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MULTIVERSAL OVERDRIVE! – What Is It With Wonder Woman, Anyway?

(This article can also be read over at the most excellent DC Entertainment fan site, DC Infinite!)

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WHAT IS IT WITH WONDER WOMAN, ANYWAY?

Author’s note: I find it strikingly appropriate that I began writing this on the 15th anniversary of the wedding of myself to my own wonder woman, Ellen Starr Lyon, a magnificent artist, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and all-around human being. She’s pretty awesome.

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It all started back when new Wonder Woman artist David Finch said some pretty awkward things about Wonder Woman’s connection to feminism. The ever-impressive Janelle Asselin (whom I worked with a couple times when she was an editor at DC Comics) addressed the incident and the issues really well, so you should really go read this, and then come back here.

Finch’s comments really got me thinking about the character again, but I didn’t feel especially qualified to comment on the thorny details. I sketched out my thoughts, but after a while it was no longer a “hot” topic. Then Marvel  announced a new, female Thor. Then the San Diego Comicon got closer and closer, and I was sure the first image of actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice movie would be released there. It was, but more on that later.

So…I performed an informal survey. I was on a 4th of July and wedding anniversary vacation with my wife and kids and another family of friends. All told, we had two adults in their 30s, three in their 40s, two in their 70s, and four kids ages 8 to 12. I’m a life-long fan of super-hero comics, and my kids have been exposed to more than their usual share of geekery through me. My wife isn’t a fan as such of super-hero media, but appreciates it and always has great “outsider” insights. The rest of the people, like most, don’t read super-hero comics and have not seen most of the super-hero films of the past 15 years.

Individually and in small groups, I asked them a few questions about Superman, Spider-man, Wonder Woman,  Captain America, and Batman, and then asked them to name any other female super-heroes and tell me anything about them.

The questions were:

1. What do you know about the character’s origin?
2. What characters do they interact with who aren’t super-powered?
3. Can you name some villains they go up against? (I avoided the word “fight”)
4. What are their powers?
5. What are their stories usually about? What kinds of things happen? (most people had little to say on this subject)

I will arrange the answers for each character in approximate order from most- to least-common responses.

For Superman the answers were what you might expect: mentions of Krypton, Krypton exploding, dead parents, put in a rocket by his parents and escaping, learned stuff in the rocket (Superman: The Movie, I’m looking at you!), found by old people, raised on a farm, he can fly, has super-strength and is super-tough, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, those three bad-guys from Krypton, he has a good relationship with the public and is looked up to, heat vision, x-ray vision, and freeze breath.

Just about everyone knew Spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider, that he climbs walls, and shoots webs (a couple of people mentioned that he made the web-shooters himself). Many mentioned dead parents and living with his aunt and uncle, and that he’s a kid struggling with everyday problems. The younger the respondents the more they mentioned Gwen Stacy, the Lizard, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus, clearly influenced by recent movies and marketing.

With Batman, most (but not all, which really surprised me) knew about his parents being shot in front of him by some random guy (my son knew the name Joe Chill). There were mentions of his gear, of batarangs, bat-themed gadgets, the Batmobile, being a millionaire, having an inventor working for him (again, recent movie influences), that he works kind of with the police, Alfred the butler, “the police chief” or Commissioner Gordon, Robin, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Bane.

Most people knew about Captain America’s shield and his origin being during WWII. One person thought he grew up on a farm in the Midwest, but knew that he was the product of a government experiment. Fewer mentioned Nazis, the Red Skull, and Hydra, and fewer still Bucky and Nick Fury.

Here’s what four people in their 30s, 40s, and 70s – all of them women – said when I asked about Wonder Woman’s origin:

“She has one?”

“Well, she’s Superman’s friend, right?”

“Wasn’t she irradiated?”

(Laudably, my wife knew about 10 times more than the other three! I love her!)

Others could mention an invisible plane or jet, her lasso that controls people or zaps them or something, her tiara, the bracelets, spinning around, and that she’s strong and tough.

Other female characters from most- to least-often mentioned were Supergirl, Elektra, The Wasp, Storm, Spidergirl/Spiderwoman, and the Scarlet Witch. No one could list more than one or two things about any of them.

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So, what can we glean from all this?

Lots. I could go into more detail by age and individual respondents, and it was fascinating in lots of different ways. Here are some observations I and some of the adults made:

The kids most readily knew the names of supporting characters and villains. We can thank tv and movies for that (and me raising my kids on a steady diet of comics!).

Nearly all the female super-heroes that respondents came up with were Marvel characters.

Unlike the traditionally best-known super-heroes, Wonder Woman has no tragedy built into her origin. Wonder Woman’s parents aren’t dead, but then no one really knew anything about her origin, let alone anything about her parentage.

