Star-spangled, earnest, and totally a product of World War II. That description could be referring to either Captain America or Wonder Woman... but Captain America has a huge movie coming this summer, while Wonder Woman's television show crashed. What gives?
On the face of it, both heroes are about equally dated. They both seem like examples of the kind of big, brassy jingoism that made sense in World War II, and doesn't really "click" now. And they're both very much "gee golly"-style Golden Age heroes, who are best suited to fight villains whose heads are red or giant, or both. Unlike Superman, who's been updated a lot, and Batman, whose roots are more noir/pulp, Cap and Wonder Woman are indelibly products of the Big One.
But Captain America already has a huge new movie, which flaunts the World War II setting in a kind of Private Ryan-style war movie with supervillains. And meanwhile, David E. Kelley shopped around a Wonder Woman TV pilot to every network, with no takers. (Although Kelley insists the show isn't dead, and he's going to try again.) And Entertainment Weekly had a huge feature a couple months ago, in which luminaries including would-be Wonder Woman director Joss Whedon talked about the difficulties bringing the princess to the screen — with Whedon saying that we need more wonder women, but not necessarily more Wonder Woman.
Image via JD Hancock on Flickr.
So why is one World War II hero bigger than ever, while the other is languishing in biker-chick-redesign land in the comics? It's not just because Steve Rogers is a dude. It has to do with how easy they each are to bring out of the era that spawned them.
Steve and Diana both belong to World War II
Everybody knows Captain America is a World War II hero – it's hard to imagine his origin otherwise. The monumental struggle against the Third Reich provides a crucial motivation for Steve Rogers, a weakling, to be so desperate to enlist in the Army that he's willing to undergo a dead risky medical procedure, turning him into the one and only "Super Soldier," who goes and fights against the Red Skull and other Nazi villains.
But Wonder Woman is just as much a World War II hero as Cap, as the producers of her television series realized when they created her first season. There are huge chunks of her origin that make no sense without Nazis. Why did the Amazons suddenly decide to break their policy of isolation to send one of their warriors to America? Because the Nazis threatened the whole globe, even the Amazons' secret island. Why on Earth is Diana dressed in American flag panties and a giant eagle? Because of some Amazon mumbo jumbo — but mostly to show solidarity with her allies in the fight against the Nazis.
In case you forgot it, here's the actual origin of Wonder Woman, as told in All-Star Comics #8. Steve Trevor, the most valuable guy in the American's spy-cracking squad, goes to bust a Nazi spy ring, only to be taken captive and put aboard a robot plane that's bombing American shipyards. He regains control over the plane, only to crash on Paradise Island, where the Amazons realize that the Gods sent Steve Trevor. Athena and Aphrodite appear to Hippolyta and tell her that great evil threatens to consume the whole world, unless she intervenes. And America, "the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women," is in danger. So Hyppolyta decides to send the bravest and wisest of all the Amazons out into the world — dressed in a totally flagtastic costume!
Once you take Wonder Woman out of World War II, her origin gets a lot murkier. Like in the George Perez reboot, where the Amazons have a sort of vision that
KratosAres, the God of War, has finally gained enough power to threaten the whole world. They see Ares destroying the planet Earth and the Gods themselves. And instead of crashing on Paradise Island, Steve Trevor almost bombs it back into the Stone Age under Ares' influence. So the Amazons send Wonder Woman to confront this threat, and Ares nearly gets the U.S. and the Soviet Union to nuke each other to bits.
It sort of works as a Cold War reinvention of Wonder Woman, especially the threat of nuclear annihilation — and it does answer the baseline question, "Why, after 2000-odd years, are the Amazons finally breaking their policy of isolation now?"
