Over the years Wonder Woman has gone through some remarkable changes, from being a ground breaking superhero in a genre that was mostly an all boy’s club to being a feminist icon supported by the likes of Gloria Steinem, and then to be a star of her own television show that ushered a generation of boys through puberty. Now after decades of standing in the shadow of Batman and Superman she is finally appearing on the big screen in her own movie, so today we will take a look back and see where Wonder Woman came from and see just how far she has come.
Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston as an answer to all that male spandex clad heroics that were appearing in the comics of the time. In fact much of the credit for Wonder Woman’s creation must go to his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston who thought if you were going to create a hero with different ideals, centering on solving problems with love instead of fists, it should be a woman. With the help of artist H.G. Peter the Amazon from Paradise Island first appeared in issue #8 of All Star Comics, and her adventures came just in time as America was heading into another world war. Comic book readers were treated to Wonder Woman taking to the fight to evil Axis powers as well as dealing with the petty antics of the gods, in fun and exciting ways of course, but from these early issues one can see that the road to superhero fame wasn’t an easy one for her.
“At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a Woman to who the problem and feats of men are mere child’s play – a woman whose identity is known to none, but whose sensational feats are outstanding in a fast-moving world! With a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers, she appears as though from nowhere to avenge and injustice and right a wrong! As lovely as Aphrodite and as wise as Athena – with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules – she is known only as Wonder Woman. But who is she, or whence she came, nobody knows!”
An important thing to understand about Wonder Woman’s creator is that he was bit on the kinky side, he considered bondage and submission to be a “respectable and noble practice” and thus he wrote in a rather odd weakness for our heroine. Where Superman was laid powerless when exposed to kryptonite Wonder Woman on the other hand suffered from “Aphrodite’s Law” a stipulation that made the chaining of her “Bracelets of Submission” (and yes that is what Wonder Woman’s metal bracelets were originally called) together by a man would take away her Amazonian super strength. Now Wonder Woman tended to free herself from these predicaments thus preventing her from becoming a complete damsel in distress, but the repeated images of a scantily clad female in bondage was one of the major bullets in the arsenal of those hell-bent on censuring comics, and it was a key element in the ushering in of the Comic’s Code.
Wonder Woman’s origin story is a unique one, she wasn’t rocketed to Earth from a doomed world or inspired by a flying rodent after losing her parents, instead William Marston delved into Greek mythology to create her backstory. We first learn that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta, and given life by Athena who saw the Amazonian’s sadness over not having a child of her own, and Wonder Woman of course got a passel of superhuman powers as gifts from the Greek Gods. And aside from her powers she was also given quite the arsenal of weapons with the foremost being her “Lasso of Truth” that compelled anyone caught in its coils to tell the truth. Marston being instrumental in the development of the modern polygraph machine (lie detector) makes this addition to the mythos more understandable.
Wonder Woman also has her indestructible bracelets (the less said about that whole “Bracelets of Submission” thing the better) which where were formed out of the rare metal amazonium (or feminum if you watched the 70s television show) and not only could it deflect bullets, or any other type of incoming fire, but it could also absorb the kinetic energy of an attack. Even Wonder Woman’s tiara was far from being just a fashion statement as it could be used as a projectile, functioning like a boomerang as well. Her most famous accessory would of course be her invisible plane which according to Marston represented the “Invisible feminine compliance that allowed women of the Depression Era to enter and survive in the hostile male dominated work place with less resistance from that hostility.” Gee, I always thought it was just a cool ride.
Her invisible plane also stemmed from the fact that Golden Age Wonder Woman couldn’t fly. Later in the Silver Age her powers were increased to her being able to ride wind currents, thus allowing her to imitate flight over short distance, but eventually she reached almost Superman levels of power and gained the ability of true flight. This didn’t mean she discarded her plane as it still made hauling her luggage around much easier.
