OPINION: Why Wonder Woman Works Best As An Anti-Heroine
With Wonder Woman 1984 jsut around the corner, a closer look at Wonder Woman's character reveals she works best as an anti-heroine.
With Wonder Woman 1984’s pending release (delayed to August 14th due to COVID-19), it’s worth analysing the Amazon’s missteps and mischaracterisations over the seven decades. Namely: the DCEU’s.
I’m aware that Wonder Woman (2017) was a critical and commercial success; baffling, to me, considering its plethora of plot-holes, in-universe incongruity, and that damn moustache.
Why General Ludendorff didn’t use the super-soldier serum on the German army, rather than the poison gas to kill both sides—particularly when it would’ve prolonged the fight, and given Ares more power—bugs me to this day. But I’m petty like that.
Nevertheless, I’m in the minority that thinks a Wonder Woman who wouldn’t be caught dead saying something so cheesy as ‘I believe in love’—as seen in Batman v Superman—is the best characterisation of the Amazon. But, before I’m accused of pulling this version out of my backside, let me explain why Wonder Woman’s best appearances have been as a bloodthirsty anti-heroine.
Heroes are the narrativised embodiment of virtue. They act as replicable behavioural archetypes, whose fantastical feats of strength are caricatured, depersonalised, fictionalised versions of our everyday trials and tribulations. They draw on tropes and metaphors congruous throughout mythology: Superman, for example, is Marduk, Moses, Christ, and any number of other solar-powered deities. These heroes are serialised through their individual flaws repetitiously presented as a rogues gallery of enemies.
Wonder Woman is a direct connection between mythical and comic-book heroes. She’s prominent among the Justice League—pantheon of modernity—is daughter of Zeus, or Ares, or Hercules (incarnation determinate) and the Amazons, and battles demons and demigods often resigned to well-worn tomes on Ancient Greece.
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She’s a complimentary component of DC’s flagship Trinity, alongside Batman and Superman: a representative of Truth, alongside the Dark Knight’s ‘Justice’ and Big Blue Boyscout’s ‘American Way.’ This tethering to archetypal precedent, and defined role as component of a trifecta of virtues, defines the congruent tenets of all her characterisations as: honest, deistic, and a Grecian warrior.
Her accompanying virtues—compassion, temperance, etc.—are components of her role as an inverted Jungian ‘anima’ figure. Prototypically, heroines were the guiding intellect and emotional fortitude supporting the masculine hero, whose feats of physicality vanquished the monster. An ‘anima’s’ journey is internal: whereas heroes embark on a quest or voyage, ‘animas’ explore the recesses of her emotional underworld, reconciling trauma and aversion to the domineering presence of the hero to unify the pair at the story’s conclusion.
Again, myth extrapolates the self-actualisation of men and women—men as protectors and providers, women as community builders and mothers—and sets it in opposition to an archetypal predator figure—a minotaur, chimera, or other hybrid of animals capable of harm—to communicate a path for human survival, through justified reproduction.
However, Wonder Woman’s existence somewhat usurps this tradition, despite her Greek mythological imagery. Inventor of the lie detector test, second-wave feminist, and sadomasochist (quite the CV) William Moulton Marston conceived of the character, believing the ‘obvious remedy’ to American comics’ ‘blood-curdling masculinity’ was ‘a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman’.
She manifests some of the ‘anima’ archetypes: as an emissary of Aphrodite, she was to pacify Ares’ warmongering mankind with love, because, as Marston believed, ‘There isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully’. [What a simp.]
However, her invulnerability, use of physicality, and dominant role in her and Steve Trevor’s relationship, place Diana in the prototypically male role of the mythological hero.
Her creation coincided with women entering comics, in positions previously occupied by men (until they were conscripted to bravely banish the scourge of Nazism from Europe), and as England’s own eventual Queen registered for wartime service.
It’s also why she was used as iconography by feminist campaigns, ran by Gloria Steinem, which aimed at abolishing gender stereotypes and providing equal workplace opportunities for women (with varying success and competency).
However, this incongruity is not waved away as mould-breaking perfection so easily. Those who abscond gender specific virtues become villainous, out of the inability to reconcile ambition and natural temperament.
The neurotic, egomaniacal, Machiavellian male becomes a Joker or Lex Luthor.
The woman wielding physicality, manifested as sexual power, is the temptress, seducer, adulteress, or femme fatale; a Catwoman or Poison Ivy.
These also work in excess, as well as deficiency: with the mindless hulking brute—a Doomsday or Killer Croc—and (less commonly) the callous matriarch—an Amanda Waller or Faora/Ursa.
