Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Still a Wonder – Lynda Carter

For comic book fans, this is a golden age – not related to the comics themselves, which face the same awkward transition to digital media that have cost newspapers and magazines countless subscribers – but in the ascension of their most iconic characters into motion pictures that have dominated the global box office for the past ten years.

I was a Marvel fan in the 1970s, and was still picking up about 20 books a month into the 1990s. And I remember the dark days of Marvel’s live-action adaptations, when Captain America was played by a chowderhead named Reb Brown, and Nicholas Hammond, fresh from jilting Marcia Brady, played Peter Parker in a short-lived Spider-Man series.

What about The Incredible Hulk? Yes, it was a good show, guided by the sure hand of producer Kenneth Johnson. The music still haunts, and Bill Bixby makes almost anything worth watching. But it wasn’t really the Hulk – It was The Fugitive with cameos from a green bodybuilder. There were no super-villains, no army battalions giving chase, no Betty Ross, no Rick Jones. They even got Banner’s first name wrong. And while the comic book Hulk could juggle Buicks, Lou Ferrigno seemed to get a hernia lifting one of those Styrofoam boulders that was always handy for throwing at someone and narrowly missing them.

Two factors triggered the renaissance in the comic book movie genre; the source material was taken more seriously, and CGI finally caught up to the types of superhero exploits fans expect to see from larger-than-life characters.

What does this have to do with classic TV? Here’s the transition – the success of Marvel’s The Avengers has DC Comics and parent company Warner Bros. looking to fast-track their own superhero team movie, The Justice League of America. To do it right, they’ll need a Wonder Woman. And that could be a problem.

Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed the Avengers film that thrilled both critics and fans, tried and failed to crack the Wonder Woman conundrum. David E. Kelley wrote and produced a WW pilot starring Adrianne Palicki that also didn’t get picked up (and by the looks of the scenes that escaped to YouTube, it was just as well). 

When you consider how problematic Wonder Woman’s movie/television transition has been from the comic book page, you have to marvel at Lynda Carter’s ability to make that transition seem effortless. Maybe the reason there hasn’t been a successful new version is that Carter still owns the role.

In my first book, Hollywood and the Comics (don’t bother looking for it – it’s not worth the effort), I wrote that Carter’s “resemblance to the Amazon princess is flawless enough to fool the guards at the gates of Olympus.” But the success of her portrayal goes far beyond her obvious statuesque beauty and physical assets. 

Wonder Woman is an outsider from paradise forced to not only cope with a more hostile modern world, but to serve as its protector. Carter tapped into the character’s compassion, her puzzlement at the dishonesty and casual cruelty that surrounds her, and her sometimes childlike optimism in a better future for a deeply flawed world.

Sadly, the show itself never reached the heights of Carter’s portrayal. As in The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman rarely faced any of her comic book adversaries (only Baroness Paula Von Gunther made it into the series), and her super heroics were largely limited to running fast, jumping over fences and bending the barrels of guns.

The series’ supporting cast provided no actual support. As co-worker/love interest/perennial kidnap victim Steve Trevor, Lyle Waggoner looked dashing in his military uniform, but that was about it. No one else stuck around long enough to make an impression.

However, Comfort TV doesn’t have to be brilliant to be satisfying, and Wonder Woman squeaks into the pleasant diversion category for its parade of classic ‘70s guest stars. Who can forget Oscar-winning actress Debra Winger’s early career appearance as Wonder Girl, or Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark playing silver-suit-clad alien invaders, before they were cast as Gary and Valene Ewing?   

Then there was Leif Garrett, in a rare moment of sobriety, playing identical twin pop singers.  If you watch this episode, check out the scene where WW is climbing the side of a high-rise building. From the rear, Lynda Carter’s stunt double looks like someone stuffed Brian Dennehy into a bustier and hot pants.

The series’ first season, set during World War II, is slightly better than the final two years, but whether Wonder Woman was battling killer gorillas, mad scientists, kid psychics or evil geniuses that hypnotize government agents with disco music (yes, that’s an actual episode), Lynda Carter always maintained her grace and dignity. As super heroic achievements go, that’s the real wonder.


  1. The Leif Garrett episode amuses me so much because it was shot at the Sheraton Universal... and, about five years ago, Leif Garrett was behind me in line... at the Panda Express literally across the freeway. He hasn't aged well.

    Wonder if that'll be what happens to Justin Bieber by 2045...

  2. Actually, Fausta Grables was an adversary of Wonder Woman's in an issue of "Comic Cavalade" that came out decades before Lynda Day George portrayed Grables in a certain episode of the Lynda Carter series. It's too bad that Mary Louise Weller apparently never appeared on the show.