Mockingbird Superhero guru Wenatchee the Hatchet returns with another installment of his Exiles and Orphans of the Justice League series, an rather in-depth installment on Wonder Woman beginning here, with a look at the problems she poses for 21st-century American narrative.
After the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel have had at least half a dozen movies each, you would think we would have gotten a single live action Wonder Woman film, but we haven’t. One of the recurring debates among fans of Wonder Woman has been exactly why this hasn’t happened. Different explanations have been offered as to why. Maybe Wonder Woman doesn’t need a Hollywood treatment to begin with. Then again, some of her fans don’t want her to be a sidekick in a film about Superman and Batman. Even Wonder Woman fans have proposed that there are some inherent contradictions in Wonder Woman’s origin myth that are difficult to reconcile. Wonder Woman is a warrior trained to kill who chooses not to kill, for instance.
But the problem is not really that Hollywood isn’t ready for a feminist hero. The problem is deeper: no one has established a reason why American pop culture even needs Wonder Woman in the 21st century. If we solve that problem we’ll have solved the problem of adapting her into a story for a screen of any size. What does she accomplish for us? Being the first woman superhero isn’t enough. Right now we’ve got Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, The Powerpuff Girls, and others. My nieces love Katara, Toph, and even Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender but have no real use for Wonder Woman. Even if we take Noah Berlatsky at face value about how Marston invented Wonder Woman to be Superman-but-better, that gives us a Wonder Woman who was essentially the first Mary Sue in the superhero genre. That’s not a great starting point. Let’s say we grant Steven Grant’s point that the early Superman was “the world’s most altruistic bully, a veritable sovereign power unto himself.” If Superman was the world’s most altruistic bully and a power fantasy that would be brutally totalitarian enacted in the real world, let’s remember that Wonder Woman’s magic lasso originally gave her the power to impose her will on everyone she fastened it around. If Superman was the world’s most altruistic bully, Wonder Woman was the living embodiment of the most benevolent and enlightened ‘nanny state’. We’re not talking about characters here that could be easily updated to a post-Cold War era of skepticism about American morality and exceptionalism the way Batman has by Christopher Nolan.
What’s more, since the end of World War II, Superman has become less and less what Steven Grant called “the world’s most altruistic bully” and more like, well, Marston’s Wonder Woman! Arguably, Wonder Woman’s influence on comics and superheroes was successful enough that she made herself nearly obsolete in the superhero pantheon. Possibly worse still, unlike Batman, neither Superman nor Wonder Woman are even really human. Superman is an alien from Krypton, and in folkloric terms, Diana of Paradise Island is basically a golem. Golems have not, in global history, had a history of being hugely successful as relatable characters. But even this is not an insurmountable problem or even the most serious problem in attempting to update Wonder Woman for the 21st century. As we’ve seen, the hurdles in adapting Wonder Woman into a 21st century pop culture are legion in contrast to the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, whose origins are so skeletal and simple and so anchored to powerful orphans fighting evil in honor of the memory of lost loved ones they have at least a dozen movies between the two of them.
As we attempt to sort through these difficulties faced by those who would bring Wonder Woman to the big screen (or even any screen!), it hardly helps America’s first superheroine that her implacable adversary may be the impossible expectations of her fans. Wonder Woman has to mean too many things to too few people. It’s as though her fans want water to exist as vapor and ice simultaneously, and you’d need a water-bender to pull off that feat. Wonder Woman fans who don’t want Steve Trevor or Etta Candy or the Holiday Girls are basically people who don’t want Wonder Woman at all, just a Superman with ovaries. Wonder Woman has no capacity to be an existential loner. She’s not Superman, and she’s not Batman. To read the early Wonder Woman comics is to discover a cheerful team player, someone who doesn’t even really care if she ever gets credit, no matter how many times Steve Trevor humbly credits her for feats men want to praise him for.
But to bring Wonder Woman to life on the big screen, we have to confront the fatal flaws in her original origin stories. There are three fatal flaws and one significant hurdle that have to be overcome before we’ll see a Diana of Paradise Island (or Themiscyra, if you prefer) redirecting bullets with her silver bracelets.
First and most fatal is that William Marston’s gender portrait is patently and incontrovertibly wrong. Marston’s vision of feminine virtue is in itself too sexist to withstand an American culture that has seen the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and at least put a few cracks into the glass ceiling. Marston’s vision of a matriarchal utopia was clearly developed before anyone saw the likes of controversial women in political power such as Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi. The gender typecasting inherent in Marston’s creation itself will do nothing more than perpetuate a kind of class warfare between genders that runs counter to what the long-term goals of Marston were. Wonder Woman has to evolve beyond her strict gender stereotype before anything else. There are realizations of her that tackled this head-on, but we can’t get to those just yet. Justice League comes a bit later.
