Dear Zack Snyder, Regarding Wonder Woman

Dec 9, 2013
Originally published on December 10, 2013 2:53 pm

TO: Zack Snyder, Big Time Hot Shot Hollywood Director
FROM: Glen Weldon, Nerd
IN RE: Wonder Woman

Dear Zack Snyder:

I see you've cast The Fast and the Furious' Gal Gadot as Diana of the Amazons, aka Wonder Woman.

I see, also, that the Internet has reacted as it can be counted upon to do, when such casting announcements occur. Namely, with fulsome, fulminating nerd rage.

I am here to tell you, Zack Snyder: Keep your head down. Ignore it. Make your movie.

And not because it's all just more of the tiresome, predictable, reflexive carping that has come to serve as the static hiss, the universal background radiation, of comics culture, though it is that. And I know whereof I speak, here, as the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman in the very same movie led me to tiresomely, predictably and reflexively carp about it in this space.

(Point of order: My hand-wringing in the Batfleck case was and is born of my conviction that the past is prologue — that we've already seen the guy play a grim vigilante who haunts the shadows of the urban night — albeit one more given to red pleather than black Kevlar — and be hilariously, jaw-droppingly, savagely lousy at it.)

Gadot is different. We haven't seen her in a role similar to Wonder Woman, because the role of Wonder Woman is so singular. More on that in a second.

Much of the criticism directed at this casting choice — too much — has revolved around Gadot's physicality. She's too thin, too wispy, too short, goes the argument, when Wonder Woman is a badass. She's a kicker of butts, so you need someone with some meat on her bones and a proven track record of butt-kicking, like fellow Fast & Furious alumnae Michelle Rodriguez and ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano.

(Full disclosure: Ever since Joss Whedon's Firefly first aired back in 2002, I've been boring friends with my abiding conviction that Gina Torres was born for the role. And those who reacted to this casting announcement by noting that the mythical nature of Wonder Woman's ethnicity — Amazonian — means you ignored a perfect opportunity to put a woman of color in a landmark role? ... OK, yeah, they've got a point.)

But this focus on the musculature of the actor in question is a dead end, where Wonder Woman is concerned. Christian Bale bulked up for the role in Nolan's Batman, true, but Bruce Wayne's a mere mortal. We need to see that he's trained his body for his mission.

Diana, on the other hand, is creature of myth and fantasy. Her physical strength is an important aspect of her character, but it is not a function of her lean body mass. Whether or not Gadot will make an interesting, let alone convincing, Wonder Woman has nothing to do with the size of her biceps.

No, Wonder Woman is a presence, a figure of mingled strength and compassion. There's one and only one thing that Gadot needs to project, the moment she comes on-screen:

"I got this."

Call it gravitas, or regality, or plain old ordinary conviction. Wonder Woman may or not be large, but she's always, always, always in charge.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Diana?

As you know, several factors have kept Wonder Woman off the big screen thus far, and one of them — the most-cited, in industry circles — is completely bogus: the notion that a female character can't open a blockbuster.

The era of studios being able to point to the failures of Catwoman and Elektra as proof that female superhero properties are nonstarters — as opposed to proof that Hollywood can make terrible movies — is over. It was always false, but now, in a post-Hunger Games reality, it's demonstrably so.

But there's another, deeper reason, and it has to do with who Wonder Woman is, at her core.

Her most essential self is an abiding contradiction, an oxymoronic riddle:

She is a Warrior ... for Peace.

She fights ... to stop us from fighting.

At first, it made sense. Because unlike Superman and Batman, who appeared before America entered World War II and who kept themselves stateside throughout the conflict, Wonder Woman was created expressly to go toe-toe with the Axis threat. She served as America's star-spangled ally in the war against a great and unambiguous evil — an evil that, she avowed, must be defeated utterly, if there was ever to be peace.

Historically, her greatest foe has been the God of War (referred to variously as Mars or Ares) — a powerfully evil figure who glories in the violence and chaos of armed conflict, and who was depicted pulling the Nazis' strings.

Wonder Woman's patrons, on the other hand, have included the Goddess of Love (Aprhrodite/Venus) and, more recently, the Goddess Minerva/Athena, a deity of battlefield strategy and honor.

When the war ended, her driving principle — "Stop fighting or I'll beat you up!" — grew harder to sell. She's been many things, over the years — a depowered globe-trotting kung-fu adventuress/fashion boutique owner, a Goddess of Truth, an Amazonian ambassador (complete with a colorful embassy staff), dead.

But these have all felt to me like iterations, imitations, off-brand avatars of her true self, who will forever be most at home punching Nazis in their collective schnoz.