Batman and Superman had being making live action appearances as early as the 1940s but Wonder Woman wasn’t having such luck, she didn’t even get a crappy serial. How hard could it be to put an actress in a star-spangled costume and have her punch a few dudes? Sadly the answer to that question is apparently, “Very, very hard.”
The popularity of the Adam West Batman series led producer William Dozier to take a crack at bringing the Amazon princess to life, and after watching this thing you may wonder if he was on crack. His 1967 test pilot was only five minutes long but was also just plain terrible, with Dozier’s take on Wonder Woman (Ellie Wood Walker) being a vain idiot who was badgered by her mom about not being able to get a man. We can be grateful that it never got picked up for series.
During the late 60s and early 70s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman surrendered her powers in order to remain in Man’s World rather than accompany her fellow Amazons to another dimension so they could restore their magic. This depowering of Wonder Woman was a rather strange direction for a comic to take their superhero in, sure Superman would occasionally lose his powers but not for very long, and to make up for this loss of power writer Denny O’Neil and artist Mike Sekowsly introduced the character of I Ching, the last surviving member of an ancient sect, to help and train her in numerous martial arts and weapons use.
This all stemmed from Denny O’Neil’s belief that Wonder Woman would be a more heroic character if she had attainable skills and abilities rather than powers imbued by the gods of Olympus. So basically turning her into Batman but without the brooding and dark fashion sense. This version of Wonder Woman is what probably led to her second live action incarnation starring Cathy Lee Crosby as Diana Prince secret agent.
Like the “I Ching” era Wonder Woman this version also had none of the standard powers normally associated with the character, instead she functioned more like a female James Bond. In this failed 1974 pilot movie Wonder Woman worked as Steve Trevor’s secretary but also as a field agent who would secretly investigate on his behalf. Without super powers this Wonder Woman mostly dealt verbal banter with villains, as well as occasionally having drinks with them, and though she did sport a star-spangled costume it was not the Wonder Woman costume most of us would be familiar with, and sadly her fighting skills were not even on par with the I Ching era of the character. This was all going to change just one year later.
Due to the declining sales of the comic DC finally returned Wonder Woman to her roots, returning her powers and teaming her up with The Justice League of America back in the WWII era. This change stemmed from the popularity of television’s third and most successful attempt at a live action Wonder Woman, which also introduced Lynda Carter as the titular character. This series ran for three seasons, but with only the first season taking place during WWII, and Lynda Carter’s effortless charm made the show a must watch for countless fans. From battling Nazis to alien invaders this series had everything a kid could want. Wonder Woman still had a penchant for being tied up but nobody’s perfect. After it’s cancellation we weren’t to see another live action Wonder Woman for decades, but her adventures would continue on in both comic book form as well as in animation.
Kids may have not been able to get their fill of a live action Wonder Woman but from 1973 and to 1986 they were able to sit down in front of their television sets each and every Saturday morning to catch the thrilling adventures of the Super Friends. The roster changed over the years but it usually had Wonder Woman working alongside the likes of Superman, Aquaman, and Batman among others. She was also got stuck working with such idiot teenagers as Marvin and Wendy, along with their pet Wonder Dog or the even dumber Wonder Twins and their annoying space monkey Gleek. Standards and Practices at the time didn’t allow much violence in a show meant for children so Wonder Woman mainly ferried people around in her invisible jet, or she’d occasionally snag somebody with her magic lasso. Things got a little weird for her when the Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show was produced as it spent much of its time with Darkseid trying to marry the Amazon princess.
In the mid-80s George Pérez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter did for Wonder Woman what John Byrne was doing for Superman in his Man of Steel reboot, they gave her a complete revamp of her origins and made her an emissary and ambassador from Themyscira, but her Greek mythological history was still maintained and they spent a good deal of time with Diana trying to handle her “eccentric” relatives as well as her numerous other foes such as Cheetah and the scientific genius Veronica Cale. This reboot was incredible successful and many future writers and artists used the George Pérez model for reference.
