There are a number of things to talk about with The New Original Wonder Woman. It’s a TV pilot movie. It’s a self-contained narrative about Wonder Woman, amiably but not quite enthusiastically played by Lynda Carter, coming to the United States in the middle of World War II. It’s this weird, campy, ill-advised serious “silly Nazis” played by comedic actors. It’s many things.
It’s also a painfully manipulative bit of condescension. After setting Carter up as the strongest lead possible, it turns out she’s willing to degrade herself as Lyle Waggoner’s secretary while incognito. It’s creepy. The way Stanley Ralph Ross writes it is creepy. It’s the last scene of the movie, which I don’t consider spoiling because Wonder Woman went to series. I myself was a “Wonder Woman” fan as a toddler. I’m trying to keep myself measured–going back to the show thirty-three years later, I was letting the promise of nostalgia carry a lot.
But no. I can’t. Some of New Original is fine. But it’s all so disjointed, nothing can be good because it seems like other elements are moving in complete independence. I’m not sure if it’s Ross’s teleplay or if it’s just director Leonard J. Horn having a profound misunderstanding of what he’s doing, but cutting from Carter’s lame story to the silly Nazis? If it were intentional, there’d be a flow. Instead, Horn directs Stella Stevens poorly whenever she’s with John Randolph and Waggoner, but well whenever she’s with Red Buttons.
Oh, right, forgot. The thing about New Original is it should be a camp classic. It has Cloris Leachman as Wonder Woman’s mom. Except Leachman’s terrible in the part. It’s a poorly written part and Horn’s direction of the Paradise Island sequence is the worst in the movie, but Leachman’s still terrible. It doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Mars and Henry Gibson play silly Nazis. Gibson loves the U.S.A. and sends messages by Mars’s carrier pigeons. The actors aren’t exactly having a blast, but they’re enjoying not letting themselves laugh at the material. They’re whole levels above not appearing miserable. Because Horn’s direction of those scenes isn’t good either. Mars, Gibson and Eric Braeden go for stuff and they get no support. It’s a shame. It’s almost this awesome short film about the conflicted bromance between Mars and Gibson. Or is Gibson just a heartless traitor?
But it’s not. Because Horn.
So most of Wonder Woman’s problems are because of Horn’s inept direction. It’s his inability to find the quality in his material. Red Buttons as a silly Nazi spy. Come on. It’s awesome. It has to be awesome or you can’t do it. And Horn doesn’t care. New Original feels like someone knew what to do but no one listened enough to them.
And Carter’s okay. She has a good enough time–she’s enthusiastic about playing Wonder Woman and she’s very positive about it. But Waggoner gets too much emphasis, in the script, in the direction. Horn does some bad action sequences–Carroll Sax’s editing is awful–but Carter’s clearly the hero in them. You’re clearly supposed to watch it and think she’s kicking ass. Then Waggoner comes along and calls Lynda Carter in glasses dumpy. With poor John Randolph along to ask him to clarify the jokes for younger audiences. And Carter’s playing along so it can be “wink wink” but it’s more like “puke puke.”
So, as a pilot, I might hate watch “Wonder Woman” the series, but probably not. I hope the show was better. As a pilot movie, Horn manages to fumble a willing cast, an only occasionally odious teleplay and production values somewhere above a Roger Corman production. He should have done much better.
It really is kind of worth it at least once for the performances of Mars, Gibson, Braeden, Buttons and Stevens.
Oh, and there’s casual racism against the Japanese. It’s not even seventies TV casual racism, it’s seventies TV going overboard because it’s pretending to be forties propaganda blatant racism. It’s unpleasant. It’s not frequent, but it does stick out. Wonder Woman kind of does drown a bunch of Japanese sailors while saving Mars’s dippy butt. Mars is great and all, but come on. If Wonder Woman is going to crash a German plane into a Japanese submarine, she’s got to kill them all. Obviously, no one working on the pilot thought about it, which is the more disturbing part about it.
And New Original isn’t like an homage to a forties propaganda movie. It should be, actually, just because of how well Mars and Gibson can keep straight faces. It’s just Horn being awful.