Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Idle Wonder

So there was some talk this spring about a live-action Wonder Woman series coming to tv this fall. More than talk, the project actually reached the point of a completed pilot to shop around, but apparently when the fate of the show was in the network’s hands, the network opted to pass. There’s a possibility that a different network could pick it up somehow, but the industry consensus seems to be that this iteration of the Amazon princess’s adventures is dead in the water. Which strikes me as a shame.

In fact, the coincidental timing here is probably the biggest factor in my reaction being one of lamentation rather than general indifference. The early buzz about the show largely focused on either the fact that it was being masterminded by David E. Kelley and thus would invite endless comparisons to Ally McBeal because both shows were about single gals trying to have it all, or the casting and promo-photos-in-weird-costume-prototypes of Adrianne Palicki from Friday Night Lights, but none of that meant a whole lot to me. (My wife scored what I thought was a pretty direct hit when she saw a picture of Palicki online and noted that (a) Palicki has fake boobs (b) Wonder Woman does not and (c) that in fact seems like the kind of thing which is fairly antithetical to the whole Wonder Woman core concept, yet would clearly and literally be in the audience’s face whenever Palicki was on screen in costume. Which, y’know, fair enough.)

Perhaps trying to do a bit too much all at once
But the demise of Wonder Woman’s 21st century small-screen chronicles came right at the same time I was (as mentioned yesterday) getting to the midpoint of the Smallville saga, and that actually makes the loss of what might have been much more acute.

Smallville might seem at first glance to be a retelling of Superman’s origins from when he was just a young lad being raised by farmers in the heartland, but it’s not exactly that. It’s not really the Superman story at all, at least not in the sense that “THE Superman story” exists in some definitive, canonical way (which of course it does to diehard comics fans, except different sects adhere to different One True Versions, but that’s beside the point). Smallville takes a bunch of elements from the Superman mythos and then updates them and recombines them in various ways, which annoys a lot of people but just strikes me as fun and interesting and amusing. Half the entertainment value of any given episode of Smallville comes from picking up on the differences between the show and its source material, particularly when little moments wind up overstuffed with irony because the audience knows where all this is (or should be) going, from every time young Clark Kent and Lois Lane emphasize they are just friends who really often can’t stand each other to every attempt Clark Kent makes to hold on to his friendship with slightly-older-but-still-young Lex Luthor.

The other half, to me, is the constant milking for all its worth of the major theme of the series: growing up. Specifically, at least as far as Season 5 goes, navigating the waters between adolescence and adulthood while relationships with parents transform from adult-to-child to adult-to-adult. And of all the modifications made to classic Superman folklore, I think this is where Smallville has been the most successful. Which is kind of weird, as I stop to think about it, considering the last time I talked much about Smallville it was to point out the almost embarrassingly high levels of fan service involved in giving copious screen time to the bare flesh of the actresses playing Lana Lang and Lois Lane. But for all that lusty teen soap operas are a viable formula for winning viewership, Smallville is all about fathers and sons.

Clark has a generally good relationship with his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, although of course they go through all the tribulations that teenage boys and their fathers do. Lex has a toxic relationship with his father, Lionel Luthor, which in addition to giving Superman’s future nemesis a little depth and context provides one more reason for the mega-wealthy genius to envy the farmboy down the road. Everything gets cranked up to 11, with Lex and Lionel trying to outmaneuver each other (up to and including assassination attempts) for control of their family corporation, while Clark and Jonathan argue over whether or not it could ever be safe for someone with Kryptonian strength to play full-contact football with normal kids. But under all the melodrama, there are actually just as many similarities between the two father-son pairs as differences. Jonathan and Lionel both are having a hard time letting their sons emerge from their shadows and spread their wings, both men are painfully proud, both believe in a certain form of tough love, both believe their sons could be bound for a greater destiny, and so on. So in the end it becomes a compelling examination of how little things can lead to big differences: expect that your child always do the right thing, and he could become the world’s greatest hero; demand that your child always have all the right answers, and he could become the world’s most feared villain.

Maybe this is a case of being the outsider looking in, but in my opinion if there’s one area of life more freighted with drama than father-son relationships, it’s mother-daughter relationships. And the Wonder Woman mythos is already halfway along the Smallville model. Wonder Woman is a princess because her mother is the actual Queen of the Amazons, the leader of a secluded all-female society who recognized that they needed an emissary to “man’s world” but would never have chosen to send her only daughter Diana on such a mission. Diana had to win that right, the opportunity to become Wonder Woman, through competition. This even though (again, in some versions) Queen Hippolyta herself wore the costume and acted as Wonder Woman earlier, during World War II, setting up some juicy “do as I say, not as I do” potential conflict in addition to the premise of the young, modern Wonder Woman simultaneously working for her Queen on behalf of her homeland while at the same time trying to assert her independence from her protective mother.

What’s missing from the Wonder Woman comics, in comparison to Smallville, is the parallel evil mother-daughter relationship, but that could be fairly easily addressed. In the Wonder Woman cosmos the Amazons are an advanced civilization and all but immortal, but higher still than them are the Greek gods and goddesses – and we all know how petty and nasty they can be (both genders). So select whichever member of Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery tickles your fancy (the Cheetah, Giganta, Circe the Sorceress) and update her origin to make her the long-lost demi-goddess offspring of a really morally-challenged Hera and there you go, two females dedicated to destroying Diana (if they don’t try to kill each other first).

Of course, please bear in mind that what I’m describing most likely in no way resembles what the Wonder Woman show from David E. Kelley would have looked like even if it hadn’t been axed. It’s just what I would’ve liked to see, based on shamelessly ripping off the approach of something else I’ve enjoyed. Maybe someday we will get to see something like that. The broadcasts of Smallville just had their tenth and final season finale, so those guys might be looking for something to do, you never know.

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