Everyone drew a blank regarding her supporting cast and “rogues gallery”. Wonder Woman’s traditional supporting cast have left little to no impression on the public consciousness.

So, basically,  most people know next to nothing about Wonder Woman.

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But…why don’t they?

As I see it, there are two explanations for this familiarity gap. One, Wonder Woman defies many of the classic super-hero tropes. Her backstory is not traditional super-hero stuff. Her motivations do not originate in tragedy, cataclysm, regret, or guilt. Even Superman, whose tragedy lies in his infancy, is – in most film and tv versions – partly spurred to action by the death of “Pa” Kent. Wonder Woman inherently represents another way, another path. Women take on difficult, thankless, under-appreciated, un-heralded heroic work all the time.

Valerie Alexander points out the ridiculous unfairness in using male standards and achievements as the default values in society, and we need to think long and hard about this, because the things we’re used to in our super-hero stories are not the only way to go about it. Wonder Woman has little need for the angst or complications of a dual identity, or for feeling compelled to hide a “dangerous”, mysterious, alter ego. (Pictures taken during filming of the Batman v Superman movie and the IMDB listing for the movie indicate that Wonder Woman will be using her traditional “Diana Prince ” secret identity in that film.)

My wife rolls her eyes and groans every time the “I have to distance myself from the people I love in order to protect them” trope pops up in a super-hero movie. So common in male-centered tales of heroism, this behavior is an immature response to the emotional complexity of relationships. Any fool off the street can be dark and sad and mysterious if they hide important parts of who they are. This takes the power to help away from others, so it’s both controlling and self-defeating.

Most of the respondents who remembered the ’70s tv series remembered a secret identity, but in that portrayal there were no important or difficult struggles associated with that identity. In fact, the notion of hiding one’s true, most-powerful self is pretty selfish and terribly limiting, and for my money Wonder Woman is all about selflessness and being all you are and can be.

In most if not all versions of her origin, Diana of Themyscira (the hidden, island home of the Amazons) earned her super-hero-y skills and prowess through hard work and training. In some ways this should be as big a part of who she is as Batman’s intense training and discipline – except, again, Wonder Woman didn’t pursue these skills inspired by a tragedy. She sacrifices her elite status to compete anonymously with other Amazonians basically for the privilege of being an explorer, an emissary or ambassador to the outside world, representing a different way. She leaves her family, friends, and her entire society, for the honor of exploring “man’s world” and of representing her society and its values, for adventure, and for an opportunity to do good in the broader world outside if her cloistered, insular upbringing and comfort zone. That, my friends, is what we call heroism.

Superman, Spider-man, and Batman are commonly associated with this secret identity angst, whereas Wonder Woman is not. In the minds of the people I talked to, Wonder Woman is who she is – which I think is one of the great, appealing things about the character. Interestingly, this reflects how she has been portrayed by writer Brian Azzarello in the New 52 version of Wonder Woman, wherein she has no secret identity at all. I think he tapped into something here, something that jibes with the public’s perception (or lack thereof) of Wonder Woman.

Also, unlike most super-heroes the average person could name, WW was raised in an “alien” society. She’s not “like us”, and yet as an outsider it seems like she should be someone we can all identify with.

Secondly, Wonder Woman is underexposed in media, and I think that’s partly because she doesn’t match up with our ideas of what super-heroes are, what they do, and how and why they do it. She was in the Justice League animated series in the early 2000s, but that show had nowhere near the cultural impact of the ’70s live-action series starring Lynda Carter – and that was 40 years ago. Beyond that, there are a few direct-to-video animated movies – mostly with the Justice League, but she did get one of her own – in the past 10 years or so, the Superfriends cartoon from (again) the ’70s, and…that’s it. Those are the only places the general public has encountered Wonder Woman stories, and little if any of those are things most adults have ever heard of, let alone seen. Also, her supporting cast have had very little if any exposure in any of those media.

It’s been 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, so Wonder Woman’s lack of exposure is kind of embarrassing. Just yesterday my wife asked if Wonder Woman has ever been in any comic book movie. She hasn’t, of course – EVER. This is nearly criminal as far as I’m concerned. The fact that my wife had to ask says something all by itself about the character’s weak media presence.

I know sometimes us geeks find it hard to believe that the general populace doesn’t know these characters, but it’s true. The most common reactions when I tell non-geeky adults that I color comic books are a) to immediately refer to “comic strips” because they don’t fully understand what I’m talking about, and b) express surprise that comic books are still being published.

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I could write about the theoretical difficulties in adapting Wonder Woman to tv and movies, but it’s easy to critique that when it has rarely even been attempted. There are any number of ways to make it work, and no one “right” way.

