In the run-up to summer's most highly anticipated superhero blockbuster, the Alamo Drafthouse — a hip cinema chain based in Austin, TX — made an announcement last week that was Amazonian in nature. It planned to host a screening of Wonder Woman for women and women only, the proceeds of which would benefit Planned Parenthood.
Given the times we live in, and the fact that the film’s titular heroine is a cult feminist icon, it seems pretty obvious — even appropriate — that women might revel in a girls-only moviegoing experience this time around. Obvious to some, anyway. To others — specifically, a handful of easily ruffled men on the internet — women-only screenings pose an offensive, potentially lawsuit-worthy violation of human rights. Under different circumstances, it might be easy to laugh off this short-fuse hyperbolic response. But in 2017, it feels ominously symptomatic of a larger trend toward chauvinism.
That's because we live in a world that veered off a sexist cliff last November — one in which women are labeled as both a special-interest group and a group that doesn’t merit special interest. We’re back to battling for birth control and for our vaginas to not be considered a pre-existing condition that’s literally up for grabs. So Wonder Woman — a unifying symbol of female strength who's literally built on the concept of empowerment — couldn’t have arrived at a more poignant time.
Not that it was planned that way. Wonder Woman is swooping in at what seems like the perfect moment to symbolize female power in the face of struggle, but — plagued by false starts and sudden stops — the project has actually spent 17 long years winding its way through the Hollywood machine. The fact that it’s on the precipice of debut now is less evidence of genius marketing than it is a kismet not even Warner Bros. is capable of pulling off. Which is why, in a way, her arrival in theaters on June 2 feels like destiny.
A superior warrior raised and trained on a utopian island of battle-ready women, Wonder Woman’s guiding philosophy is inflected by traditionally feminine qualities, like justice, compassion, and love; her superpowers are buoyed by weapons which include bullet-deflecting bracelets and a Lasso of Truth. At any other time in history, these might have been the least impressive characteristics of a superhero in the galaxy. But not now. At a moment when the #resistance is woman-led, when truth is being assaulted by fake news, when the man leading the U.S. oozes toxic masculinity, and female autonomy is under attack, the truth is that it seems fated that the biggest superhero of summer would be one of us, too.
Like most women worth getting to know better, Wonder Woman's personal history is complicated. She is either a demigod, the daughter of Zeus, or a former lump of clay, among other creation-myth musings. Her given name is Diana — a moniker she'll continue to use as an alias over the years — and she is royalty among the Amazons, an ancient race of female warriors. Centuries before, this tribe of women escaped the violence and oppression of Man’s World and went to live on Themyscira, a.k.a. Paradise Island, where Diana was raised and honed her supernatural skill set.
One day, an aircraft crashes near the shore, bringing with it Steve Trevor — the first representative of mankind Diana has ever come into contact with. After saving him from almost certain death, she secures the honor of escorting him back to Man's World, where war is ravaging the globe, both in the comic strip and in actual world history. The original story, which debuted in the early '40s, cast Nazis as the bad guys; in the new film, Diana and Steve return to beat back the nefarious German forces during World War I.
“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world,” William Moulton Marston, the man who created Wonder Woman, told Family Circle magazine in 1945, four years after she first flew onto the scene.
And what type of woman was that? In essence, one who sought justice and peace with a heart guided by a true love for mankind; who was capable of hedging the world back toward goodness through her physical strength and power — but also with her heart.
To accomplish that tall order of a mission, Wonder Woman was endowed with tools of the trade: the Lasso of Truth, which compels whomever it is wrapped around to spill their secrets; the Bracelets of Submission, which allow the wearer to deflect bullets and sonic blasts; and a tiara that functions as both a boomerang and a way to keep hair out of her face. (Even Amazon warrior princesses with super powers suffer from flyaways.)
But when people think of Wonder Woman, those aren’t usually the first accoutrements that spring to mind. More often than not, our minds focus on her physique above all else. Her sex appeal is part of the package, but it also complicates the way we engage with her: It’s easy to look at Wonder Woman and only see what’s skin-deep. And while the real source of her power lies beneath the surface, it's hard to get there if you're stuck on the swirling dark hair, ample bust line, long legs, and skimpy outfit. It’s not her fault — she’s just drawn that way — but it has proven a hurdle when it comes to telling her real story anywhere other than the comic strips where she cut her teeth.