The nature of comics as a continuous narrative means villains aren’t as quickly disposed as in myth or tragedy. Therefore, it permits a path to a-chronological character progression, with villains and heroes often occupying the anti-heroic spectrum at varying points. “Masculinised animas” who have done so include Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Black Canary, Huntress, and Starfire.
But Wonder Woman was the first.
Superman has a God-complex imposed upon him by his societal obligations (ability implies obligation; “Must there be a Superman?”), and a free, optimistic temperament which has its validity tested by the tyranny of Zod, or the cynicism of Luthor.
Bruce’s pathological orderliness is a yin-yang with Joker’s a-political anarchistic chaos.
But Diana’s flaw? Her indeterminate character, due to an indeterminate exhibition of archetypal virtue. And it’s a good flaw, from a writing perspective. It creates opportunities for conflict with the purely physical feminine (Cheetah), or scheming masculine (Maxwell Lord, Ares). And—just as Batman’s and Superman’s flaws are derived from their gender-opposite intellectual capacity—Diana’s is derived from her bloodthirstiness; her propensity to be hyper-masculine.
From this dichotomy arises poignant philosophical questions about the nature of heroism. Bruce and Clark’s dogmatic adherence to not executing their enemies is questioned by Diana’s membership in the Trinity. Despite being a demigod, she possesses the grounded perspective that, sometimes, the Aristotelean mean of heroism is to be a warrior: whose sword and shield meet blood and bone in the self-defense of their civilisation. It was the source of conflict in the opening issue of Infinite Crisis, and appears to be the more realistic—or, at least born of necessity—perspective, if Batman and Superman’s on-screen kill-counts are anything to judge by.
It’s also how Diana has become an accomplice to Superman when inclined toward totalitarianism in Superman: For Tomorrow and Injustice: Gods Among Us. She’s a mediator between Bruce’s night-time crusade and Clark’s daybreak optimism. The divine made woman, overturning tables in the temple that is the world. Executioner, with a propensity, as all power possesses, toward cataclysmic error. Immense responsibility; equally large capacity for failure. The furthest thing from “Mary Sue”.
Batman v Superman possessed this property: with Diana smirking at her return to being bashed around in the battle with Doomsday. Her distancing from humanity paralleled, and den-motherly instincts complimented, Affleck’s Batman, with both to be “redeemed” by Superman’s exemplary sacrifice and the formation of the Justice League to fight the chaotic threat to human existence, represented by Apokolips (#ReleasetheSnyderCut).
Snyder abided by these mythological archetypes, from Christian symbology in and Luthor’s painting, to the text in Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude being passages of Joseph Campbell translated into Kryptonian.
Conversely, Wonder Woman featured Diana’s righteousness, hard-headedness, and self-sacrificial capacity, but didn’t muse on her tendency to revel (rightly or wrongly) in bloodshed. It simply quickly disposed of Ares, and pretended—for themes’ sake—that his demise had Germans and English holding hands and singing kumbaya (like Gadot’s own recent misguided Imagine rendition).
And now, in the chronological mess that is the DCEU, Wonder Woman 1984 will not (seemingly) address the effect of the Second World War breaking out after Ares’ death on Diana’s moral framework. Absent of the moral conflict presented by DC’s Trinity paradigm, and inflected with an even lighter tone than Wonder Woman (abandoning any hopes of lining up with Snyder timeline), the reflection of Diana’s conflict of virtues in her villains are gone.
Her flaw becomes that she’s too good, too loving, to the point of naivety; that if Ares is killed, or she wishes hard enough for Steve’s resurrection, that no consequences will ensue. A flaw unbefitting a warrior. Not only was that the lesson from the first film—reducing her developmental arc to a repetitious bore—but it also removes her morally culpable, imperfect dimension which humanises the mythological giants populating the DC universe.
Case in point: if you remove Wonder Woman’s bloodlust, you weaken her character back to the one-dimensional archetype of worldwide “peace and love.” You revoke her agency. You make her dull.
The argument is not to change Wonder Woman so she fits with a framework derived from, or imposed upon, myth. It’s not an appeal to a highbrow literary standard, or rigid abidance by tradition. It’s an argument to align her character once again with the naturally occurring manifestations of virtue, and the character flaws associated with its misapplication, as have existed across human cultures and their stories throughout history, because it’s a pattern which closest aligns with truth.
Let’s hope the levity of WW1984 doesn’t undermine the moral ambiguity of Diana’s inevitable neck-snap of Lord by the film’s conclusion (if they do it at all). We’ve already had an unforgivable character assassination of one Amazon in the last year (cheers, Titans). Let’s not make it a habit.