Lately, in the pages of DC's recently relaunched Wonder Woman comic, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang have come up with a fresh take that's opening up new sides to the character. In their book, they've lifted her out of the superhero world and returned her to her mythic roots, as a woman caught up in the machinations of a fractious and violent mafia family fueled by bile, guile and long-nursed grudges — who just so happen to be Greek gods. Think Bullfinch's Mythology by way of The Sopranos, and you begin to get the idea. I'd suggest, Mr. Snyder, that you read up on the version of the character in those pages, to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

(You can probably skip the more generic version of Wonder Woman now appearing in DC's Justice League book, and the book that chronicles her romance with Superman, for that matter.)

Anyway. I'll let you go, as you've got a lot of work to do, what with this sequel being rushed into production and all. If I had more time, I'd raise some of my concerns about your ability to understand and create compelling stories about women, but that would mean I'd have to bring up your film Sucker Punch, and ... well.

I don't want to talk about that. You don't want to talk about that.

Yours in cautiously pessimistic hope, or its closest analogue,

Glen Weldon

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While we're on the subject of geeks and dorks, a bomb dropped in their world last week. Warner Bros. has confirmed that the next installment of its "Man of Steel" movie franchise will star actress Gal Gadot as the comic's most famous woman, Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman.

In the era of Dark Knight ad nauseam, where every Avenger gets his own spin-off, Wonder Woman comes to the big screen for the first time, after decades of turmoil and more than one disastrous reinvention.

For more, we're joined by NPR contributor Glen Weldon. And, Glen, give us Wonder Woman's back story, because I know she's got roots in World War II, right?

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Absolutely. Unlike Superman and Batman, who preceded her by a bit, Wonder Woman was created in and for World War II. That was her whole shtick, was fighting the Nazis. And she was created to be something of a contradiction, which is one of the reasons it's been so tough to bring her to the screen. She is a warrior for peace. That's tough.


WELDON: That's a tough thing unless you're in a World War II, situation where you have an ambiguously evil Nazi enemy. Elsewhere in the world, when she's been trying to introduce them to other scenarios, it's a rougher fit. So it's tough to write stories about.

CORNISH: So perhaps that's why she hit a crossroads in 1968, right? They tried to reinvent the characters in the comics and it was pretty unpopular, even drew criticism from none other than Gloria Steinem. What happened?

WELDON: Well, Gloria Steinem, in the very first issue of Ms. magazine, had a Wonder Woman for president campaign, and it was Wonder Woman in the actual old star-spangled panties and the eagle on the bust. And they decided at DC to take away her powers and make her a woman of the world and just have her be - have the strength of a normal woman.

It was a nod toward women's lib, it was a nod toward equality to sexes. And theoretically, it works. But in execution, it was just silly. And Gloria Steinem came to them and said, look, you've taken away the symbol. The symbol is that she's strong. And by making her like everybody else, you're taking away her power.

CORNISH: Now, this isn't really the first time, right, that they've tried to bring this character off the page. There's obviously the television show. I think there's a cartoon. But in this latest iteration, she's actually not the star of her own film. She's going to be in the background to Batman and Superman. What do we make of this?

WELDON: Well, I mean, the iconic Wonder Woman is, of course, Lynda Carter, as you mentioned before. And that was perfectly successful. That was hugely successful for its time. They have darkened the whole superhero universe now to make it kind of fit the Dark Knight. So when Zack Snyder made "Man of Steel," he made it very grim and gritty. And so putting a character like Wonder Woman into this milieu might or may not work.

CORNISH: But that being said, we've got a weapon-wielding heroine right now - in the "Hunger Games," Katniss Everdeen - that's pretty bleak. There's also the Black Widow in the "Avengers" series. Do we even need Wonder Woman then?

WELDON: Well, I don't know. I mean, we can't really say anything. I came on this show when we announced the Ben Affleck casting to whinge about it. But I'm not going to say anything about this particular casting yet because we don't know how they're going to use her or what they're going to do with her or even what the story is.

I - there was a really interesting piece on the Atlantic about, you know, Wonder Woman isn't a sidekick, and you're putting here into this story to kind of play second fiddle. But there is no reason in the world to think that this isn't the first step with Wonder Woman and not the only one because we have seen - the notion that a female lead character can't open a blockbuster was always false. It's been proven demonstrably false by "The Hunger Games," by "The Heat," by other things like that.

So now, Warner Bros. has been angling to get a Wonder Woman film into the theaters for so long, I got to imagine that this introduction of Wonder Woman into this film is a stopgap. It's what we used to call on television a backdoor pilot, where we introduce the character in one place so that we can devote an entire film to her after. I don't see any reason to think that this is just a one-off with Wonder Woman. I think, if they're smart, they're going to keep this played out for a while.

CORNISH: So there's not high stakes here. Some people are saying that if they mess up this Wonder Woman, we won't get another chance. There won't be another woman hero.

WELDON: Audie, we always get another chance. They're superheroes, they keep coming back. They keep getting iterated and reiterated ad infinitum, some say ad nauseam.

CORNISH: That's Glen Weldon. He's the author of "The Unauthorized Biography of Superman." Thanks so much for talking with us.

WELDON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.