As polarizing as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has proven to be, one thing most people agree on is that Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman is the film’s best attribute. She is, in fact, only in the film for seven minutes—but what a glorious seven minutes! For much of that time, Diana is a mysterious figure breathing life into the film whenever she appears. When she finally dons her Wonder Woman armor for the climactic battle, I cheered along with the rest of my packed theater’s audience. But coupled with recent images and news from her upcoming solo film, I’ve started to question what sort of Wonder Woman we are really getting from DC’s still-forming cinematic universe.
We’ve seen Batman and Superman adapted so many times their origins have seeped into the cultural imagination. But Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman marks the character’s first live-action big-screen appearance in her 75-year history. The fact that she’s in the film so briefly may seem like a smart way to build up interest in her character before the Patty Jenkins-directed solo film to come in 2017, making her the first major superheroine headlining a film since this genre became a powerhouse with Batman Begins and Iron Man. Yet as striking as her brief appearance is (you can tell Gadot’s having fun with the character right down to the little smile that crosses her face during the final battle as she reaches for her sword), the Wonder Woman of Batman v Superman is an enigma, with only hints—the picture from 1918 placing her in World War I, her remark about leaving the word behind a century ago because of the horrors of man she witnessed—given as to what drives her. As a longtime Wonder Woman fan, the brief nature of her appearance reminds me of how hesitant DC has been in bringing her to the screen in the first place.
William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 as a piece of “psychological propaganda” meant to embody his still-radical and controversial image of feminism. He believed in female superiority but also loving submission, which in the comics took the form of Wonder Woman being tied up or tying up others with the Lasso of Truth. She embodied the dramatic changes women were going through during World War II, finding a sense of independence, entering the workforce, and redefining their sense of femininity on their own terms. Perhaps the character’s inherently politicized nature is why Wonder Woman’s history to the big screen has been so fraught: No superheroine is so beholden to shifting ideas of femininity over the decades. In the late-1960s, when she gave up her powers to stay in Man’s World rather than accompany her Amazon sisters to another dimension, she became a variation on The Avengers’ Emma Peel, opening a mod boutique, gaining a Chinese mentor, and learning martial arts. In 1971, she was the image of the first issue of Ms. Magazine, a feminist magazine started by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and would later grace its 40th-anniversary issue too. Then came George Pérez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter’s 1987 revamp, which, by centralizing important women of color in Diana’s story and radicalizing other aspects primarily through the ways the Amazons are depicted, can be seen as a precursor to third-wave feminism, which was emboldened as a response to the perceived failures of second-wave feminism.
It’s Pérez’s conception of Wonder Woman’s origin story that has been the most influential. While her origins have been tweaked over the years—changing her power set, time period, and the deities involved—a few core elements remain. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, fashions a daughter, Diana, Princess of the Amazons, out of clay, imbuing her with life and great power by the gods, and raising her on Themyscira, an island unknown to our world, solely inhabited by women. Pilot (and eventual love interest) Steve Trevor crashes on the island, setting Diana on a new course in life. Donning indestructible bracelets, the Lasso of Truth, and a weaponized tiara, she takes on the mantle of Wonder Woman out of curiosity and/or compassion for people in the world her sisterhood shunned, making it her mission to bring peace to Man’s World rather than simply upholding the status quo. To all this, Pérez made Wonder Woman more powerful than she was previously, blessing her with the ability of flight, resistance to fire, super speed, heightened senses, agility, endurance, accelerated healing, and a linking of her strength to the Earth spirit Gaea, making her strongest woman in the DC Universe, amongst other abilities. He updated the Amazons’ backstory by making them the immortal reincarnations of women killed throughout history by the horrors of men. Pérez also worked toward making Themyscira a racially diverse culture. Next to Lynda Carter’s take on the character in the kitschy 1970s TV show, it’s this image of Wonder Woman that people most know even if they don’t realize it, with Perez’s reboot influencing everything from Wonder Woman’s solo animated film from 2009 to her appearance in Justice League: Unlimited.
