Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). To celebrate the (eventual) release of Wonder Woman 1984, we’ll be looking at a rare pop-culture curio: the never-aired pilot episode to David E. Kelley’s unproduced 2011 Wonder Woman television series!
It must have seemed like a match made in Heaven. (At least, if you think like a TV executive.)
On the one hand, you have David E. Kelley: a prolific television writer and producer with critically-acclaimed work dating back to the eighties. Chief among his accomplishments was the creation of Ally McBeal—a legal comedy/drama about the romantic and social lives of a firm of lawyers, in particular the title character (played by Calista Flockhart). The show was a HUGE critical and commercial success, netting an enormous audience of 18-34-year-old women who found the heroine relatable and endearing, but also capable and even aspirational; for better or worse, Ally McBeal would become one of the biggest pop-feminist icons of the late 20th/early 21st centuries1.
On the other hand, you have Wonder Woman: one of the most famous superheroes in the world, for whom the tenets of feminism were baked right into her creation. An ageless Amazonian warrior from a magical island paradise populated entirely by such warrior women, Diana makes the trek to “Man’s World” in order to spread the ideals of truth, equality, and peace to all mankind (and to occasionally punch supervillains in the face). Created by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter in 1940, Wonder Woman has never received the same degree of mass-media exposure as her male contemporaries Superman and Batman have; nevertheless, her enduring popularity as a legitimate feminist icon2 spurred demand in the early 2010s for AOL Time Warner to get up off their lazy asses and DO something with the character.
So eventually, an idea clicked with someone at Warner Bros. Television. “Hey… Wonder Woman’s a chick, right? And that David E. Kelley guy—he’s good at writing chicks! So he should write Wonder Woman!”
And the result was, well… this.
Warner Bros. had actually been working on Wonder Woman projects for years before this happened, of course—they just kept screwing it up. Development on a Wonder Woman feature film had started aaaaaaaall the way back in 1996, when Ivan Reitman got the ball rolling as a producer with an eye to direct3. Then the project switched hands to Joel Silver’s production company, which was apparently adamant that Sandra Bullock fill the title role (uhhh… hrmm). Heaps of drafts for the film were cranked out, including a 2003 draft by Laeta Kalogridis (Birds of Prey, Terminator: Genisys)… but none of the screenwriters could seem to crack the story4.
In 2005, with the growing boom in the popularity of superhero movies becoming impossible to ignore, Silver Pictures redoubled their efforts and brought aboard nerd royalty Joss Whedon (then primarily known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer5) to write and direct, starting over from scratch—because, as I’m sure Joel Silver was thinking, Whedon had proven that he was “good at writing chicks”, too. Whedon’s draft was set in the present day, with Diana bringing crashed test pilot Steve Trevor back to Man’s World and doing battle with the villainous Strife (here a SON of Ares, rather than a daughter); a draft leaked online in 2017, and from the look of it… the project had a few issues. One of the biggest is the script’s insistence on teaching the naïve Diana “how the world works”—most egregiously by being de-powered, chained, and sold to human traffickers at the end of the second act. The notion of Wonder Woman as a privileged, out-of-touch princess/goddess who needs to experience the suffering of mortal women to understand what she’s fighting for has a kernel of an interesting idea to it, but the execution is genuinely gross (as were the script’s slavering descriptions of Diana herself); by 2009, Whedon would depart from the project over creative differences.
So with a film adaptation seemingly dead in the water and superhero media becoming hotter than ever (Iron Man and The Dark Knight hitting theaters shortly before Whedon’s exit), Warner Bros. decided that, if they couldn’t crack it, then they would pass the property on to their B-team: the television department!