The second fatal flaw in the original origin stories for Wonder Woman in her comic books is that Marston’s American exceptionalism is too explicit to permit any truly mythic development. Wonder Woman’s origin is tied too closely to World War II and Marston’s willingness to stump for the United States as the hope for equality of women everywhere. The trouble is that this 1940s America for which Wonder Woman goes to be a champion was a United States that still had racial segregation and a glass ceiling. Yet this was a United States that was given blessings by Marston’s drastically simplistic Greco-Roman pantheon, which …
Third, gets us to the problems of Marston’s drastically simplistic Greco-Roman pantheon. However much Francis Schaeffer talked about the United States being a post-Christian culture, it’s not so post-Christian to embrace Wonder Woman’s explicitly pseudo neo-pagan origin. Or, rather, we know too much about actual Greco-Roman mythology to buy the purely gender-delineated contrast between Mars and Aphrodite. Aphrodite flip-flops in her decisions regarding the Amazons at just about any plot twist so that the ultimate goal of Diana leaving Paradise Island to help Steve Trevor fight Nazis can be reached. That Wonder Woman was fashioned from a lump of clay and given life by a goddess gets us back to the problem of Marston’s gender typecasting for the goddesses more generally, but it’s worth noting again that in insisting on making Wonder Woman a golem with no father of any sort, Marston was setting up a significant hurdle for Wonder Woman as a relatable character. Wonder Woman, as Steven Grant once said about Superman, is an embodiment of aspirations rather than passions, and the aspirational fantasy inherent in Wonder Woman has been tethered to a pseudo-pagan pantheon that is too easily offset by what we know from Greco-Roman literature. But there are seeds for rescue in this observation we can address down the road.
Those are the three fatal flaws in the narrative or Wonder Woman’s original origins (for those who have already read the comics). The fourth problem is just a big hurdle, which is that early Wonder Woman seemed cheerfully unconcerned with imposing her will on her adversaries through the use of her magic lasso (which was eventually powered down to just making people tell the truth, perhaps because everyone got the sense of just how totalitarian the original power of the magic lasso really was to begin with). Wonder Woman and Superman have both been written so as to be cheerfully free of the inner turmoil and conflict we associate with The Dark Knight. A Wonder Woman who has no capacity to doubt whether she’s done the right thing (and whose sole stated weakness involves letting herself have her hands bound by her silver bracelets in a particular way by a man and not a woman) isn’t just a golem who could be a Mary Sue, she’s a character who can end up being the Law of Perfect Womanhood. She risks embodying the impossible standards of beauty for a particular cultural time and place. Nobody wants Wonder Woman to look like Etta Candy, for instance, but Wonder Woman would not be less who she is if she did happen to look the way Etta Candy often looked.
If we frame the story of a hero in terms of conflict, then we may see quickly that Wonder Woman has no memorable foes in her rogues gallery compared to other superheroes. Superman has Lex Luthor and Batman has the Joker, and these villains are compelling because they embody values antithetical to what the hero wants. But we don’t have a comparably compelling nemesis for Wonder Woman, do we? That isn’t because a rogues gallery is somehow a “male” thing. It’s not as though there wasn’t a “rogues gallery” in the film Mean Girls. Marston’s early gambit of having Wonder Woman’s enemies be Nazis or Nazi sympathizers had been overplayed half a century later. To understand how to create a Wonder Woman nemesis that makes sense, we don’t need to know what Wonder Woman is against but what she is actually for, and we need to find a thing that she is for that is worthy enough for a majority of Americans to consider worth fighting for. Whatever she fights for, Wonder Woman has to fight for it in a post-Cold War setting in which the moral certainties about American superiority inherent in Marston’s original set of origin tales have been jettisoned.
Wonder Woman’s roots in a Greco-Roman literary world might be a path to making her interesting. The Greeks gave us tragedy, and to appreciate tragedy we must remind ourselves that tragedy is not the triumph of evil over good. Tragedy is when the tragic figure chooses the lesser good over a greater good, or chooses the greater good at the loss of a lesser good, and finds that the two legitimate goods cannot possibly be reconciled. Wonder Woman has to be a truly anti-tragic heroic figure if she’s going to work within her pseudo-Hellenistic milieu. She needs to be able to thread the needle and find a way to balance largely irreconcilable aims. It’s in the nature of American pop culture to be anti-tragic and in favor of everything working out, maybe with a group hug if possible. Wonder Woman can get there, but she has to find a way to balance impulses that are often irreconcilable in reality in American culture, the impulse to individual self-realization and the impulse to group aspiration. Wonder Woman can make sense if she is the hero who fights the battle to balance contrasting and often conflicting honor codes that we attempt to live by. She can’t simply be a feminist icon, because then all she will be is an icon, and icons can get boring. The path of being a feminist icon will leave her a golem rather than flesh and blood. Like many a figure in Greco-Roman literature, she’s going to turn out to be more moral and scrupulous than the gods and goddesses angling for more worship. Wonder Woman has to be willing to do the right and honorable thing even if it brings dishonor to her or to others, but she has to also be willing to struggle to restore honor to groups.
And there is at least one iteration of Wonder Woman that managed to thread this needle for Diana in a way that didn’t require her to have her own rogues gallery while also making her a likable character with a few character flaws. The fatal flaws in Marston’s original origins for Wonder Woman and the hurdle of her putative perfection have already been solved in a small screen format already, and that would be in the cartoon Justice League. Joss Whedon could still solve the problems outlined here for a live-action film, but we need more discussion about just how extensive the problems in updating Diana into a 21st century pop cultural context really are.