Thursday, July 08, 2010

Culture Shock 07.08.10: Wonder Woman has woeful new wardrobe

One of the world's most recognizable fictional characters is now almost unrecognizable. Wonder Woman has received a makeover.

Her new costume, designed by artist Jim Lee, combines every fashion faux pas of the 1980s. Gone is Wonder Woman's iconic star-spangled one-piece. In its place, she is now wearing black leggings and a dark-blue jacket with shoulder pads.

Fox News pundits predictably complained that the new costume's lack of American flag elements was unpatriotic. (News flash: Wonder Woman is also a foreigner — an Amazon from an all-woman island, no less! — who worships Greek gods!)

This isn't Wonder Woman's first wardrobe malfunction. Still, the hype this time has reached all the way to CNN and the New York Times, which also made big deals out of the deaths of Superman (he got better), Batman (he wasn't really dead) and Captain America (he got better). In comic books, costume changes are like death. Rarely is either permanent, unless you're Batman's parents or Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. Even Wonder Woman has done the dead-and-back thing. Twice, at least.

Costume changes are common and fleeting. In the '90s, Superman briefly wore a hideous electric-blue unitard. He even sported a mullet for a while. Before that, Spider-Man ditched his red-and-blue long johns for a sleek black costume. But that lasted only until he realized the black costume was an extraterrestrial who wanted to kill him. (It's a long story.)

Wonder Woman's look has evolved over the years since her debut in the pages of All-Star Comics No. 8 in 1941. Originally, she wore a star-spangled skirt instead of the now-familiar trunks. And since the '40s, artists have made minor changes.

But Wonder Woman's costume remained basically the same until the late 1960s. Wonder Woman's circulation was down, so DC Comics looked to modernize the character and boost sales. Wonder Woman lost her powers and her costume. In their place, she picked up martial arts skills and some instantly dated, mod-style jumpsuits. She became a globe-trotting, Karate-kicking Emma Peel clone. The book's writer, Denny O'Neil, mistakenly thought this new Wonder Woman was a more "empowering" figure. But few agreed with him, and the mod Wonder Woman lasted just a couple of years before she returned to her classic look.

One of those who objected to O'Neil's revamp was Ms. Magazine's Gloria Steinem, who isn't wild about Wonder Woman's latest ensemble, either. But this time, she is more upset about changes to Wonder Woman's back-story.

Incoming writer J. Michael Straczynski has changed Wonder Woman's history so that the Amazons have been killed off and Wonder Woman is now a lone survivor forced to grow up on the grim and gritty streets of the big city. Basically, she's now a cross between Superman and Batman, which isn't exactly groundbreaking.

Steinem complained the whole thing "seems to be the brainstorming of a very limited group of brains." It also seems like desperation. DC's parent company, Warner Bros., has spent years trying to get a Wonder Woman movie into production. The new-look Wonder Woman with the grim-and-gritty origin looks like yet another attempt to jump-start a movie franchise.

If so, Warner Bros. has forgotten the lesson of Halle Berry's Catwoman movie: Don't make a film about a well-known character and then not have that character appear in any recognizable form.

Wonder Woman is an icon. Audiences aren't likely to accept a substitute. And Wonder Woman without the star-spangled swimsuit simply isn't Wonder Woman.

But don't get too worked up about it. It may take a year or two, but Wonder Woman will be back in her classic costume eventually. She's already come back from the dead.

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