Wonder Woman has always been a kind of Rorschach test for where we are on the quest for gender equality. Modeled by Marston on leaders of the nascent feminist movement (including his own wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston; his lover and much more, Olive Byrne, and the early birth control advocate Margaret Sanger) Wonder Woman had a pro-woman philosophy baked into her ink-and-color outline from the get-go. She arrived on the scene at a moment when women's interests in the world were looking up, at least in certain privileged circles. Marston, a lawyer and psychologist who also invented the lie detector test, championed progressive women's causes of his day, and Wonder Woman was a vehicle for getting those views out into the wider world.
It helped that her arrival was timed to men shipping off to war, and women moving into the workplace. During the mid-'40s, troops were battling the Axis powers overseas, and Rosie the Riveter became the star of a government campaign to bring women into the munitions industry. Before World War II formally came to an end, female participation in the U.S. workplace jumped to nearly 37% of the force, and almost a quarter of all married women worked outside the home. "We Can Do It!" was a domestic battlecry that coincided perfectly with a character like Wonder Woman, who espoused American valor, power, and the fortitude of female strength.
But when men returned from the war, Rosie the Riveter all but went into retirement: Women were overwhelmingly relegated back into the domestic sphere — whether that was something they wanted or not. Around the same time, Marston died, leaving Wonder Woman in the hands of another writer — one who downplayed her feminist underpinnings to the point of obscurity, pumped up her less significant superpowers, and made mooning over Steve Trevor a central plot point of the comic strips. Meanwhile, as women's progress hit a lull, the 1950s' nuclear family idyll — a mother at home caring for her husband and kids — took root; and in a parallel universe, Diana Prince came out to the world as Wonder Woman, and married the man of her dreams.
As the years ticked by into the '60s, Wonder Woman, no longer a radical outlier among superheroes, went on adventures with genies and got a makeover, swapping out her original ensemble for what was essentially a star-spangled cape and bathing suit. In 1968, she literally lost her powers — giving them up so that she could remain on Earth and help Steve while he faced criminal charges — and opened a mod boutique.
Her character went through a kind of identity crisis during this era, in part because the writing team behind her was in a near-constant state of shuffle. In a way, it makes sense that Wonder Woman was off finding herself during the '60s and early '70s — because women all over the world were in a state of redefinition, too. Lest we forget: These were the years in which women's liberation began to bubble and then boil; when women in America had newly obtained access to the birth control pill and, later, the right to have an abortion, among other wins.
Not long after the personal was declared political, Wonder Woman hit her stride once again — this time, at the forefront of the new wave feminist movement and on the cover of the first-ever issue of Ms. magazine. The bold cover line read "Wonder Woman For President" and lit the fuse of the character's mainstream appeal. By 1975, she had her own ABC series, starring Lynda Carter, who pioneered the ballerina-style spin that transformed her from ordinary gal-about-town Diana Prince, into a superhero. (The show ran for three seasons before being cancelled due to a lack of new cast members and low ratings, but continued to run in syndication for years thereafter.)
In the late-'80s, the team of writers behind Wonder Woman gave her another revamp — this time going back to the very beginning, when Marston was still penning the script. When she was relaunched by writers in 1987, her feminism was overt — reinvigorated and put centerstage — as was her mythological backstory, which helped differentiate her from other members of the superhero gang. By the time the Third Wave was rolling in, Wonder Woman was becoming an icon anew — a symbol of girl power when the Girl Power '90s had barely begun. It seemed like only a matter of time before she would make her debut on the silver screen.
Up until very, very recently, Wonder Woman's story has remained elusive as far as Hollywood is concerned. The new film — directed by Patty Jenkins, the first woman ever helm a superhero blockbuster — goes back to the start, from Diana’s youth to the day she sees a plane appear out of nowhere and crash into the aquamarine shores of Themyscira. Sticking close to the original comic, her mission becomes to return Steve Trevor to Man's World, and thwart a gruesome end to The War to End All Wars. When she’s confronted with the worst of what humanity has to offer, she doesn’t balk. Instead, she sees the good in people and pledges to be a champion for peace and compassion.
It’s taken the better part of two decades for studios to come around to putting this version the Wonder Woman story in front of audiences. There has always been creative schizophrenia around the character, and producers have long struggled to zero in on which Wonder Woman storylines to tackle. Are her Greek roots too inaccessible for unfamiliar audiences? How can they shape a story that draws in people who aren't familiar with her legacy but also pleases die-hard fans? Should she be modernized — or left alone? These are the questions that have confounded filmmakers since they started trying to make this movie back in 2001, when Joel Silver, famed producer of the Matrix, secured the rights to bring the character to the big screen.