Warner Bros. Television was wrapping up the concluding year of their ten-season runaway success, Smallville, and the execs were looking for a new series to develop based on the DC brand (Arrow, mind you, wouldn’t be out for another year or so). So when the higher-ups gave them the go-ahead to pursue a Wonder Woman series6, it must have seemed like manna from Heaven. Of course, they had to find someone to mastermind the series—and so they turned to David E. Kelley, whose career had hit a bit of a dry spell following the cancellation of his last big hit, Boston Legal. Kelley (a former lawyer with absolutely ZERO experience in superhero or genre storytelling) regarded the assignment as a creative challenge; he wanted to heavily contemporize the Wonder Woman narrative, setting it in the modern day and exploring feminine empowerment as well as the interplay between a vigilante superhero and the established systems of law enforcement in the U.S.7. So Kelley whipped up a pitch and the studio shopped it around to all the major broadcast networks!
They ALL turned it down.
Hell, the only reason we’re even talking about this is because NBC came around at the last second and decided to order a pilot episode. DAMN YOU, NBC!
To play the iconic superheroine, Kelley enlisted Friday Night Lights alum—and the future Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—Adrianne Palicki (who’d had some experience in DC projects beforehand; she played faux-Kryptonian “Kara” in Smallville’s season-three finale, and portrayed a murderous siren in the unaired 2006 Aquaman pilot8). The script had her going up against the villainous pharmaceutical magnate Veronica Cale—basically, she’s Wonder Woman’s equivalent to Lex Luthor—a role ultimately filled by British actress Elizabeth Hurley (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Bedazzled). Tracie Thoms (Rent, Death Proof) landed the part of Etta Candy, while Cary Elwes and Pedro Pascal9 both secured series-regular supporting roles. From the sound of it, things were shaping up nicely!
… And then they had to go and release a photo of Palicki in the Wonder Woman costume.
A plastic-y, garish, cheap-looking Wonder Woman costume.
Hype for the show cooled off IMMEDIATELY, crushed under a wave of relentless mockery. Kelley and the production team were quick to assert that this was merely a costume test—that the finished suit would look sharper, and that Palicki’s make-up would be dialed back a few notches from its French-mime intensity here—but a lot of the damage had been done.
The pilot episode—directed by Jeffrey Reiner from a script by Kelley himself—was mostly completed by May 2011, in the hopes that it would be picked up for the fall TV season. But upon reviewing the pilot, NBC passed on the series… and no other networks made a move to snatch it up.
Of course, the character’s failure on the small screen left the door open for her to make her debut in the movies—finally landing her own solo flick in June 2017 (thirty-nine years after Superman made the jump to the big screen, and twenty-eight after Batman). But for fans of the character, the questions about this bizarre misfire couldn’t help but linger. What was David E. Kelley’s overall take on Diana, and superheroes in general? Did that suit actually look any better in motion? And above all: was it really that bad?
IN THIS ISSUE: Holy sh*t, THEY MADE WONDER WOMAN A PSYCHOPATH.
Cynical “deconstructions” of the DC heroes are certainly nothing new, and these days Zack Snyder may be the guy most renowned for burying the characters under a layer of Randian selfishness and relentless bleakness… but his stuff has NOTHING on Wonder Woman, a proto-fascist propaganda piece about the merits of excessive force, torture, violent retribution, political corruption, selective policing, and the immunity of the wealthy from prosecution (as long as they’re the RIGHT rich people). In terms of sheer moral repugnance, this 43-minute pilot makes Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice look positively watchable.
Before we really get into it, though, we have to talk about the show’s basic premise… which is a mess. In this series, Wonder Woman is publicly known to be the alter-ego of one Diana Themyscira—millionaire owner of Themyscira Industries, a corporation that finances all her superhero activities by selling branded Wonder Woman merchandise. Diana has to walk a fine line as the public face of an extra-legal crime-fighting corporate empire, placating the cops and the politicians who object to her actions while still managing to get the job done; she manages to keep an even keel with the help of her personal assistant Etta Candy (Thoms) and corporate right-hand man, Henry Detmer (Cary Elwes). Oh, and strangest of all, she also has a third alternate identity—this one a secret from the world—as Diana Prince, a glasses-wearing nobody who lives in an empty apartment with a cat. But she barely uses this identity in the pilot, so it’s not too important here; it’s obviously supposed to represent her “sensitive, vulnerable” side.
