Why Wonder Woman Belongs on Television, Where Female Superheroes Thrive

Television has been a gold mine for three-dimensional female characters for the last twenty years.
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I have written a couple times about the David E. Kelly Wonder Woman reboot that is apparently scheduled for this fall on NBC. The show will allegedly involve a somewhat 'realistic' take on the Amazon warrior, with Diana being a CEO by day and a vigilante at night. The pilot is allegedly going to be directed by McG, best known for the Charlie's Angels movies but also one of the creative forces behind the popular spy-comedy Chuck (he directed the pilot for that one too). Much of the discussion over the last few months has revolved around 'why television and not a movie?'. Warner Bros. has struggled to get a big screen Wonder Woman feature off the ground for nearly a decade or so, with Joss Whedon giving over three years of his life to make it a reality. But the cold hard truth is that a character like Wonder Woman is frankly a better fit for television. I say this not because the lower budgets for television action shows won't hurt (they will), or that superheroes in television have always been huge successes (catch The Cape before it's gone...), but because television has been a gold mine for three-dimensional female characters for the last twenty years.

In the cinema, Wonder Woman would be held up as some kind of groundbreaking feminist standard, a big-budget superhero adventure starring a female heroine. If the theoretical film turned out to actually be good, it would be a ground-breaker of a whole different sort. The big-budget action adventure films starring women are few and far between, but the good action-adventure fantasies starring women are almost non-existent. Men get Batman Begins, Iron Man, Blade, and Men in Black. Women get Catwoman, Electra, Tank Girl, and Barb Wire. With the exception of the Alien franchise (starring Sigourney Weaver) and the handful of action pictures starring Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Wanted, Salt, etc), there has never been a truly female-driven action franchise, let alone a successful female comic book superhero franchise.

On television, it is and has been a different story for quite some time. The list of legendary, acclaimed, and/or Oscar-winning actresses that have found quality star-vehicles on the small screen is legion. Among the obvious defectors: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwick, Kate Winslett, and Laura Linney. On C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, Marg Helgenberger is a fully-fleshed out starring character. In Mr. Brooks, she runs on a treadmill as Kevin Costner's supportive-and-oblivious wife. On Weeds, Mary Louise Parker plays a complicated and (fatally?) flawed single mother who slowly destroyed her family in the aftermath of her husband's death. In Red, she plays Bruce Willis's love interest/hostage. While female-driven films have faced a constant struggle for respectability and/or commercial success (especially when not in the romantic comedy genre), the idea of a female-fronted episodic drama or comedy is so prevalent and accepted that it's hardly worth noting.

This is equally true when it comes to action-adventure shows. I'd hesitate to call it a 'level playing ground', but female-driven action shows are no longer a noteworthy phenomenon. When Bionic Women tanked in less than a season at NBC a few years back, there was little discussion blaming the idea of a female action hero for the failure. It was lousy and no one watched, end of story. When Birds of Prey barely lasted thirteen episodes back in 2003, the show was no discussed in terms of 'why don't viewers watch female superheros?'. The show premiered to record ratings for the WB, then plummeted to Earth in record time because it was a terrible show. Same thing with the two-year run of Jessica Alba's Dark Angel. It premiered to solid ratings, it didn't last all that long, and then it was cancelled. Point being, when a female-driven television show (of any genre really) dies a quick death, it is blamed purely on the show itself, not one the idea of female-driven entertainment. Wanna bet come March 25th, if Sucker Punch underwhelms, that the media (and behind-the-scenes execs) will be crowing about how female action fantasies don't work?

More importantly, television has been the birth place of some truly iconic screen heroines. While pundits fret over the Disney Princess brand and its effects on young girls, those same girls have the choice to thrill to the adventures of Dora the Explorer and/or The Powerpuff Girls, eventually sampling the still bad-ass She-Ra: Princess of Power. In more grownup television, Sydney Bristow spent five years doing the spy-games, duel-identity gig without once making a big deal out of its ass-kicking heroine from a gender standpoint. Not only did Alias treat Jennifer Garner's gender as irrelevant, but the show allowed her to be as flawed and capable of error as any grizzled male super-spy such as Jack Bauer. On the big screen, Garner showed up in Daredevil to make goo-goo eyes with Ben Affleck and then get impaled on a sai just moments into her first battle. Sure, she headlined her own picture, Elektra, but we all know how that turned out, quality and box office-wise. Is it any wonder that Kristen Bell is allegedly returning to television, having parlayed her success as Veronica Mars into such dynamite feature films like Couples' Retreat, When In Rome, You Again, and Burlesque?

Gillian Anderson took a character originally intended (by Fox execs) for a Pamela Anderson-type and turned Special Agent Dana Scully into one of the most iconic characters in the science-fiction genre (of course, the show was really about her more than it was about Fox Mulder). Fringe is currently into its third season, where (alternate realities not withstanding) Anna Torv's Special Agent Olivia Dunham is a brilliant and empathetic professional who (and this is key) is accepted as an equal and doesn't feel the need to constantly show what a 'strong, progressive female character' she is (I'm looking at you, Detective Olivia Benson). And yes, we've already had a relatively successful Wonder Woman television show back in the 1970s. You think I've forgotten the perhaps the greatest female super hero of all-time. I haven't, it's just that so many people have written graduate-level essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I can add little more. Point being, while we are often up-in-arms about the lack of compelling female action heroes (and arguably, compelling female characters period) in the world of mainstream film-making, that we forget that the 'small screen' has been a safe haven for women in front of and behind the camera for decades.

On the big screen, Wonder Woman would be judged as a gender experiment first and a film second, analyzed within an inch of its life for its feminist qualities or lack there-of. On television, Princess Diana is just one of the gals, standing with pride alongside the likes of Buffy Summers, Dana Scully, and She-Ra.

Scott Mendelson
Note - if you're still craving a Wonder Woman movie, just rent the dynamite direct-to-DVD animated movie that was released two years ago and view that on the biggest screen you can find. It's epic, violent, passionately feminist, and just-plain wonderful.

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