on the wildly popular Dr. Cy Show, with plain-talking self-help guru Dr. Cyrus Kovacs, a man whose every utterance comes out of his mouth ready to be superimposed over a photo of a sunrise and forwarded to you on Facebook. The interview goes weird, however, as Dr. Cy forces Wonder Woman to admit that you can’t expect people to look out for others if they have their own problems, and turns the conversation toward tenderly asking when the last time was that Diana rescued… herself?
Afterward, Diana’s not the same. She can’t seem to remember why the things she was doing were important. She’s irritable and doesn’t want to talk to anyone. The only one who can save her is, of course, Etta, who breaks through Wonder Woman’s mental fog and reminds her who she is.
Naturally, this means that the banal, inoffensive Dr. Cy Show is, in fact, a massive mind-control apparatus keeping people sheeplike, selfish, and stupid. What else would it be? With Etta’s help, Wonder Woman busts up the entire operation, despite some extremely out-of-place artifacts and technology that turn up in the process.
Dr. Cy’s entire multimedia empire, it turns out, was an evil plot orchestrated by Mars, the Roman god of war. Sedated people don’t object to bloodshed, after all, and the wasted psychic energy can be stored for nefarious purposes. The only way to handle this is for Wonder Woman and Etta to use Dr. Cy’s equipment to astral-project themselves to Mars. (Not the one we sent the robot probes to, the other Mars, the one with gods. It’s easy to get them confused because they’re in the same place.)
On Mars, Wonder Woman and Etta confront Mars himself, surrounded by the kingdom he’s built out of all the possibilities and ideas that were wasted and drained out of Earthlings by his system. He’s able to destroy them with all the power that people voluntarily gave up because it was too much trouble to think about, and that’s a lot.
It’s not enough to beat Wonder Woman and Etta, of course, not when Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth can break down the lies that are the foundational structure of all Mars’s power. As his empire collapses, Etta and Wonder Woman return to their bodies on Earth, where already things are starting to look different. More colorful, more absurd, more interesting.
This one is if The Matrix didn’t take itself so seriously. It’s about freeing people’s minds and letting them see that the world is a cooler place than they’ve been told, that there’s hidden islands and invisible planes and Roman gods with media empires and all kinds of adventures waiting for you to reach out for them.
Myself, I like the third one of these, but there’s cases to be made for all of them. Also cases to be made against all of them, of course. Maybe none of these are the Wonder Woman movie you see in your heart, or that you want to see in theaters. The point is, don’t tell me there’s no way to do it when I can think of three different ways without even trying.