Joss Whedon is becoming increasingly important to the on-screen superhero world. After shaping the MCU as director of both Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, he has recently been announced as the writer and director of the DC Extended Universe’s Batgirl film and he filled in on Justice League directorial duties for Zack Snyder for the final months of that project.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Whedon has been considered for a major behind-the-scenes role in a Wonder Woman movie (hey, Wonder Woman is in Justice League, this counts!).
Let’s take a look at the Wonder Woman script he wrote more than 10 years ago (which has been leaked in its entirety online) that never made it to the screen…
Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman script.
The year is 2006. Spider-Man 2 proved just two years ago that comic book franchises could be both successful and good. Iron Man will not launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe for another two years. We are at the beginning of the current heyday of on-screen superhero franchises.
Though Warner Bros. made Batman Begins in 2005 and Superman Returns in 2006, there were no moves to include the films in any kind of Shared Fictional Universe. Even 2007’s near miss Justice League movie wouldn’t have had anything to do with Warner Bros. other DC-inspired movies.
Enter Joss Whedon, a TV dude with a rabid, yet relatively small following. Though he will go on to make some of the biggest superhero movies of all time, the creator/showrunner of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly has yet to prove himself on the cinematic stage (he had written and directed Serenity, released in 2005, but the film, sadly, barely made back its budget at the box office.)
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has already been struggling to make a Wonder Woman movie for a decade. Ivan Reitman, perhaps best known as the director of Ghostbusters, was looking to produce and possibly direct a Wonder Woman movie back in 1996. Like so many Hollywood projects, the movie never came to fruition.
Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures decided to take another crack at it, and although writers like Todd Alcott (Antz) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) had tried their hands at drafts, Joss Whedon took a shot at shaping the story.
Here’s what he came up with…
What is the shape of Whedon’s Wonder Woman story?
Like the current Wonder Woman movie, Whedon’s Wonder Woman begins with Steve Trevor crash landing in Themyscira. Unlike the new film, however, this is all present-day, giving the story in general a completely different feel, even if it is interested in many of the same themes.
Steve is a former soldier who is on his way to deliver much-needed supplies to refugees in the developing world. When the Amazons sentence him to death as per their law, a world-weary Steve accepts his fate, simply asking that the supplies be delivered to the people who need them. This was a bit of a plot hole, in my opinion. If the Amazons are so worried about interacting with the world of men, how, exactly, are they going to sneak these supplies into war-torn Albania?
Anyway… Diana ends up saving Steve by challenging her mother to combat. Ultimately, her mom wins, but her daughter’s passion is enough to convince Hippolyte to let Steve go. Diana goes with him, desperate to understand and help the world of men.
The bulk of the story’s action takes place in Gateway, an American city with a certain magnetism and attractiveness, despite the inequality that defines its very existence. Diana learns about the world of men as she tries to combat the crime that has sprung up from poverty and inequity, more or less taking down one bully at a time in her efforts to save the world.
The film’s Big Bad is Strife, Ares’ nephew and the uncontrollable pawn of Callas, the rich CEO of technology company (aka weapons manufacturer) Spearhead. Callas and Strife have a mechanical Khimaera at their beck and call with which they plan to destroy large segments of the city. When Diana gets in their way, Strife takes Steve as a hostage, convincing Diana to shackle her powers. Now a mere mortal, the god of chaos banishes her to South America far from Gateway and from Callas’ planned destruction of the city.
After a brief, harrowing trek through the jungle, where Diana must learn to exist without her Amazonian powers, our heroine saves the city, with the help of Steve and some of the other friends she has made along the way. Though Strife may have fallen, Callas and Ares remain as villains to potentially recur in future Wonder Woman movies.
Is it any good?
A lot of the online feedback about Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman script is negative. Many readers feel that fans dodged a bullet. I can see the criticisms. It isn’t the best thing Whedon has ever written, nor would it have likely been the best superhero movie ever made. However, in the context of where the superhero movie audience was at the time (i.e. not fatigued by countless origin stories), I think this would have held its own, especially with the right cast and director.
It’s also important to note that this is an unproduced script. Likely, the script would have undergone some changes from this draft and over the course of production. Sure, the bones of the story likely would have stayed the same, but it would have been a bit more polished, a bit more informed by the realities of production.
That being said, there were narrative choices made in Diana’s script that could have been better. The biggest example is Whedon’s choice to change Strife from a goddess, as she was in the comics, to a god. I would have liked to see Diana fighting a female villain. Though Callas acts as one of the bad guys, her villainous role is ultimately pushed aside to make space for Strife and Ares as the story’s true bad guys.