Personally, I’ve often thought that Wonder Woman could be to the DC universe what Thor is to the Marvel universe. Thor stories – and the most recent film starring the character, The Dark World, is a good example – are often big, sprawling, tales that span worlds and mystical realms, with lots of cosmic drama and petty gods and mythical beasts. Basically, Wonder Woman comics could feel like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s runs on the Fantastic Four and Thor over at Marvel, and Kirby’s “Fourth World” stuff at DC. I think the New 52 depiction of Wonder Woman takes a big step in this direction. All that sounds ready-made for modern super-hero movies.

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Costumed super-hero tv shows have had, until recently, a bad track record, and female-led super-hero tv shows have been practically non-existent. Those kinds of shows perch so precariously at the edge of an abyss of goofiness. Note how hard even the most successful ones work to avoid traditional super-hero costumes, and put their heroes in something as close as possible to normal-looking clothes or a military/mercenary outfit.

Most super-hero costumes have two main colors and an accent color: Superman has blue and red and some yellow bits;  Batman wears blue-black, gray, and some yellow bits; Spider-man has blue and red and  (pretty brilliantly) white at the eyes; the Flash is red and yellow with just a bit of white; Iron Man is generally red and yellow/gold; granted Captain America has red, white, and blue all over, but his costume is the wonkiest of those listed here – notice how the movie version uses white as the accent rather than as a major component.

 
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Wonder Woman’s got red, blue, yellow, and white – and some of that white is actually silver and all of that yellow is actually gold. As a colorist usually trying to work with realistic lighting and rendering, her costume reads as red, blue, gold, white, and chrome. That’s five as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a bit of a chromatic mess as traditional super-hero costumes go.

For my money, the best costume redesign of the New 52 was dropping Wonder Woman’s costume down to just red, blue, and silver. I have to admit, though, there’s something iconic lost in her look when you remove that gold/yellow. Yellow is a bright, warm color that does a lot to draw the eye and add visual interest. However, in tv and film, you want the attention on the actors’ facesb, so those bright colors are a distraction.

Because the big screen practically demands more detail, costume designers add the kinds of things that makes a costume seem more like real – albeit stylized and/or ornate – clothing and gear.

Now.

This.

 
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Yes, we can get into why a warrior super-hero would not wear heels, and why female superheroes often have more skin exposed than male super-heroes, but I’m going to set that aside for now, as tempting as it is.

I know right next door to nothing about Gal Gadot as an actress. Like many, I scratched my head a bit when she was cast, because of her slight build – Wonder Woman is a character most people expect to look…well, like an Amazon. We have almost no idea how the character has been written in the script or what Gadot will bring to the role, so I have nothing to say on that, either.

I think the costume works really well, though. The minimal straps or belts break up the traditional Wonder Woman “bodice”, distracting from the inherent oddity of there being a bodice there in the first place. The bodice itself references the classic costume, with some Greco-Roman armor and modern design elements fused together. It balances the eagle and “WW” designy bits. The short-sword adds a great ancient warrior element, which maybe tells us a little about the film’s portrayal of the character. I tend to dislike versions of her costume that make the tiara/headband bigger or turn it into a piece of armor, but costume designer Michael Wilkinson (who has worked with director Zack Snyder for many years now) has done a good job of getting the right size and shape for a larger headband that works on Gadot. The Greco-Roman armor skirt is a nice addition (common in fan-made redesigns), although it’s a bit silly the way it’s tapered to specifically not cover the upper thighs. The bracers do this neat thing where it looks like they’re attached to straps that go around her palms. I could say things about the boots – which I don’t care for – but I have this theory about super-hero costumes that I learned as a colorist: no one really cares about the character’s feet.

Basically, allowing for the relative skimpiness of Wonder Womans usual duds and the trends in super-hero movie costume designs, this is a really solid design. I’m pleasantly surprised. I wish the film-makers had made the bold step of giving her more a full-body outfit like the male superheroes, but then I step back and think about the brazen, “this is what I am” quality that makes Wonder Woman who she is, to some degree, and that she comes from a culture that doesn’t have our culture’s body issues. The image as a whole shows Wonder Woman in a primeval-looking, volcanic setting, and again, that sword says something. She looks like she just stepped out of a myth, and that’s pretty awesome.

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That’s a lot of costume talk, but I’m a visual guy and this ish the first official image we have from the first major motion picture ever to feature this very important female character. There’s a lot you can do with her costume and the various iterations of it used in the comics over the years, so the choices they’ve made here can tell us something about how Wonder Woman is going to be portrayed in her first big screen appearance, and thus how most people (those without much in the way of preconceptions) are going to think about her.It’s a huge responsibility Snyder, Gadot, and screenwriter David Goyer have taken on, and one I hope they take seriously.

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ceci says

did I just say that? (adventures in stream-of-consciousness writing)

Ellen Starr Lyon

commited to creating art while being a full-time working mom

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