The DC Extended Universe is rapidly expanding this year; while one film shy of Marvel’s 2017 output, hopes are high for Wonder Woman and Justice League to redeem the lacklustre receptions given to last year’s Batman v Superman and (the Oscar-winning) Suicide Squad. The first of these new films hits screens on June 1, with Patty Jenkins (Monster) at the helm.
Diehard comic book and/or sci-fi fans, however, may remember an earlier Wonder Woman film which almost came into being. Sci-fi legend Joss Whedon was keen on trying his hand at the Amazonian warrior’s story back in 2006. While the project failed to get off the ground, the future Batgirl director’s vision remains tantalising.
If you’d like, you can leave this article now and read the full script – leaked earlier this year – here. But if you’re skipping the 116-page script, there are a few things you need to know: the story would have had a 21st-century setting, a (seemingly) more whimsical and irreverent feel, different villains, and redrawn relationships between Diana, Steve Trevor, and the other Amazons.
Differences in the plot and characters are not too surprising – comics mythology is vast and sprawling with one character often having many canonical origin stories, villains, and defining arcs. While Ares seems the obvious villain of the new DC Universe film, Whedon opted for Strife, who here masquerades as the head of an international tech company. Bacchus pops up in a nightclub (impossible in the new release’s World War I setting), and Diana’s relationship with her mother Hippolyta is much more strained and fierce in Whedon’s interpretation.
Key to Whedon’s vision was its emotional heart, laid out in a 2011 Rookie Magazine interview:
[Wonder Woman] travelled the world. She was very powerful and very naïve about people, and the fact that she was a goddess was how I eventually found my in to her humanity and vulnerability, because she would look at us and the way we kill each other and the way we let people starve and the way the world is run and she’d just be like, ‘None of this makes sense to me. I can’t cope with it, I can’t understand, people are insane.’ And ultimately her romance with [Steve Trevor] was about him getting her to see what it’s like not to be a goddess, what it’s like when you are weak, when you do have all these forces controlling you and there’s nothing you can do about it. That was the sort of central concept of the thing. Him teaching her humanity and her saying, OK, great, but we can still do better.
Does this framework sound familiar? It certainly has echoes of relationships seen in other Joss Whedon creations. Angel and Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Echo and Paul (Dollhouse), and even Kitty Pryde and Colossus from Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men comics. And there’s a reason Whedon often returns to this trope of discovering humanity: it works, it sells, and it attracts fans in droves.
An immortal discovering his or her humanity is fascinating, humanising, and strangely relatable. Such an arc involves high emotional stakes and a focus on personal struggles in addition to ass-kicking, world-saving action. It is a surefire recipe for success, especially in Whedon’s experienced hands, but may not have offered the most satisfying or original experience considering his oeuvre.
From this viewpoint, the fact that Whedon’s foray into cinematic superheroes came with Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) may have been good fortune. The established characters and team dynamic forced by the studio’s grand scheme forced Whedon to write and direct against type, showcasing his flair for witty dialogue and truthful character development of established MCU players. While the heavy studio hand and many larger-than-life figures backfired in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Marvel’s first superhero team-up was a tremendous success.
Back to Wonder Woman: this missed opportunity stemmed from creative differences – the bane of many cinematic projects. In a recent Empire interview, Whedon elaborates on this regret:
I worked really hard on that movie and it meant a lot… but I don’t know if what I was trying to do would fit in with what [the DC Universe] vision is. I had a take on the film that, well, nobody liked… We just saw different movies, and at the price range this kind of movie hangs in, that’s never gonna work.
Whedon’s disappointment is still clear even a decade after his project was shelved – understandable, with such a passion project. Creative differences, however, may not have been its sole sinking. In 2005, he may not have had the marketability to pull off such a massive studio project.
Whedon was certainly beloved by a cult following for his exceptional sci-fi/fantasy TV shows – often pulled off on a tiny budget – but was still largely untested in Hollywood. His choice for the title role, Eliza Dushku, may have contributed to the project stalling; while a formidable presence as Faith and Echo on Buffy and Dollhouse respectively, she may have lacked the name recognition and acting range to tackle such an icon.
Sadly, another obstacle between Whedon’s vision and reality was the belief that woman-led superhero films were box office poison; Catwoman and Elektra had both recently been released to lacklustre reviews and revenue. But these films failed due to their poor scripts and shoddy storylines, not the women leading them; the Hunger Games trilogy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have since disproved the ridiculous belief that women cannot sell films.
Whedon himself has stated that he believes this inherent industry sexism contributed to the downfall of his Wonder Woman film. Hopefully, regardless of the reception given to Patty Jenkins’ film, any blame will be directed at creative faults and not the lead’s gender.
Until this past week, this reflection would have felt like a conclusion. Now, with news of Whedon’s earlier-than-expected involvement in the DC Universe following Zack Snyder’s Justice League departure, the door to jump back into Wonder Woman still feels open.
While the circumstances surrounding Snyder stepping down are tragic, and only post-production and additional footage remain, Whedon will now finally be directing Diana of Themyscira and her associates on the big screen. We only have to wait until November to see his efforts – a paltry time compared to his decade-long dream deferred.