Stars and Bars: A Brief History of Wonder Woman Reboots

It’s Independence Day week in America, and appropriately enough Wonder Woman is flying high in the charts more than forty years after she first captured the heart of a nation, and a world, in America’s bicentennial year of 1976. 

The latest Wonder Woman reboot has already earned Patty Jenkins distinction as director of the top grossing live-action box office hit by a female director. Film critic Rich Heldenfels hails Wonder Woman: Rise of the Warrior as the “most important film this year” and, according to Variety magazine, Wonder Woman is the most tweeted about film of 2017 across the globe. Earlier this summer the film simultaneously topped the box office charts in both the U.K. and U.S. 

Cultural critics impressed with Wonder Woman’s most recent break-through, however, neglect the fascinating history of warrior princess reboots since Wonder Woman’s first full season aired in America’s bicentennial year. Ratings for TV’s Wonder Women were high during its first year in primetime in 1976. The show consistently finished in the top 20 in the Nielsen’s, helping ABC edge closer to then-powerhouse NBC as the top network.

One year later, however, and despite all the hoopla, America had apparently stopped believing. In ditching Wonder Woman ABC opted in favour of another violent series starring beautiful and forceful females, Charlie’s Angels, which had already broken into the top ten. By October of 1977, Wonder Woman had slipped to 61 of 68 shows in the ratings. Charlie’s Angels carried guns and warred against the sexist, bigoted, criminal men of their own era rather than against the Nazis of yesteryear. They wore sexy, designer jeans and leotards and scooped neck blouses rather than a red, white, and blue comic-book get-up.

By 1979, as Second Wave Feminism struggled at the advent of the more conservative Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher regimes, the woman warrior took temporary hiatus from TV screens. While Wonder Woman left the primetime airwaves by 1979 in America, in the pages of 1980s and 1990s comic books and graphic novels, she continued to evolve as a crucial lens through which to view evolving attitudes about gender roles. It took well into the 2000s for the woman saviour dreamed up by comic book pioneer and psychologist William Marston (pen name Charles Moulton) to finally reflect the start-to-finish, alpha-to-omega femininity Gloria Steinem had originally wished for the comic book icon. With one brief exception, the script had always been written by man. 

By the early 2000s, and timed to coincide with what many believed to be a social media-powered Fourth Wave of feminist activism and awareness, the graphic novel/comic book version of Wonder Woman added yet another identity—diplomat—as representative of her native island Themyscira to a patriarchal world. By 2003, when novelist Greg Rucka took over the graphic novel script with issue #195, Wonder Woman had also become an authoress, hawking a book of didactic pieces entitled Reflections: A Collection of Essays and Speeches. A bestseller, Diana of Themyscira’s book provoked controversy. Rucka told Comics Bulletin that Reflections was essentially “a new way for Diana to promote her mission in a Patriarch’s World.” While she had not forfeited any of her ass-kicking powers, in the space of thirty years she had evolved from secretary Diana Prince to warrior-author-princess-diplomat. 

“Death’s a bitch, darlings… and then you’re born again.”

Rucka’s rendering of Diana and her many new roles reflected the wider reach of a more gender-equitable discourse. In an interview, the graphic novelist remarked, “It’s just so cool that she can be on the street, after talking to Superman, after addressing the UN general assembly, and on the next page be on Olympus arguing with Zeus, for example.” Rucka’s Wonder Woman had also become more violent, as his graphic storyboards showed her fighting Medusa in a televised battle to the death, and using what was intended to be a peaceful instrument, the magic lasso, to snap a man’s neck, a transgression which lands her before the World Court. By the 2000s Wonder Woman could add “alleged war criminal” to her increasingly lengthy resume. 

In 2007, with a growing female readership and another Amazon-ready cultural moment at hand, DC Comics turned to best-selling author Jodi Picoult to help put the overwhelmingly female audience that had gobbled up her runaway bestseller My Sister’s Keeper back in Wonder Woman’s corner. To that end, Picoult resurrected the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, because, as she wrote, she “wanted Wonder Woman to have a psychological foil just as strong as she is,” and expanded the Amazon princess’s many roles even further than had Rucka.