Wonder Woman gained more depth under Greg Rucka in his graphic novel The Hiketeia and his subsequent run on the character in the early 2000s. Rucka’s work shows Wonder Woman at her best: capable, modern, wise, complex, caring, graceful, headstrong, and intelligent. Beyond the often-amazing fight scenes—like her fight with Batman in The Hiketeia, offering the powerful image of her iconic red boot on top of his grimacing face—what’s most memorable about his Wonder Woman is her unique view of the world compared to those of her peers thanks to her upbringing, her feminism, her struggles with celebrity offering interesting commentary on modern womanhood, and the way these stories challenged a lot of the ideas we have about what it means to be a hero in the first place. Thankfully, during DC Comics’ recent Rebirth initiative event it was announced that Rucka would be returning to writing Wonder Woman in a new run of comics set to debut this fall—but he’s coming on the heels of the alternative, regressive, dramatically rebooted origin that the character has been saddled with for the past five years.
You don’t need to have ever read a comic to know what happens to Bruce Wayne’s parents or about the fate of Krypton. Wonder Woman’s own mythos has rarely been treated with such importance or reverence. In 2011, DC Comics rebooted its entire line, throwing out elements of the canon and adding others with the New 52. In updating Wonder Woman, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang jettisoned Wonder Woman’s made-from-clay origin, turning her into a more conventional demigoddess daughter of Zeus; in Azzarello’s version, she’s only told she’s made of clay until she discovers the truth later on. Considering how many superheroes seem to pivot around daddy issues to the detriment of the characterization of their mothers, this backtracking is sorely disappointing. Worse, the Amazons, the foremost image of sisterhood and feminism in DC Comics, are turned into shrill anti-feminist stereotypes who rape and kill sailors to populate Themyscira, trading in sons that are born for weaponry and only keeping daughters. The fact that Wonder Woman doesn’t know this makes her seem at best incredibly stupid. Without the sense of sisterhood intrinsic to the character, Azzarello’s Wonder Woman comes across as a generic warrior woman, lacking the eccentricity and feminism that makes her one of the most interesting superheroes around. At times, it feels like a grim parody of a Wonder Woman story. Azzarello doesn’t understand to do right by Wonder Woman you can’t separate her from her feminism or even Marston’s belief of female superiority. And yet, according to producer Charles Roven last fall, this is the origin story that will be used in the DC Cinematic Universe. Why give Wonder Woman an origin that may very well be retconned out when Rucka’s run starts later this year? But the fact that this was even considered begs the questions: What does DC see in Wonder Woman? What sort of Wonder Woman are we really going to get in her solo film next year?
Judging by comments made over the years by everyone from DC’s own Entertainment Chief Diane Nelson to Joss Whedon, who famously failed to bring Wonder Woman to the screen (for which, if you’ve read the script, you’re probably thankful), certain myths about the character persist: that she’s uninteresting and has no definitive story or great villains. It appears none of these skeptics have read any of the recent Sensation Comics from last year, which depicted many different sides of Wonder Woman: from traveling from Themyscira for the first time as a young girl and making friends at an American boardwalk, to being out on a space mission discussing the different outfits she wears and the burden of being a celebrity as well as a hero (the latter my own personal favorite story, by Alex de Campi). Or consider Christopher Moeller’s JLA: A League of One, in which Wonder Woman, upon receiving a prophecy that anyone who defeats a recently awakened dragon will die in the process, takes out all of the other Justice League members in order to face the dragon alone and thus sacrifice herself. The one-shot is billed as a Justice League story, but it’s really primarily about Wonder Woman, offering a depiction of Wonder Woman’s compassionate ethos that rivals anything in Batman and Superman’s canon in complexity and emotional depth. As for her nemeses, the way her canon uses classic Greek figures like Medusa and Ares as central villains cleverly plays with myths as well as giving her a rogue’s gallery that feels timeless. Others, like Cheetah, accomplish what all supervillains are meant to: embody the antithesis of the hero and force them to face what drives them in the first place. Wonder Woman’s villains cleverly mix mythology, sly commentary on modern womanhood and the perils women face writ large, particularly the kind of animosity that can form between women because of how we’re culturally set up to see others as competition.