It’s important to note that we’re given next to no backstory on Diana herself—where she comes from, how she got her powers—save for a single line of dialogue that vaguely suggests that her Amazonian origins are pretty much the same. But instead of dwelling on that, the pilot spends several scenes setting up Diana’s heartbreak at the loss of Steve Trevor (Justin Bruening)—whom she broke up with shortly before founding Themyscira Industries and starting her costumed crusade. Inevitably, Steve shows up in the next-to-last scene of the episode, revealing that he’s gotten married in the interim and setting up a formulaic love triangle for the rest of the season (exactly like the one that ran through three seasons of Ally McBeal). It’s genuinely depressing how much of this episode features feminist icon Wonder Woman moping dejectedly over a guy she broke up with years ago10. I’d feel bad for her…
… if this were a character it was at all possible to feel sympathy for.
If you have any love for the Diana from the comics, you might want to steel yourself now; I’m not exaggerating when I say that this version of “Wonder Woman” is a vicious, manipulative, bloodthirsty sadist. She’s, uh… she’s scary, people.
We’re introduced to our “hero” as she’s chasing down a suspect on Sunset Boulevard—a chase which she ends by lassoing him around the neck, yanking him off his feet, and jamming a needle into his neck to draw his blood (she suspects he’s on a super-steroid and wants to prove it, but still… JEEEEEEZZZZ). When two patrolmen show up and ask her to hand the guy over, she snarls “if I give him to you, he’ll lawyer up!”… implying that she was either considering holding him illegally herself11, or just outright KILLING him. Even the quieter civilian-identity scenes make her out to be a bubbling cauldron of barely-controlled rage—taking these crimes, and all of Cale’s evasive tactics, incredibly personally. As she says to the angry mother of hospitalized teen Willis Parks early on, “I know you want vengeance, but let’s leave that to me, okay? I’m kinda good at it.”
And oh, boy, is she ever. Halfway through the episode, we see Wonder Woman make a visit to the suspect she chased down earlier as he lies handcuffed to a hospital bed. She needs information, and this slimeball’s got it! So she gets her lieutenant buddy, Ed Indelicato (Pedro Pascal), to let her in for five minutes. The first thing she does is plop her lasso—the Lasso of Truth, mind you (which in the comics can magically compel people bound in it to speak only the truth)—down on his chest… but then she threatens to break his arm when he calls out for help. He blurts out that he has the right to legal counsel; she brushes the notion off with a “bet that’s a real comfort to you now, huh?” And then, finally, when he clams up and outright refuses to talk…
… she starts to torture him.
We don’t see it, of course… We just see Ed Indelicato’s reaction as the man’s screams echo through the hospital halls. And tellingly, his expression boils down to “oy, vey, not AGAIN!”
But it’s not just the viciousness that makes this Diana such a detestable character. Because you also have to keep in mind that Diana runs Themyscira Industries, a merchandising/P.R. empire that makes millions of dollars profiting off of the branded heroic image that she has created for herself—selling dolls, statues, T-shirts, etc. See, in this series, the Wonder Woman costume doesn’t hold any cultural or personal significance for Diana at all; she literally designed it to look like an action figure (there is an entire dialogue exchange spelling this out), so that she could essentially sell herself to the American people as a trustworthy, morally-upstanding superhero. THIS is why it uses bright primary colors and traditional American visual motifs like eagles and stars; she’s cloaked herself in jingoistic symbols and cartoonish colors so that the public doesn’t think too critically about what she’s actually DOING. The suit is propaganda.
Worse, she’s parlayed this kid-friendly public persona into an industrial empire that not only supplies her with sophisticated tools and gadgets for her crusade against crime (including her HIGHLY VISIBLE jet, a one-seater that’s bright white with a red nose-cone), but also insulates her from the legal repercussions of her actions. After all, since everyone knows that Diana Themyscira is Wonder Woman in this universe12, and Wonder Woman’s violent criminal behavior is well known and documented… the only conceivable reason she wouldn’t be behind bars already is that she has the money to make charges against her disappear—presumably thanks to a battalion of well-trained lawyers. So not only is she a ruthless vigilante who openly flouts suspects’ rights, but she’s also an unscrupulous and untouchable millionaire who profits off of selling her own violent alter-ego to children as an aspirational hero. It’s like if the Punisher made a fortune by selling his own skull-logo T-shirts!
