The year was 2006. Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-nominated Batman Begins had just heralded a new dawn for superhero films, slowly pushing the boundaries of the genre and providing a much-needed salve after the critical and financial bath that was Catwoman. Joss Whedon, still known most prominently for being the brains behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was coming off a decade-long hot streak on the small screen, and set his eyes towards what would have been be his biggest project yet: a Wonder Woman movie. Warner Bros., for their part, seemed to be on board, joining forces with Whedon on the project, which he planned to write and direct.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen. A decade later, a Wonder Woman film is finally a reality under the direction of Patty Jenkins – but in light of Whedon’s Wonder Woman script finally landing on the web and his recent return to the DC fold, it feels like a good time to revisit the his original script, which envisioned a snarkier, darker, and far more Steve Trevor-heavy bow for the Goddess of Truth.
For all the script’s difference from the film that Warner Bros. would actually end up making a decade later, the broad, opening strokes would remain the same: Steve Trevor, a smart-talking pilot, crash-lands on Themyscira only to be discovered by Diana and the rest of the Amazons. But from there, things get seriously different.
For starters, Diana and Hippolyte would have clashed mightily on Whedon’s cutthroat Themyscira, engaging in trial by combat to decide Steve Trevor’s fate after his unceremonious arrival. The film also would have been set in modern day, plucking Diana from her idyllic home world to the gritty streets of Gateway City.
Here’s how Joss Whedon described his Diana:
“She was a little bit like Angelina Jolie [laughs]. She sort of traveled the world. She was very powerful and very naïve about people, and the fact that she was a goddess was how I eventually found my in to her humanity and vulnerability, because she would look at us and the way we kill each other and the way we let people starve and the way the world is run and she’d just be like, None of this makes sense to me. I can’t cope with it, I can’t understand, people are insane. And ultimately her romance with Steve was about him getting her to see what it’s like not to be a goddess, what it’s like when you are weak, when you do have all these forces controlling you and there’s nothing you can do about it. That was the sort of central concept of the thing. Him teaching her humanity and her saying, OK, great, but we can still do better.”
Despite also being titled Wonder Woman, Whedon’s film was told distinctly from the perspective of Steve Trevor, as the world-weary pilot attempts to teach Diana the ways of the world – even when that means putting her in harm’s way. The first time Diana sticks up for all things noble in Gateway City, she’s greeted not with awe but with a bullet in her chest, a bloody lesson to teach Diana of the depravity that humanity is capable of after she challenges a warlord. Of course, it doesn’t kill her, but it does knock her out for a few hours, an encounter that helps cement Diana’s verbal distaste for guns throughout the rest of the film.
For all her strength, Whedon also depicted Diana losing in her first two fights, first against the villain Strife (who appears in the script as a male villain despite Strife’s comic reputation as a towering female threat) in which a crumbling building takes her down – and in the second, where Strife and Spearhead use Trevor as a kind of bargaining chip, demanding that she turn herself in in exchange for keeping him alive and leaving her powerless. It’s an odd choice to flagrantly portray your divining hero as genuinely helpless, and certainly a story beat that would have divided audiences, until a small reconciliation with Hippolyte allows Diana to find the strength she needs to fight back.
After breaking free, Wonder Woman boards one of the silliest and simultaneously most iconic comic accoutrements: her invisible jet. In true Whedon form, the filmmaker plays it for laughs, with everyone around Diana completely oblivious as to what exactly is going on. Strife and Spearhead’s villainous motivations remain murky even as the film approaches the final battle, but at the heart of their master plan seems to lie a gigantic mechanical “Khimaera”, a winged monster-machine with three heads, a weird but largely awesome bit of flair that helps to display Wonder Woman’s true power.
With Strife and Spearhead in the villain’s driver seat, there’s little room for Ares to make an appearance, but Whedon can’t help but tease the villain’s arrival before the film’s end, warning her that her actions have angered the God of War and teasing a possible sequel. In the film’s final moments, Diana and Steve share a kiss, and Wonder Woman prepares to finally fly.
The entirety of the script certainly strikes me as a confident, if misguided ordeal, and it sounds as though it might have struck Warner Bros. the same way. Sources tell us that the studio’s opinion of the script was never particularly glowing, despite the allure Whedon’s name brought to the project. Back in 2007, the filmmaker broke the news that the studio just wasn’t feeling his vision on his blog:
“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.”
Whedon went on to say he’d had Cobie Smulders in mind to star as Wonder Woman – though the actual validity or facetiousness of that statement remains dubious.
During the time that Whedon and Warner Bros. parted ways, a new, promising Wonder Woman script from Matt Jennison and Brent Strickland was bought by WB and Silver Pictures, a screenplay that would be the first to posit the concept of setting a Wonder Woman film during WWII. The period aspect helped to set the set the project apart, sources tell us, but it also remained a divisive topic at Silver, an issue which ultimately prevented Strickland and Jennison’s script moving too far forward in the development process.
In many ways, the death of the project is a bit of a blessing: at the time of Whedon’s Wonder Woman, the studios were more shy than ever about crafting female-led superhero films thanks to the double whammy of Catwoman and Elektra and would likely have preferred to sink as little cash as possible into the project. Even so, the script itself can’t help but seem a bit misguided thanks to its heavy focus on Steve Trevor and his crusade to teach Diana the ways of the world – and would likely have felt dated in the decade to come thanks to its brief tangles with technology.
Smulders would later make an appearance in Whedon’s Avengers, a movie that would almost certainly have not gone to the filmmaker had it been for Wonder Woman moving forward. A decade on, it sounds as though Whedon has made peace with the project’s failure, and he seems pretty excited about Jenkins’ take on the material
“I want it to be good. The trailer was just wonderful. I’ll probably be disappointed, me more than anybody else, because I’ll be like, Wow, my version… or whatever, but I can still get myself up for it. The trailer had her shield and her fire hammer and yep, I’m good, this will be fine, everything is good. Such an image.”
Luckily, the feeling is mutual: Jenkins is happy to bring Joss Whedon into the DCEU fold as he prepares to complete Justice League and direct Batgirl.
“I’m excited about it. I think it’s super exciting. The tone of Joss’ work is great for female superheroes. He takes such a fun approach and I think he’ll have fun in the DC universe, which will be excited to have him.”
Is the world better off without Whedon’s Wonder Woman or could the superhero landscape have been changed by seeing this film on the big screen nearly a decade ago? It’s hard to know – but based on the uproarious reaction to Wonder Woman’s big screen debut, I can’t really imagine I’d want it any other way.