In 1996 Mark Waid and Alex Ross brought the world a four issue mini-series titled Kingdom Come, an Elseworlds story (Elseworlds being a place for stories that exist outside of DC canon) that dealt with a future where traditional superheroes were considered out-of-touch and that a new breed of amoral and dangerously violent vigilantes were wreaking all kinds of havoc.
When these two groups clash, with Lex Luthor’s evil machination right in the middle of it all, things got really hairy and ideologies on all sides were threatened. This version of Wonder Woman has her as a lieutenant to Superman in his war against these irresponsible newcomers, but it ends with her and Superman finally hooking up which was kind of nice. Meanwhile back in the world of animation the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, both co-produced by animation great Bruce Timm, resulted in us getting one of the best incarnations of Wonder Woman to date.
Fully powered and able to hold her own against some of DC’s biggest heavy hitters this series set the gold standard for how to depict Wonder Woman. In this show we finally got to see Diana Princess of Themyscira as she appeared in some of the best versions of the comics, powerful, noble and taking shit from no one.
In 2004 we got the brilliant Eisner Award winning comic New Frontier by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke which gave us a darker version of Wonder Woman. Taking place during the 1950s this mini-series hearkened back to the Golden Age of comics but with a bit more edge to it as these classic heroes met up with heroes from the Silver Age and with some startling results. The Wonder Woman in this comic didn’t shy away from killing and was also up for a good time when called for.
In 2011 there was another attempt at bringing a live action Wonder Woman to the small screen (after many failed attempts to get a movie off the ground one had start feeling sorry for the poor Amazon) but this pilot was so derided by all who saw it that it was never aired or even finished.
This version of Wonder Woman (Adrianne Palicki) had three identities; first there was Diana Themyscira powerful head of Themyscira Industries, then we had her costumed Wonder Woman persona whose crime fighting is funded by the merchandise sold by her company, and finally there was Diana Prince who lived alone with her cat. Not only is the three identities idea stupid but this show also had her torture and murder her opponents without a second thought. I’m okay with a darker version of Wonder Woman but this take on the character was just ludicrous.
Things may have been looking rough for Wonder Woman in the live action world but she was about to get a complete overall in the pages of DC comics with their New 52 launch which would reboot and relaunch many of their classic characters.
The biggest change to Wonder Woman here was a serious tweaking of her origin story, as mentioned she was originally a clay doll made by her mother Queen Hippolyta, who wanted a daughter and whose pleas were heard by the goddess Athena, but now it’s revealed that the whole doll thing was a lie and that Diana was the product of an affair between the Queen and the god Zeus. We also learn from this reboot that while growing up she was not considered a true Amazon, being as everyone thought she was made of clay and not flesh, and this resulted in some of the other Amazons insultingly calling her “Clay” and not letting her play in all their reindeer games.
After years and years of trying to get a big screen live action version of Wonder Woman off the ground it finally happened in 2013, but unfortunately not in her own movie. Despite a critical drubbing from fans and critics alike Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel made enough money for Warner Brothers to continue with their plans for a DC Extended Cinematic Universe to rival what Marvel was doing.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is nothing more than a glorified cameo, with much of her appearance simply being set-up for the upcoming Justice League movie, but when she was finally allowed to strut her stuff she became the highlight of the movie. How Gal Gadot will handle the character in her own movie has yet to be determined but what little I did see of her in this movie was interesting enough to give me some hope, that and it not being directed by Zack Snyder helps.
Wonder Woman has certainly had quite the eclectic career, from appearing on the cover of Mz Magazine, surviving decades of changing morals in a world where many female superheroes were relegated to being just knock-off version of their counterparts or being glorified testosterone fueled fantasies for pubescent teenagers, to finally landing her spot on the big screen with her male contemporaries. Wonder Woman stands out as one of the better comic book characters to ever appear on page or screen whether that be male or female. I’m sure we will be treated to many more interesting takes on the Amazonian princess in the years to come and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.