When I left the theater after Batman v Superman, images of Wonder Woman’s greatest moments in the comics fluttered through my mind: her interactions with Hippolyta and the Pérez’s broadened backstory of the Amazons; her training through Philippus, a black Amazon and the one closest to her mother, through the past few decades; blinding herself with snake venom in order to beat Medusa in one of Rucka’s most compelling arcs. But because of how little we get to know her in the film, the only way to gauge the Wonder Woman DC envisions for its cinematic universe are the bits of information being released about her solo film.
Soon after the savage criticism of Batman v Superman began to roll out, Warner Bros. smartly released a new image from Wonder Woman. The image shows Diana before she becomes Wonder Woman with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her two military aunts, General Antiope (Robin Wright) and her lieutenant, Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They’re described as the three women who raised and trained Diana, with contrasting ideas about her upbringing. Each wears golden-hued armor, their gazes steady with the camera lacking any sort of sexualized posing one expects even in a film like this. Seeing older women, especially Robin Wright, depicted as incredibly strong warriors and essentially three mothers raising the most iconic superheroine is thrilling. But longtime fans like myself were left wondering: where is Philippus? The black Amazon is the close, protector of Hippolyta with nearly unparalleled skills in combat who leads Themyscira’s military. She has been a cornerstone of Wonder Woman’s mythology since Pérez created the character in 1987, the one most instrumental to Diana’s upbringing, training, and shaping of her worldview. To hand Philippus’ role to the white Antiope, relegating the diversity of Themyscira to possibly token characters of little importance, implies a level of whitewashing that suggests a backsliding from the racially progressive version of Themyscira in many of Wonder Woman’s modern stories. Without diversity and intersectionality, Wonder Woman would be feminist in name only.
But the most troubling thing to come out of the Wonder Woman production is a quote from the director herself. Jenkins has for the most part been saying all the right things by describing Wonder Woman’s kindness as central to the character and not solely focusing on her status as DC’s best fighter and tactician. But during an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she said this about the Amazons wearing heels: “It’s total wish-fulfillment. I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time—the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.” Seeing an impossibly jacked Superman is indeed male wish fulfillment. But an impossibly long-legged, lithe, heels-wearing Wonder Woman is hardly an improvement; such a character is no different from many other female action heroines we see in the modern era (think of pretty much everyone Zoë Saldana has played, or Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This certainly isn’t the Wonder Woman of Marston’s and Rucka’s pages. It’s curious that this image of so-called female wish fulfillment is being tied to a character who so often rails against these expectations in the comics.
Wonder Woman has no female peers on screen simply because despite the money being poured into adapting comics by every studio, they’ve yet to truly care about crafting their female characters to stand on their own (which is something they should be called out for more, Marvel I’m looking at you). But she’s debuting on screen at an interesting time for female action heroes in general: some of which, like Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, wear their feminism proudly; while others like Rita (Emily Blunt) in Edge of Tomorrow, deserve to be leading the films rather than just training the male hero who ultimately saves the day. The response to her brief appearance in Batman v Superman speaks to how much the superhero genre needs to be invigorated and considering how dramatically different Wonder Woman’s canon is from pretty much anything being adapted (or even in superhero comics period) she’s the antidote for the repetitive, uninventive machismo that currently marks the genre. But Wonder Woman isn’t interesting just because she’s a woman. What makes her solo film such a fascinating prospect is how different she is from any other action hero we’re seeing in comic-book adaptations and otherwise. At her best, she mixes the weight of mythology, intersectional feminism, breathtaking fight scenes, and most importantly, an ethos that values compassion over violence in a way we haven’t seen. Film has enough generic warrior women and perfect goddesses. We need an A-list superheroine who can go toe-to-toe with the Supermans and Batmans not because she’s a female version of them but because she’s a compellingly unique creation with her own interiority and origin story. Just as feminism itself can be quite complex, Wonder Woman should be allowed to be as well.