With Wonder Woman double-crossed and behind bars in the Picoult script, the superhero’s old nemesis, Circe, shows up Paradise Island where she tells the lovely virgins attending the tomb of their mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, “Death’s a bitch, darlings… and then you’re born again.” Circe proceeds to bring the queen mother back to life, a feat after which she utters this chestnut to the young Amazon maids gathered, incredulous, at their Queen’s resurrection, “It is always the same with the world of man. What they don’t understand, they fear, and what they fear they try to tame.” 

One year later in 2008, the strip enjoyed just its second female scribe of the modern era. This time it was Gail Simone at the reigns as the back jacket blurbists at DC Comics promised “a new era for Wonder Woman.” In her introduction to Gail Simone’s work, Mercedes Lackey wrote, “What you hold in your hands is the essence of everything I always wanted Wonder Woman to be, and more. The Amazon Princess. Warrior, Diplomat, Protector, Healer. And Goddess.” Lackey endeavours to explain to a new generation of female readers drawn in by Picoult’s tenure the need-to-know-back-story: “Writers and storytellers have had a love/hate relationship with the Amazons ever since misogynistic Greeks created them out of hearsay stories that were probably about Scythian female warriors as a lesson to their own females about getting Uppity.”

According to Lackey, a series of male writers had simply belied their subconscious gender fears by weakening Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, “from removing her supernatural powers altogether, to making her into a sidekick to a superhero, to relegating her to the job of secretary.” For her part, Lackey was pleased to have the warrior woman back again. “Here is the Supreme Warrior,” she raved.

 Even her cat seems braver

In the storyboard of Simone’s revisionist comic there’s very little of the healer or the diplomat, and plenty of the warrior, as Diana returns to her native Paradise Island intent on defending her mother in an episode aptly named “The Wellspring of Vengeance.” “The time for words was done,” Simone ominously captions a spread that shows Wonder Woman with her eyes narrowed and her battleaxe at the ready. The princess’s blood has come to a boil, and so she serves as conductress tuning up an “orchestra of war” made up of the “cries of the wounded.” 

Once more in Simone’s strip, Wonder Woman battles Nazis. This time, though, they’re modern-day fascists who hope to supplant the quintessential motherland with the patriarchal oppressions of an erstwhile fatherland. Right before Diana swoops in to kill him by strangulation with a chain, the Nazi soldier who’d helped bring about the invasion of the all-woman island laments, “I did wanna see that Wonder Chick, though. I’d know how to make good use of her…. I mean, I’d be all ‘Oh Great Princess Hardbody, won’t you please oh please tie me up with your golden bondage rope…’” 

Encouraged by the success of the woman-written Wonder Woman comics, Warner Brothers announced a TV reboot of the classic series in 2011 starring Adrianne Palicki and written by Ally McBeal creator David Kelley. While the initial script leaked to the press didn’t seem superhero enough for sceptics, a revised version found the woman warrior theme pressed to extremes. Los Angeles Times reporter Melissa Maerz noted, “The [new] version of the script finds her lifting bad guys by the throat, gouging their eyes with her thumbs, kicking them into the air with those go-go boots and making obscene gestures at them. In a flashback, we see her pulling Steve [Trevor] out of a burning aeroplane, despite being told that doing so will be way too dangerous. Even her cat seems braver.” Adding hers to the chorus of voices approving of the script’s amped up revision, Merz enthused, “Well, well! Obscene gestures? Kick-boxing? Animal violence? Is [David] Kelley's Wonder Woman going from white swan to black swan right before our eyes? If so, you’ll find us right in front of the TV for that first episode, screaming like schoolgirls.” 

Without a doubt Wonder Woman: The Rise of the Warrior is the most lucrative Wonder Woman reboot to date, topping 600 million in revenue worldwide by late June according to Forbes magazine. While Gal Godot may be the latest, and arguably the greatest, to play the warrior princess, the fascinating history of Wonder Woman reboots suggests she will not be the last, and thank goodness for that.

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