Okay: so this Wonder Woman is incredibly unsympathetic and ethically indefensible. “Maybe that’s the point,” you may say! “Maybe this is a deconstruction of the superhero genre from the perspective of a former lawyer hung up on the legal realities of vigilante justice!” And, hey—that’s actually a good point! I’d almost believe it… if the episode didn’t bend over backwards to make sure that Diana is always, always in the right.
The entire plot revolves around Di trying to prove that Veronica Cale is behind an evil plan to illegally test experimental steroid drugs on inner-city teen athletes… but she has no concrete proof, and we are never told how SHE came to believe Cale was behind this. Yet the episode takes her righteousness as a given, and constantly reaffirms it through conveniently contrived circumstances. Can’t prove that Cale is behind the drugs? Don’t worry—she’ll come into your office and monologue at you like a Bond villain, so you know she’s behind it. A senator is voicing concerns about the legality of your operations? Eh—he’s just one of Cale’s cronies, you don’t have to listen to his arguments13 (and you’ll get a get-out-of-jail-free card by the end of the episode). Ed Indelicato tells Diana outright that the L.A.P.D. can’t act on information coerced through torture (for a NUMBER of reasons, not the least of which is the unreliability of information procured that way), and she rolls her eyes. Of course the information proves to be accurate!
The script repeatedly brings up the laws regarding evidence and due process, but only so it can position them as roadblocks to seeing justice done. This isn’t an ex-lawyer examining superheroes through a legal lens; this is a HYPER-conservative revenge-fantasy narrative about beating the sh*t out of people that you think the law is too soft on. It’s Dirty Harry fascism in bright primary colors, starring a woman who doesn’t need a .44 Magnum to f%$#ing kill you.
Speaking of which, that’s an element to this show that I don’t want to get into without giving people a fair warning—because it’s an exhausting topic and I don’t want to bum you out if you just came here to make fun of the hideous costume. Yes, for the next five paragraphs, the time has come to talk about…
THE POLITICAL STUFF.
The world of Wonder Woman is a politically-saturated one. Televisions are turned on to 24-hour news in virtually every scene. Talking heads discuss the pros and cons of Diana’s actions from every angle: Alan Dershowitz pops up early on to rail against Diana’s disregard for Constitutional rights, while Nancy Grace chimes in to champion her as a proponent of justice. (Then suddenly Dr.-freakin’-Phil pops up to question Diana’s sanity and criticize her skimpy outfit, and the whole thing starts feeling like an SNL sketch.) Pundits are EVERYWHERE14. For the most part, Diana ignores them; she doesn’t care about the politics and minutia, she cares about results!
But a particularly disturbing moment—a moment that throws the whole show’s political leanings into stark clarity—comes when we hear a news anchor cheerfully describe her capturing the crook from the show’s opening: “There’s the famous Lasso of Truth, shooting out as she ‘Abu Ghraib’s her quarry!”
Holy sh*t, show. I can’t even begin to get into how f%$#ed up that is.15
But that choice of reference doesn’t feel like a coincidence. This entire episode feels like an encapsulation of the hyper-aggressive anti-terrorism mindset of post-9/11 America, but reworked and redirected into a quasi-legal drama/superhero show about battling shady pharmaceutical companies. It’s all “fuck due process and the rights of the accused—if you hurt us, we hurt you back a MILLION TIMES WORSE!” It’s angry, vengeful, and gleefully self-righteous; seemingly a reassurance to audiences that the star-spangled good guys will not only stop the scary bad guys, but will make them suffer. Leave the vengeance to America, she tells us; we’re kinda good at it.
