Amazons, bondage and superhero secretaries: the story of Wonder Woman

12:40 p.m Tuesday, May 30, 2017 Movies & TV
American-Statesman Staff
Gal Gadot stole the show as Princess Diana in “Batman v Superman” and returns in “Wonder Woman.” But the origins of the comic book character are just as interesting as any fictional story. Contributed by Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.

If there is one takeaway from the buzz and hype surrounding “Wonder Woman,” which opens in theaters nationwide June 2, it is that this is a blockbuster that people are taking very, very personally.

Take the uproar, which managed to become a national story, when the Alamo Drafthouse created (and then promptly sold out) women-only screenings of the film. Some trollish dudes got rather salty about that one.

Or witness the online anger about a possible lack of promotion by Warner Bros. for the picture.

All the hype is understandable. Starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot as the immortal Amazon, “Wonder Woman” is, with the exception of perhaps “Elektra,” the first superhero movie of the post-“Buffy” era to focus on a female hero.

This iteration of Wonder Woman was introduced in the otherwise dire “Batman v Superman” wherein she was considered a highlight of a very grim (but moneymaking) film. But Wonder Woman, aka Diana, Amazon princess of Themyscira (Paradise Island), is an iconic character, one of the very few of the original round of superheroes from the late ’30s and early ’40s to survive without a break in publication lo these many decades.

She has hung around through all the major eras of American comics. Gloria Steinem, herself a fan of the comics when she was a child, famously put her on the cover of Ms. Magazine’s first issue. She has fans male and female and otherwise, gay and straight, young and old.

And yet, writers have long struggled to provide her with a context.

Her peers in age and/or fame have easy-to-grasp origins. Superman is essentially an immigrant savior from the stars with a perfect moral compass — a space Jesus, if you will.

Batman is the non-superpowered billionaire whose motives stem from a desire to prevent others from going through the grief, fear and rage he felt at his parents’ deaths at the hands of a mugger.

Over at Marvel, Spider-Man believes with great power comes great responsibility, even as he struggles with everyday civilian life. Captain America embodies the Greatest Generation. The X-Men are every kid who ever felt like an outsider, hated and feared for what he or she is.

But Wonder Woman … she’s a different, much odder, much more complicated story.

Created by a male psychologist with a, let’s say, very specific (but sometimes quite progressive) set of philosophical and sexual interests, Wonder Woman has lasted forever, but once her original creator died, she was reworked and re-contextualized over and over and over. As the excellent comics scribe Christopher Priest once put it, and I don’t think he was being as unkind as it might sound, “Diana is a stiff, kids. There’s just no two ways about it.”

Well, not really. As Priest later notes, it is the writer’s job to make any character interesting. But there have been so many different kinds of Wonder Woman over the years that one has the impression she has a core of pure Wonder Bread.

Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was a progressive psychologist and inventor of the lie detector, a doctor and writer who was married to a fellow psychologist and attorney at a time when women barely held jobs. Marston and his wife shared the affections of Marston’s mistress, a woman named Olive Byrne. He was also a big believer in the notion that the world would be vastly improved if men submitted to women and that we were not too far off from a matriarchy of sorts. He liked bondage and bondage imagery a lot. A lot.

In 1940, Marston gave an interview in which he mentioned the potential of comics as a medium. Comics publisher Max Gaines saw the piece and hired Marston as a consultant. He promptly, in counsel with his wife (and probably Ms. Byrne), created Wonder Woman, who made her debut in late 1941, graduating to her own titles (“Sensation Comics” and “Wonder Woman”) soon after.

The very short version: After pilot Steve Trevor crashes on the Amazons’ island, Princess Diana heads off to “Man’s World” to provide a tough, tender example of how human beings should behave. (Trevor, by the way, is perhaps the most boring love interest in comics history; no wonder contemporary creators often code Wonder Woman as queer.)

I’ve long thought the character’s parentage that would make an amazing HBO miniseries. Until that time, those interested in this exceptionally American tale would do well to read Jill Lepore’s terrific 2014 book “The Secret History Of Wonder Woman.” Turns out the story was even more interesting than I thought — Byrne was also the niece of American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. “Secret History” is a tour de force of reporting and cultural criticism exploring creativity, early feminism and family.

Not everyone at Nation Periodicals (which later became DC Comics) was all that wild about the agency Marston gave Princess Diana. Not even her creator could stop other writers from making Wonder Woman the secretary of the 1940s Justice Society superteam — yikes.

Much of the weirdness (and progressive politics) inherent in Marston’s vision died with him in 1947.

While she survived the great superhero purge of the 1950s, Wonder Woman spent long periods of time as a cypher. Quite frankly, nobody seemed to know what to do with her. Her origin has been revised almost by the decade. She has gone from silly (see also the 1950s and early ’60s and characters such as Wonder Tot) to becoming a depowered martial artist/adventurer in the ’60s to a re-powered female Superman in the ’70s.

Things started to look up when Wonder Woman received an out-of-nowhere boost during the Carter administration with the “Wonder Woman” TV show. The hourlong adventure program starring Lynda Carter sent many a child spinning around hoping her or his clothing would change.

But even this program made hay of its own continuity. The first season was set in the 1940s, the rest in the 1970s (due to costs), complete with a total cast makeover. Even the new movie moves her origin from World War II to World War I.

Wonder Woman was rebooted in the 1980s, undergoing revisions far heavier than her fellow heroes Superman and Batman, and then again twice in the past 10 years.

And so here we are in 2017, and Wonder Woman is, once again, having a bit of a moment. Writer Greg Rucka is doing a good job with his second run on the comics, and she has a big movie that everyone is rooting for.

Wonder Woman has had every narrative disadvantage thrown at her. Nevertheless, she persists.

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