More recently, I'm just not sure why the Amazons decided, after 2,000 years, to send their best warrior to the United States — it seems to have been so that she could be a kind of ambassador and lecture us about peace and love and shit. Which seems like a weird thing to send your reigning bullets-and-bracelets champion to do. And the explanation of why she's dressed in an "America-fuck-yeah" outfit gets more and more confusing — it's all Greek mythological symbolism. Meanwhile, the writers have tried a bit to reconnect Diana with the Greatest Generation, by changing it so that Diana's mom, Hippolyta, was the one who visited our world in the 1940s as Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman needs her own iceberg
The most genius thing about Captain America's origin isn't the super-soldier serum that turns him into a paragon of the American fighting man, or his vibranium shield, or whatnot. It's the iceberg.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanted to bring back the character that Kirby and Joe Simon had created back in the Forties, they came up with the idea that Captain America had vanished toward the end of the war, getting stuck inside an iceberg for decades only to be defrosted in the present day. That iceberg originally froze Cap only for a couple decades, but now that we're closing in on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, that iceberg's freezing capacity is getting greater and greater.
The iceberg means you never need to update Captain America's origin, or make it more relevant. The World War II stuff only gets better as time goes by. He's a product of this other time, when things were simpler and Americans made sacrifices to fight ultimate evil. Putting him into our modern era is automatic win.
But doing the same thing for Wonder Woman is a bit trickier — she's a mythical warrior from Greek legends, who was so impressed by America's democracy that she decided to dress up in our colors? And this happened 60 years ago, but now she's still doing it? It just seems a bit nutty. Even an iceberg, no matter how frosty, doesn't quite solve that problem.
And the other problem with Wonder Woman is, the farther you take her away from the World War II setting, the more everything to do with her turns into Greek Gods talking God talk. You wind up with Clash of the Titans set in the present day. I may be an aberration here, but generally the more Wonder Woman deals with mythological crap, the less interested in her I get. The genius of the original Wonder Woman comics is that they show an Amazon in our world, dealing with spies and saboteurs and crooked promoters, not an Amazon arguing with Zeus in a weird jumpsuit. I love Gail Simone, but when her run on the comic veered into Achilles-and-Zeus territory, it quickly became nigh-unreadable. Ditto for some earlier runs on the character that got too myth-heavy.
So really, any treatment of Wonder Woman has to give her a compelling reason to want to go to America, and to dress like a uber-patriotic American swimsuit model. And weirdly, just like Captain America, she represents an ideal of what America could, and should, be. The Amazons were so impressed with America's status as the "citadel of democracy" that they wanted to dress her like the mascot for this group. It's kind of weird for a supernatural warrior woman from an all-woman island that's been cut off from the world for 2000 years to idolize America like that, but it's superheroes. Just run with it.
And just like Steve Rogers, the 1940s Wonder Woman could view our present-day America as a bewildering contrast to the shining ideal she looked to back in the day. On the one hand: More equality! On the other hand: weird porn is everywhere. Plus the environment, and stuff.
Probably Joss Whedon is right, and we should be trying to get more heroes like Wonder Woman on screen — but not Wonder Woman herself. She just may not work in this day and age.
But she's the only longstanding female comic hero who can stand up alongside heroes like Captain America, Superman or Batman, and who isn't just a copy of a male hero. So it would be nice to see her getting her moment to shine on the big or small screen. I could see two ways to do it:
1) Give her an iceberg of her own. Keep her origin in World War II and show her fighting the Nazis, only to get swept forward into this new, bewildering era at the end of the movie or TV pilot. Maybe in the 21st century, the Amazons are mysteriously gone, and she has to figure out why.
2) Give her a new reason to go to America and dress like that. Preferably some huge, terrible threat that only an Amazon warrior can overcome. Not some vague touchy-feely thing like, "people are being mean to each other." But some monstrous foe. And maybe we need an outsider to come and remind us of what America can be.
Bottom line: You can't really detach Wonder Woman from the paradox of being simultaneously a foreigner and an avatar of American patriotism. It's the contradicion that makes her fascinating — or utterly boring, if you try to finesse it the wrong way. Probably the hardest part of bringing Wonder Woman to the screen is to give her what Captain America already has: a link from World War II to the present.
Top image: Wonder Woman and Captain America by Greg Land, from the cover of Wizard Magazine. Via ComixUp.