And if you REALLY want to read too much into it, the weird “War on Terror” theming even carries over into the main plot of the episode! As I mentioned, Diana knows that Cale is behind the illegal drugs, but she doesn’t have the evidence necessary to prove it to the rest of the world. However, based on intel she acquires from her “enhanced interrogation” of a suspect, she determines where the incriminating evidence IS… and so she has to illegally break into Cale’s compound to find the necessary evidence to bring Cale down. Don’t you see? An absence of evidence that isn’t evidence of absence? An illegal invasion that successfully turns up a smoking gun? THE WHOLE PLOT IS A METAPHOR FOR—AND AN ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF—THE IRAQ WAR!
So the catalyst for the final showdown is the death of Willis Parks, the hospitalized teen from the beginning of the episode—which pisses Diana off enough to fly to Cale-Anderson Pharmaceuticals and tear their sh*t up. And mind you, Cale and her cronies haven’t done anything new, and Wonder Woman doesn’t suddenly have any useful evidence against her… Diana simply got tired of waiting to do things legally, and decided to storm the enemy stronghold to get some good old-fashioned revenge. (Luckily, Lieutenant Ed Indelicato assures her that, once she breaks into the building, it will officially qualify as a crime scene and the cops can move in without a warrant, seizing the evidence they need against Cale. Airtight logic there, Ed!16)
We see a squad of ‘roided-out bodybuilder security dudes being briefed as she flies over… and they’ve all been versed on their rights and the limits of the law with regards to trespassers (“Deadly force begets deadly force. Our lawyers say we’re entitled to respond in kind!”). But when Diana finally breaks in, she just starts steamrolling through these guys without a moment of hesitation or concern… flinging them into walls, slamming ‘em into the ground, yanking them around by the neck. These dudes are just hired muscle, and are in no way responsible for the actions of the company they work for; I mean, jeez—they’re more concerned about lawful use of force than SHE is!
She battles her way down a back hallway, where she’s confronted by a night watchman (not one of the ‘roided out henchmen) who opens fire at her. She deflects a bunch of bullets with her bracelets (in what is, admittedly, a REALLY cool shot), but then she grabs a lead pipe from one of the dropped henchmen and… and…
So yeah: she’s a murderer. One of the most iconic superheroes in the WORLD just murdered a freaking security guard by stabbing a lead pipe through his throat. Cool, cool.17
She drop-kicks the man’s corpse through a door and comes face to face with Veronica Cale, who strides confidently toward her. Then Miss Cale sums it all up neatly for us:
“You have invaded my place of business with no warrant. You have injured my employees—some catastrophically. Others, you have KILLED. And I have all of it on various cameras. You are about to meet your equal, Wonder Woman: the American criminal justice system!”
… And at this point, I’m like, “YES!!! You are absolutely right, Miss Cale! Send her to jail! File Rico charges against the board of Themyscira Industries! Dismantle her criminal empire and put this superpowered lunatic behind bars, so she can’t slaughter her way through any more warehouses full of security guards or torture any more suspects for information!”
… But of course, that’s not how any of this goes.
Instead, Diana rolls her eyes at Cale’s little speech, before flinging out her lasso, dragging Cale across the floor, and choke-slamming her against the wall with a terrifyingly pithy “… Wanna feel my muscle?” as her only comeback. (She doesn’t kill her, though—God only knows why not. Seems a bit hypocritical, right?) Immediately afterward, she uncovers a secret quarantined hospital room in the building—full of horribly deformed test subjects obtained through human trafficking—thus vindicating her mad vendetta against Cale and retroactively justifying the ways she went about executing it. The moral messaging here couldn’t be clearer: “The Ends Justify the Means”, and of course, “Might Makes Right”.
Wonder Woman 2011 is a distillation of some of the ugliest impulses that one could associate with the superhero power fantasy, mixed in with a brazenly authoritarian viewpoint on law enforcement and the “dangers” of prioritizing suspects’ rights over unilateral punitive action. Its take on Diana, while seeming on the surface to be a feminist dream come true (a woman physically, financially, and politically as powerful as any man), soon proves to be a misogynist strawman of “powerful women“: she’s emotionally unstable, capricious, irrational, unnecessarily vicious… but underneath her moral righteousness and conviction, all she really wants is affection, romance… a man.