The first writer associated with the project, Todd Alcott, wanted to stick close to Wonder Woman’s mythological heritage. But the studio had other plans, which amounted to dressing her up in black leather and setting the story in a futuristic city. The resultant script pivoted to a completely different character: Donna Troy, Wonder Woman’s daughter, a geeky, bespectacled nobody until she inherits supernatural powers after her mother’s death. Sandra Bullock, hot off Miss Congeniality, was the frontrunner for that zero-to-hero role, but reportedly told the team they would have to rework the story again if they were serious about bringing her on board. Fans agreed. When the script leaked, critics pilloried the plot line.
Later versions were not much better. There was the one from Alexander writer Laeta Kalogridis, who returned to Diana’s roots on the mythical Amazonian Island Themyscira, placing Wonder Woman as the last line of defense against Ares’ plot to plunge the entire planet into war. Another script from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon stuck with Wonder Woman’s mythological roots but moved the story up into contemporary times, also shifting Diana’s attitude from compassionate lover of mankind to cynical skeptic of humanity. Then there was yet another version Silver purchased on spec that channeled early issues of the comic; that one got nixed because it took place during World War II.
But all this back and forth barely mattered, given that there were even bigger storms rumbling overhead: Two other female-led superhero flicks, made and released in the mid-aughts, both tanked, making it even more difficult to get a Wonder Woman project off the ground. The first of these was Catwoman, the sexed-up superhero flick starring Halle Berry, which has been dubbed one of the worst films of all time. It flopped, hard, in 2004. A year later, Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner, bombed with critics and at the box office, too, adding to a flawed-but-snowballing theory that the problem wasn’t the movies themselves, but the fact that women, in general, just aren’t bankable. It wasn’t long after that that then-president of Warner Bros. production Jeff Robinov allegedly declared all woman-led projects dead on arrival.
The Wonder Woman that hits theaters in early June wasn’t without its own series of hiccups and false starts — apparently, that’s what it takes to bring her to the big screen. Originally, Warner Bros. announced that screenwriter Jason Fuchs, of Ice Age: Continental Drift, had won the bid. But before the film made it to production, there was yet another switch-up: The Fuchs version was abandoned. It was ultimately Allan Heinberg — a veteran TV writer who also wrote the DC Comics miniseries issue, “Who Is Wonder Woman?” — who inked the final screenplay.
There was drama behind the lens, too. Director Michelle MacLaren, best known for her work on prestige TV like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, was originally slated to helm the new Wonder Woman. But she cut ties with the project in early 2015 during pre-production, reportedly due to disagreements with the studio about story direction.
According to reports, MacLaren was bent on making the film more of a historical epic, while Warner Bros. was angling for a character-driven narrative. In the end, MacLaren departed, leaving the studio in a sudden lurch, and Patty Jenkins, who had been in the running from the beginning, was quickly placed in the director’s chair, keeping Wonder Woman on schedule for a June 2017 release. All of this created a tense moment for women who were worried that the change-ups wouldn't bode well — that Wonder Woman wouldn't succeed, or that it wouldn't get it right. It's true that channeling her legacy in a way that pleases everyone and manages to draw in new fans was always going to be tricky.
But — compared to other superhero blockbusters — there is a lot riding on the new Wonder Woman. Because she's a female character proving herself in what has traditionally been a male genre, the movie doesn't just have to be good: It has to be spectacular to bust through the ceiling and be considered a success. The pressure is on, and the annals of entertainment history prove that female-helmed action films don’t get a lot of shots to begin with.
In a way, that makes the new Wonder Woman a surrogate for a certain strain of modern womanhood: the idea that anything less that outright perfection is failure. And while that theme doesn’t come up explicitly in the new film, it’s hard to view Wonder Woman herself as anything but a walking contradiction of the competing demands placed on women’s shoulders today. She must be both inhumanly strong and very of-this-earth sexy, a bombshell on a battlefield in all senses. She must possess a heart that acts unconditionally in the best interest of mankind, despite mounting evidence that they don’t always deserve her.
Wonder Woman is a testament to female rebelliousness and independence — but in the trappings of a Barbie doll with a CrossFit addiction. Maybe that’s why watching her two-stories high, kicking ass and saving the world, is so undeniably cathartic, the sort of thing you would want to watch in a theater, surrounded by other women who can't look away. It’s almost like an acknowledgement that you would literally have to be a superhero — or maybe a demigoddess among men — to meet the bar of what’s being asked of ordinary women every day.
And so in a way, you could say that it’s fate that — after decades of back and forth, of false starts and setbacks — her story would finally make it to the big screen, this year of all years. We are in the middle of another one of those seismic cultural shifts, possibly the most drastic yet. And Wonder Woman has arrived just in the nick of time.
Wonder Woman opens nationwide in theaters on June 2, 2017.