Why "Wonder Woman" can't get off the ground

NBC passes on David E. Kelley's new take on the action heroine -- but don't worry, it's not the death of feminism

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 13, 2011 6:14PM (EDT)

Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman
Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman

Just because the world may be ready to accept women as the stars of their own gross-out comedies doesn't mean it's gung ho to embrace them as superheroes. On Thursday, after years of back and forth speculation and months of hype, NBC officially nixed the David E. Kelley/ Warner Bros. TV reboot of "Wonder Woman."

The project, like any reinvention of a beloved franchise, was plagued with skepticism from the start. Just imagine a legion of Comic Book Guys registering their disgust -- and I include myself in that group  -- and you get the picture. David E. Kelley? What could the man who gave us waifish hot mess Ally McBeal know of an Amazon princess? What could the miniskirt enthusiast understand of a superhero who quite literally wears the pants? The answer, apparently, is not a whole lot.

The Kelley-penned script, which reimagined Wonder Woman's alter ego Diana Prince as a corporate executive, became a big-budget pilot earlier this year, and by that stage the series looked to be all but a sure thing. But while Kelley and company have been trying ever since to drum up Internet slavering with some seriously jugs-flaunting images of the titular heroine ("Friday Night Lights" star Adrianne Palicki) in all her heaving glory, the show's pilot apparently failed to arouse interest within network suits.

In an interview with Vulture back in March, Kelley -- whose new legal drama "Harry's Law" NBC just picked up for a second season -- said that, like just about everybody else in the world, he had doubts about his suitability for the project. "It’s not really what I do," he said. "It's not a genre that’s in my wheelhouse." Eventually, though, intrigued by the dramatic possibilities of Wonder Woman's likely "sense of social isolation ... all the complications and potential layers to this superhero," he put together a script -- one interesting enough for Warner Bros. and DC to get behind.

So what went wrong, so late in the game? And let's just get down to the inevitable question: In how many terrible ways has David Kelley once again killed feminism?

When a female-driven project flames out, it's a given that it will raise concerns about the viability of similar efforts. Look no further than the high stakes surrounding Kristen Wiig's "Bridesmaids" -- a movie that even before its release was touted not just a summery laugh fest but also a litmus test for Hollywood's capacity for feminism. In a man's world, each heroine somehow becomes every heroine, a test balloon by which all future development deals are judged. Yet if "Bridesmaids" is the smash it's shaping up to be, it won't be because it's a chick flick – it'll be because it's a really terrific piece of entertainment. Which is as it should be.

In a world full of successful men of the Spider, Super, Bat and Iron variety, there is something sad about the failure to launch just one butt-kicking woman. But just as the presence of a top-billed female in a script shouldn't be an instant kiss of death, it likewise doesn't automatically make the whole shebang a worthy endeavor either. Did NBC give a pass to "Wonder Woman" because of that tricky-to-sell second word of the title? Or did the network brass simply remember "The Cape"? (Making them, by the way, the only people in America who do.) 

The early and mostly negative buzz regarding "Wonder Woman" speaks far more to a network's justifiable skittishness about bankrolling a potential bomb than it does to the sorry state of women in leading roles. The fact that the world badly needs more female protagonists doesn't mean it needs more David E. Kelley-style ones. All the cleavage in the world can't save an ill-conceived dream.

Lest you think NBC is putting the kibosh on all tough-girl reboots, this week it gave the green light to a new drama revolving around one of popular entertainment's greatest socially isolated, complicated, layered crime busters ever. In her new series, Maria Bello will not be wearing sparkly bracelets or zipping around in a transparent airplane this fall. But as the brilliantly fierce Inspector Jane Tennison of a new imagining of "Prime Suspect," she might yet prove, like Wiig and her "Bridesmaids," that America's ready for more female heroes. And they don't need to be super. They just have to be great.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bridesmaids Feminism Television