This cynical, ghastly show honestly feels like an exorcism—like this is the Wonder Woman movie we COULD have gotten, the one that would have fit right in with Supergirl and Catwoman in the annuls of terrible female-led superhero movies (and would have been right at home in Zack Snyder’s edgelord dystopia of a DCEU). It’s as if the worst version of Wonder Woman had to be expunged somehow before we could get the Patty Jenkins/Gal Gadot film and break the curse of the crappy superheroine movie.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: I suppose it depends on what you want. If you’re here looking for a faithful adaptation of one of the great affirmational superheroes in pop culture, then no, no… GOD, no. But if you’re curious to see just how much a misguided authoritarian interpretation of superheroics can warp that character into something ugly and despicable? Hell, you may get more than you bargained for.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.00 (THIS OBJECT CARRIES A TERRIBLE CURSE!!!)
- Merchandising, Merchandising!: Perhaps the most infamous scene in the pilot involves Diana attending a merchandising meeting regarding the product launch of a new Wonder Woman doll with enormous breasts. Diana is offended and wants the doll redesigned, while Henry (disturbingly) argues that the more endowed models tested better with focus groups, and that they can’t redesign it. The two start arguing over each other, until Diana finally snaps and shouts “I never said to merchandise my tits!”18 Of all the cynical story details in this confused clusterf%$#, the devotion of an entire scene to a debate over the degree to which they should commodify Diana’s body to finance her “heroic” activities is arguably the most sickening.
- What’chu Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis?: The episode starts with a cold open so out-of-place that I genuinely wondered if I’d started up the wrong show when I first saw it. A young black teen—Willis—runs into a modest ranch-style house, excitedly waving a letter around. Inside, his mother and siblings prod him to open it, and when he finally does, he announces that he’s gotten into college! Elated, he starts jumping up and down, hugging his mom… but when she pulls away from him, Willis is suddenly bleeding from the eyes, and collapses to the floor. As his breathing becomes shallow and rapid, his mother starts calling out his name… over, and over. “Willis? Willis?! Willis! Willis!! WILLIS!!! WILLLLLLIIIIISSSSS!!!!!!” … I’m not gonna lie, it’s f%$#ing hilarious.
- Diana Friggin’ Prince: Of all the bizarre digressions that this show takes, the most baffling of them all has to be Diana’s third, actually-secret identity as Diana Prince, Boring Everywoman. One has to assume that this concept would have been explored and expanded upon greatly in future episodes (giving her a more relatable persona than “homicidal vigilante psychopath”)… but in this pilot, Prince only serves as a repository for not-so-flattering stereotypes about single women. She lives in an apartment with a solitary cat that she talks to, frets about what to put on her Facebook page, then she gets all mopey and sad watching The Notebook on TV. Feminism!
- Round of Applause: Near the end of the episode, as Wonder Woman returns home from her bloody and vengeful crusade, something truly unexpected happens: she steps out of the elevator to be greeted by what looks like the entire staff of Themyscira Industries, who’ve come together to give Diana a boisterous round of applause. In an episode filled with horrors, this may be the single most chilling moment. A couple hundred employees, applauding the criminal actions of their murderous C.E.O… it’s gross on so many levels. This feels like a people forced to heap praise onto a dictator for bringing about order with violence, because she holds total power over their lives. Who’s just clapping because she’s the one who signs the checks, and they want to keep her happy? And who’s doing it because they’re afraid of what happens if they don’t…?
- WW(E) Smackdown: Even if it is mindless and morally unjustifiable, the big, final action sequence where Wonder Woman kicks the sh*t out of a dozen jacked-up, ‘roided-out bodybuilder dudes IS somewhat satisfying (in a lizard-brain way). Di sends guys twice her size flying with a single hit, leaps about, uses her lasso (as a weapon, of course)—then caps it all off by drop-kicking a shipping container into two of the poor schmucks.
NEXT ISSUE: To celebrate the TWENTIETH issue of the Discount Spinner Rack19, I’ll be taking on a task more arduous than any before: I’m going to watch—and review—all eight hour-long episodes of ABC’s critically-derided miniseries event, Marvel’s Inhumans! Pray for me, true believers…