Whedon also did a poor job developing many of the supporting characters in the script. Though Steve had a few friends who became Diana’s allies in the ultimate fight, they were all mostly interchangeable. I would have especially liked to see Diana get one well-developed female friendship after leaving Themyscira. But, again, who knows what might have changed in this script if it was produced.
Like all of Whedon’s characters, Diana is flawed (I mean that as a compliment). She means well, but there is much she has to learn about the human world. Of course there is: she has never been here, raised far away on Themyscria.
It’s actually a pretty great critique of privileged Americans’ sometimes problematic relationship to “heroism.” Privileged people with their hearts in the right place often try to solve problems without acknowledging all that we don’t know and understand about those places and those problems. At its most meme-able, it is privileged college kids spending their summer breaks participating in humanitarian programs that aren’t often as genuinely reciprocal as those college kids like to think.
At one point, Steve tells Diana:
You look at this [mural], you see dragons [to slay]. I see buildings coming down. And the people in those buildings die … You’ll make your show, fight your fight and people will love you for it, and then you’ll need you for it and it’ll start to grate, to bore you and one day, you’ll just go back home to paradise. Because every day you wake up knowing you can just go back to paradise.
You’re not a hero, Diana. You’re a fucking tourist.
The speech highlights some of the potential problems of Whedon’s Wonder Woman — namely Steve’s jaded dickishness and Diana’s smarmy hero complex — but it also highlights its strengths: a critique of how a superhero’s massive privilege can be a valid problem. It took the superhero genre a while to take on similar themes with Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman (I suppose).
Diana might come off as a bit brash in Whedon’s script, but, again, I think with the right casting and direction, she would have been a hero that audiences could not only look up to, but relate to. I like that Whedon made her physically invincible, as well. Before temporarily losing her powers, Diana can notably be wounded by bullets (though not fatally). This made the stakes of the battle scenes a bit higher.
Why it didn’t make it to the big screen.
So what happened? Whedon worked on the Wonder Woman project for two years before dropping out due to “creative differences,” that broad, vague explanation that is so often given. The clearer explanation: Warner Bros. didn’t like Whedon’s script or vision for the character.
Here’s what Whedon wrote on Whedonesque at the time:
You (hopefully) heard it here first: I’m no longer slated to make Wonder Woman. What? But how? My chest… so tight! Okay, stay calm and I’ll explain as best I can. It’s pretty complicated, so bear with me. I had a take on the film that, well, nobody liked. Hey, not that complicated.
Let me stress first that everybody at the studio and Silver Pictures were cool and professional. We just saw different movies, and at the price range this kind of movie hangs in, that’s never gonna work. Non-sympatico. It happens all the time. I don’t think any of us expected it to this time, but it did. Everybody knows how long I was taking, what a struggle that script was, and though I felt good about what I was coming up with, it was never gonna be a simple slam-dunk. I like to think it rolled around the rim a little bit, but others may have differing views.
The worst thing that can happen in this scenario is that the studio just keeps hammering out changes and the writer falls into a horrible limbo of development. These guys had the clarity and grace to skip that part. So I’m a free man.
After ditching Whedon’s script, Warner Bros. wouldn’t make a solo Wonder Woman movie until, well, now. A decade later.
Wonder Woman would have been a game-changer for the superhero genre.
The fact I can’t help going back to is: if this script had been produced, we would have had a female-led superhero movie a full decade before Hollywood ended up getting its act together and bringing a female superhero to screen in a headlining role.
If this version of Wonder Woman had done well, it could have changed the very shape of the superhero movie genre — and film history in general — over the past decade. And, even if it didn’t do well, it would have given something for girls and women to hold onto, a cinematic hero that actively demonstrated that they have a place in the reigning myths of pop culture.
io9 published a great piece last week about the internet backlash surrounding the women-only Wonder Woman screenings Alama Drafthouse is holding in Austin and New York City. In it, Beth Elderkin outlined just how few female-led superhero movies there have been in the last century, writing:
Since 1920, there have been about 130 superhero and comic book films with solo protagonists in the United States, both on the big and small screens. We’ve had trilogies for Blade, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, among countless others. The Hulk has had at least three different films so far, each with different actors, and Spider-Man is on his third franchise in a decade, with at least one sequel already guaranteed.
Do you know how many of those 130 films had female leads? Eight.
The number drops down to zero when you narrow it down to the last nine years, since the premiere of Iron Man and the MCU and the start of the superhero film as the most powerful Hollywood genre. Those are both appallingly low numbers representing a reality that I think can be easy for some to brush aside in a culture where patriarchy is the status quo.
Whedon’s Wonder Woman probably wouldn’t have been equivalent to The Dark Knight or Superman: The Movie. But it could have been something even more important.