Stars and Gripes
I already had mixed feelings about the proposed Wonder Woman series, whose
pilot is shooting under the auspices of writer and executive producer David E. Kelley for NBC. Then Adrienne Palicki was cast. Now we have a promo shot of her in costume.
Blam's Blog composite of (left to right) Roberto Campus painting, © 2007 the artist; Jim Lee
color sketch, © 2010 DC; and Justin Lubin photo, © 2011 NBC Universal & Warner Bros.
You may assume that the outfit is a departure for Diana, if you're not up on your superhero comics, but as seen above it's actually a hybrid of the character's traditional uniform and one that's been featured in her DC title since early last summer. It's also hardly the first controversial change of clothes for the enduring soldier of serenity created in 1941 by writer and psychologist William Moulton Marston (under the pen name of Charles Moulton), her look defined for decades by original artist H.G. Peter.
My concerns over Palicki, known for Friday Night Lights, have less to do with her acting than with her appearance — which is superficial, I admit, but only using the
same sort of yardstick that I'd apply to casting Superman or Spider-Man. I appreciate the wide acclaim for Christian Bale in the recent Batman films, yet to me he's merely a middling Bruce Wayne. Jon Hamm, on the other hand, could have stepped right out of the comics, always a particular thrill for the die-hard fan; given that he has the chops
to embody Bruce, from his intensity to his playboy facade to his subtle vulnerabilities, I still hold out hopes of seeing Hamm in Wayne Manor at some point. Christopher Reeve was so electrifying in 1978's Superman not just because he was dead-on tall, dark, and handsome, nor even because he believably played the Clark Kent disguise, but above
all because he exuded sincerity and conviction.
The single most important thing is to be true to a character's essence, no question — and these icons have essences that are multifaceted enough to withstand various embodiments on screen, just as they can withstand (if not thrive thanks to) various art styles on the page, keyed to different storytelling approaches — which is why I would cast Julianna Marguiles as Wonder Woman in a heartbeat. She's not a perfect visual match for any of the popular print or animated depictions, but she isn't simply a generic raven-haired beauty either; crucially, she's capable of projecting both the compassion and the steely determination central to the character, and she could pass for Greek. Marguiles has aged out of an ongoing, action-oriented version of the role as far as Hollywood is concerned, I'm sure, although I'd love to see her in an adaptation of the Elseworlds tale Kingdom Come.
I'm sorry if it sounds insincere to say that I mean no disrespect to Palicki, but you
don't sign up to play Wonder Woman, especially not the way she's presented in this photo, without some understanding that you'll be judged by your image. Nearly every comment that I came across the day the shot hit the Internet mentioned that at best she looked like a model for one of those poor-taste "Sexy ____" Halloween costumes; the overpowering makeup and general plasticity, I'm afraid, convey less Princess of the Amazons and more Queen of Tarts. It's scant consolation (or excuse) that from what I've heard the face paint is in part to help protect her secret identity, which the pilot sets up as... complicated: Wonder Woman the colorful crimefighter is publicly known to be Diana Themiscyra, glamorous and no-nonsense head of Themiscyra Industries, yet she has another, unknown alter ego as mild-mannered Themiscyra employee Diana Prince, where she lays off the lipstick, dons glasses, and puts up her hair like Lynda Carter did (and like her comics counterpart has frequently done throughout the years).
Themiscyra was the Amazons' capital city in Greek myth, and when DC revamped Wonder Woman in 1987 it became the proper name of what for 45 years had been known as Paradise Island — spelled "Themyscira" to be precise. Plotter/artist George Pérez, who masterminded the 1987 series with the aid of wordsmiths Greg Potter and Len Wein under the supervision of editor Karen Berger, did away with Diana Prince as a secret identity entirely, making Wonder Woman an ambassador for peace from Themyscira; her only corporate ties were to the promotional machine set up by Myndi Mayer to market Diana's message and fund her charitable foundation. Mayer is apparently in the new pilot, as are Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, longstanding members of Wonder Woman's supporting cast in her myriad incarnations. Since Diana has attempted to integrate into her adopted culture in numerous ways over the years, from intelligence officer to itinerant adventurer to inspirational figurehead, establishing her as a successful businessperson is hardly some kind of sacrilege, but the more realistic the NBC series attempts to be the harder it is to stomach the tacky attire.
When you're a young kid obsessed with superheroes, actual people dressed up as familiar characters as faithfully as possible is a riveting sight. You don't mind the seams literally showing, the cloth being too drab or the spandex being too shiny, the cowls and capes fitting awkwardly; it's just awesome to see your favorite two-dimensional demigods made flesh (and fabric). There's no other explanation for why anyone from my generation would feel nostalgia for Hanna-Barbera's 1979 live-action Legends of the Superheroes TV specials, for which Adam West and Burt Ward reprised their roles as Batman and Robin alongside unknowns portraying more obscure dramatis personae from the DC library (The Flash, Hawkman, Black Canary, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, and The Huntress, plus various supervillains) — and which is honestly too painful to be kitsch. Such characters were long given the camp treatment in movie and television adaptations largely because it's difficult to place them in the world we know while turning a blind eye to the absurdity of their outfits and exploits, but in recent decades filmmakers have become more savvy about situating superheroes in societies that are relatable to the viewer yet have a generally heightened level of the fantastic to them, sidestepping direct questions about why normal folks would don masks to battle injustice or how frightening it would be to have individuals with amazing powers living among us (unless those questions are part and parcel of the plot). It's quite helpful too that special effects have become so convincing and that even the most well-established uniforms aren't being reproduced in slavishly flat fashion but rather with texture, complexity, and some measure of practicality.
The suit and storyline might end up working well in this new Wonder Woman. I'm certainly glad to see Diana out of satin hot pants (never mind the severe-cut bikini bottoms that have become uncomfortably customary in the comics), although the high heels remain wildly impractical and the breastplate should really be, um, plating more of the breast. If Kelley's effort fails it can take its place in the multiversal apocrypha next to the 1974 pilot starring blonde Cathy Lee Crosby in a glorified track suit and the utterly horrid 1967 filmed treatment made by Batman producer Wiliam Dozier. What ultimately will determine whether this take sinks or soars are the scripts and the actors' ability to sell them, Palicki naturally being the lynchpin. I hope for the sake of everyone from my nieces to NBC shareholders that this iteration of the Amazon icon exceeds advance impressions, but my internal oracle is feeling awfully unsettled.
[Update #1: New pics of Adrienne Palicki and her stunt double, in different pants and boots, have emerged since this post was scheduled for publication.]
[Update #2, five years later: Palicki did a nice job as Bobbi Morse the past couple of seasons on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and it's a shame that the spin-off including her character didn't get picked up to series.]
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