The Essence of Wonder Woman

By Thursday, February 26, 2015 0 , Permalink 0

My sister’s Wonder Woman story comes out this morning. (Click on the cover for an interview, and go buy it here.)Cover of Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #26

It’s a good read, and you should go out and grab yourself a copy right now. And it brings up something I’ve mulled over for a while.

One of the repeated claims of why Wonder Woman can’t be made into a film is that she doesn’t have a core story, an essential set of pieces without which she just isn’t Wonder Woman, while other comic book heroes (almost invariably men) do.

The theory is that most characters – most stories – have an essential core. You can adapt stories again and again, you can appropriate elements and move them from one medium to another, but only some of these variants, improvisations, and spins feel “valid”. Some stick, some don’t. Sometimes a new spin is sufficiently different and yet valid that it breaks off and forks into a new story nucleus entirely, and sometimes it just grafts itself into part of the “essential” mythology.

This idea of the essentials needed is one of the elements that are trotted out to justify why some stories or characters are easier to reboot or recreate in a new medium than others. King Arthur has some core elements – The Sword in the Stone, the Grail, the Betrayal of Lancelot, The Round Table – that in some way show up again and again. You can remix and re-sample these in all kinds of different ways and it still feels like King Arthur. (People may like one version more or less than another but it still feels like it is properly King Arthur.)

Some comics examples:

  • Essential Spider-Man
    • “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”.
    • Losing Uncle Ben.
    • Needing to protect Aunt May.
    • I’d even say “Snarky child of the city”.

Outside of that? Race, sex, time period… all pretty flexible.

  • Essential Batman.
    • Parents killed.
    • Vengeance and Justice tangled.
    • The Bat as a symbol to strike terror into the hearts of villains (“a superstitious, cowardly lot”)
    • Physically capable.
    • Surrogate caretaker (Alfred)
    • Maybe the “no guns” rule, but I’m not sure of that. (And I don’t think “no killing” really applies.)

Notice that I don’t think Stately Wayne Manor and the money are actually essential.

  • Essential Superman
    • ┬áLast Son of a Dying World.
    • Flight (a later addition)
    • Super Strength/Incredibly tough.
    • Probably x-ray vision and heat vision.
    • The Big S.
    • The “raised by good salt of the earth folk” (Although we don’t need it to be Kansas or the US.)

I think with those three, lots of leeway on what happens outside of that still feels like it works. People say that because of all the different ways she has been written, you don’t have that with Wonder Woman, and that has been why it has been so hard to get her a film.

I’m not sure I buy that. I think it is more that on some level, feminism is part of her core story, and people aren’t sure what to make of that. Not just due to the basic sexism of Hollywood and society in general, but because “feminism” isn’t a simple concept with a single theme. There are many philosophical, political, and social movements that lay claim to the title of feminism and despite what some people say, there isn’t a simple, inoffensive version that everyone agrees on. Add in that the original conception by Marston was explicitly a Female Supremacy version (because it made him hot) and you can’t even easily “go back to the roots” and somehow play it safe. Any specific interpretation of feminism is going to piss someone off because it will be either “too political”, “not political enough”, or simply wrong. Hollywood doesn’t like political arguments for comic book blockbusters.

Worse, because she is a female icon, if you get her WRONG (and the odds are someone will think you did) you will simply “prove” that you can’t do her as a movie. No one wants to be the one that ruined it and poisoned the character.

I don’t think Wonder Woman has been written with vastly less consistency than Superman and Batman over the years, even if nowadays some of the older versions of both those characters feel like they no longer fit. (I can’t see anyone doing campy 60s Batman again, or Superman being a dick.)

So what do we have as the essential bits of Wonder Woman?

  • Paradise Island. I don’t think it needs to be Greek. I don’t think it needs to be mystical. But it needs to be a haven from the World of Men. (And yes, I don’t think you can get away from the “of men” part easily.)
    • Favored Daughter who leaves. She doesn’t have to be the daughter of the queen, but she needs to be special or beloved in some way. It has to mean something that she chooses to leave. Paradise island has chosen isolation, she has to choose intervention.
  • Superior specimen. That needs to be here, but the level is pretty fluid. She needs to be top bore, but the details of scale depend on the rest of your universe.
  • The bracelets and the lasso. The symbols need to be there. The bracelets need to be useful, probably bullet proof. The lasso does at least need the “truth telling” aspect, all the other powers that have come and gone are optional.
  • Feminism. And here is the rub. Which feminism? People get hung up on that, but I’m not sure you have to be when talking about the essential point.

I think that on some level, Wonder Woman has always been an outsider, and someone who offers a critique of the world as it is. And I do think it needs to be a critique of the world from the view of a woman. I’m not sure you can easily get around it and still have it be Wonder Woman. But does Paradise Island have to be women only? Does she have to have a philosophy of Female Superiority as outlined by her creator? I don’t think so. Nor does it have to be overtly political from the point of view of preaching an orthodoxy. But stories have to be centered on her, as someone who has a specific world view and embodies it in praxis. I think whatever feminism you choose to write her with, it has to be one of practical application to the world (within the limits of good Superhero stories) rather than explicit theory. Her sense of justice, of action, of what it means to have come to the world and want to make it better, all should stem from that.