Wonder Woman (2011 Pilot): A Look Back At What Went Wrong
"No wonder why this pilot never made it to air"
Wonder Woman hits theaters today and advance reviews of the Gal Gadot-helmed film have been universally rapturous. Strangely, 2017 marks the first time in the character’s 76-year history that she’s had a Hollywood film to call her own. Wonder Woman’s fortunes on the small screen have been relatively better. Of course, there was Lynda Carter’s iconic portrayal in the Wonder Woman series that ran from 1975-1979, as well as Susan Eisenberg’s excellent voicework in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series of the 2000’s. But there have also been misfires like the 1974 TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby...and the subject of today’s feature, the 2011 Wonder Woman pilot deemed so terrible that it never made it to air.
On paper, the series should’ve worked based on the pedigree of the creators alone. After all, the Wonder Woman pilot was written by David E. Kelley, creator of such small-screen classics as L.A. Law, The Practice, and Ally McBeal. Early buzz about Kelley’s idiosyncratic take on the character concerned Wonder Woman purists, but Kelley’s track record was reason enough to have at least a modicum of faith in the project. Unfortunately, once the pilot finally saw the light of day audiences panned it in droves. Before we dive into the many, many flaws of the pilot, let’s focus on a few positives...
It’s no surprise that a showrunner of Kelley’s stature was able to attract quality acting talent. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) certainly looked the part as Wonder Woman and she was backed by a talented supporting cast that includes Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Elizabeth Hurley (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). The cast gamely tries their best to sell the schlocky material they’re given and, even though their efforts were mostly for naught, it is not necessarily a reflection on them.
The Hero as Merchandiser
One of the key problems of Kelley’s script is that it threw too many ingredients into the pot, thereby creating an unappetizing stew of a show. But one of the ingredients that had potential centers on the advertising potential of Wonder Woman. If superheroes did exist in the real world, it’s reasonable to conclude that they’d supplant actors and athletes as the biggest corporate sponsors in the planet. It also makes sense that superheroes would have to endure interminable meetings about their “brand potential” just so they could buy cool toys like invisible planes to help them be better crimefighters.
The Dueling Female CEOs
It shouldn’t be a big deal that a TV series features two powerful female characters. But in a world in which, on average, a woman earns 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, seeing Diana Themyscira and Veronica Cale on screen together sends a powerful message. The choice of Cale as Wonder Woman’s primary antagonist was also smart given that, according to her creator Greg Rucka, she was created to be a “Lex Luthor for Diana.” Giving Wonder Woman equal footing to Veronica in the corporate world could’ve been the basis for interesting stories in which their fights spill over from the streets to the boardroom.
Now that I’ve listed some bright spots, let’s get into the negatives...
As you may have surmised, there are plenty of problems with the pilot and most of them stem from Kelley’s turgid script. Rather than playing to his established strengths, Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot approaches the superhero genre from a remove that seems to condescend to the material. There’s a shocking amount of clunky exposition, forced monologues, and story premises that strain credulity. Also, as mentioned earlier, there are too many ingredients thrown together in haphazard fashion: one moment the show wants to make serious statements about the role of superheroes in society; the next it engages in campy scenarios that would’ve been gauche for the Wonder Woman 70s series. If that’s not all, Kelley tacks on a painful romantic subplot with Steve Trevor that almost feels like a bad Ally McBeal pastiche.
Who Is Wonder Woman?
The character’s rich roots in Greek mythology are all but ignored in the pilot, which is analogous to doing a Superman series without mentioning Krypton. In its place are a melange of discordant ideas about the character. The showrunners couldn't seem to decide whether Wonder Woman should be a role model, feminist icon, sex symbol, or badass vigilante. To be fair, there have been iterations of the character, specifically in the comics, that managed to pull off this tricky balancing act. But those takes originated in a clear understanding of the character and her motivations, which are elements that the 2011 pilot sorely lacks. What’s more, the “Diana Prince” persona she adopts is superfluous to the plot, with the main purpose being to have Wonder Woman mope about her apartment and be sad about her love life like a “real woman” would.
Above the Law
One of the least successful aspects of the pilot is its attempts to engage with real-life political concerns such as coercing confessions through torture and illegal detainment of criminals. Clearly Kelley’s script was inspired by the geopolitical slant of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to examining those issues in a thorough and thoughtful manner. Wonder Woman is portrayed as having brusque relationships with the local police, federal authorities, and politicians—not only is this wildly out of character from how she’s usually portrayed, but it also runs contrary to her being a commercial icon and corporate figurehead. And although Wonder Woman has killed in the comics, the offhand and indiscriminate manner in which Palicki’s version slays her foes leaves a lot to be desired.
In summation, the 2011 Wonder Woman pilot is not what one would call good. In the interest of brevity, I didn’t get into other, less-than-fine points, like the choppy special effects and Wonder Woman’s terrible costume redesign, which she inexplicably ditches for her traditional bathing suit look in the climactic fight scene. That said, there was at least some potential in the pilot that later became more fully realized in Supergirl. If the creators of the Wonder Woman pilot had been able to pare down the premise clutter and find the human heart that makes the character tick, then maybe the series would've made it to air. As it is, however, it has rightfully been consigned to the dustbin of What Could’ve Been.
You can see the 2011 Wonder Woman pilot for yourself on Dailymotion. Let me know whether you agree with my review in the comments below or via social media!