Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Wonder Woman vs. Wonder Woman


I assume everyone who grew up with and enjoyed the Wonder Woman TV show would also be eager to see the Wonder Woman film released earlier this year.  I am less certain as to whether moviegoers in their 20s or 30s who came along after the series would be curious to go back and discover how this iconic character was first brought to life. 



It had been a long time since I watched The New Original Wonder Woman (1975), the feature-length series pilot with Lynda Carter. But that’s the first thing I did after finishing the 2017 film.

Before we go any further, let’s address two minor details:

1. The use of ‘new’ and ‘original’ in the title was an effort to separate this adaptation from the 1974 Wonder Woman telefilm starring Cathy Lee Crosby. 




So yes, that version came first. But it’s so far-removed from the DC Comics character that I think it’s fair to say that Lynda Carter was the first actress to truly inhabit the role.

2. Before any of my readers bring it up: yes, I’m aware of the comedic, never-broadcast five-minute short created by William Dozier in the 1960s as an attempt to launch another campy superhero series like Batman. It’s dreadful and deserving only of footnote status. 



That leaves us, as I began to say, with just two versions worthy of consideration. Watching them in succession turned out to be one of the more unique Comfort TV experiences I’ve had this year.

I have the same affection for Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Princess Diana shared by many in my generation. But I tried to put that aside and watch The New, Original Wonder Woman from the viewpoint of a first-time viewer who saw the 2017 film and regards Gal Gadot as the definitive Wonder Woman. 



From that perspective, my first pleasant surprise would be how the pilot follows the same origin story as the film. That’s something we take for granted now, since Hollywood rediscovered comic books and realized early on that success requires as faithful a rendering of the source material as possible. The projects from earlier generations, including television takes on The Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, Dr. Strange and the aforementioned Cathy Lee Crosby film, felt no such obligation. 



But here, we open with a world at war that breaches the remote, idyllic setting of Paradise Island when American pilot Steve Trevor plummets from his downed plane. Both versions find Diana intrigued by her first encounter with a man, and plotting to return with him to the fighting against her mother’s wishes. But for true comic purists, the TV account is far more loyal to the comics, with its tournament to decide which amazon will leave the island, the “bullets and bracelets” climax, and the revelation of Diana as the masked victor. 



Those who don’t care as much about such specific plot points will likely be struck more by the tone of these scenes, which is less solemn and more sexy. Cloris Leachman delivers a more tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Queen Hippolyta than Connie Nielsen, and her amazons are not dressed so much for battle as for a weekend at the Playboy Mansion. 



That lighter tone continues into Wonder Woman’s acclimation into “man’s world,” though both stories portray her initially as an outsider coping with culture shock. Carter and Gadot were each able to tap 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.

When it was time to depict a superhero in action, the movie enjoyed significant advantages in budget, scale and CGI far beyond what was available (or even imaginable) to the CBS network in 1975. 



Where Gadot could convincingly take down squadrons of German troops on a muddy battlefield, Lynda Carter struggled to beat German spy Stella Stevens in a clumsy fight scene. It’s one of that version’s most disappointing moments.

So clear edge here to Gal Gadot…except I do wish the colors in the film were not so muted all the time.

Diana, like Captain America and Superman, is a hero that represents not just power but hope and honor. Their costumes are symbols of these traits, and just once it would have been nice to see Gadot on a clear day when the reds, golds and blues could really shine. 



I suspect director Patty Jenkins fell into the trap that implies the costume needs to be toned down to be taken seriously. The same thing happened to Henry Cavill as Superman, with similarly disappointing results. Lynda Carter (like Christopher Reeve) proved that you could take the original costume directly out of the pages of the comic book, and make it work.

I’ll also give The New, Original Wonder Woman a slight edge in music, even with the cheesy lyrics of the main title theme (“In your satin tights, fighting for your rights”). 



It’s propulsive and memorable, where the film’s score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is just more generic bombast. There hasn’t really been a great superhero theme composed since John Williams made us believe a man can fly (no, Danny Elfman didn’t cut it with me either).

Who is the best Wonder Woman? That’s going to be one of those fun questions to discuss over pizza with pop culture-loving friends. I found it interesting that Gadot was never actually referred to as Wonder Woman in the movie, though by its final scene she had earned a title that belonged solely to one other actress for more than 40 years.

Let the debate begin. Votes from Lebanon and Tunisia will not be tabulated. 


4 comments:

  1. Not that it matters ...

    The Lynda Carter Wonder Woman was an ABC presentation, not CBS.
    In parts of two seasons, ABC ran WW as a part-time series, alternating with other shows.
    It wasn't until Fall of '77 that CBS picked WW up and made it a weekly; that's when they mandated that Wonder Woman be moved from WWII to the "present day" - and also put in Bruce Lansbury as showrunner (as they had a decade before on Wild Wild West).
    That at least got the show two more seasons - and a syndication afterlife ...

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    1. My reliance on a lazy memory let me down again.

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  2. No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but Robin Wright played General Antiope in the recent feature film.

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    Replies
    1. And apparently it let me down twice! I will make the change.

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