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Wonder Woman at 75: How the Superhero Icon Inspired a Generation of Feminists

The first time Gal Gadot appeared on the set of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in her full Wonder Woman regalia — eagle-encrusted body armor, knee-high boots, and golden belt and bracelets, her raven hair swept back under a tiara — she was approached by a little girl.

The niece of one of the crew members, the girl wanted to hand-deliver to the Israeli actress a picture she had drawn of Wonder Woman, along with a note.

“She wrote that she wished me luck and she was Wonder Woman’s No. 1 fan,” recalls Gadot. “I keep it with me.”

That encounter during last year’s production of “Batman v Superman,” which marked the movie debut of the decades-old female superhero, was a poignant reminder of Wonder Woman’s enduring prominence in the comic-book canon.

It also underscores the stakes that Gadot, Warner Bros., and DC Comics face as they ready the Amazonian princess’ first big-screen solo adventure. “Wonder Woman,” which hits theaters next June, is the first major feature film centered on a female superhero since 2005’s “Elektra.”

Thinking back to that first day on the “Batman v Superman” set, producer Deborah Snyder says she was so moved, she welled up.

Keeper of the Flame:
DC’s Diane Nelson sees Wonder Woman as an agent for fairness and equality.
Kevin Scanlon for Variety

“This girl and my daughter, who is now 5, will be able to have a female superhero as a role model,” says Snyder, also producer of the upcoming “Wonder Woman.” “They’ll have this strong character to look up to.”

The new film marks a seminal moment for a character who first hit the comic book landscape at the dawn of World War II, a time when society mandated that a woman’s place was in the home.

The re-emergence of Wonder Woman, who is celebrating her 75th anniversary this year, comes at a pivotal juncture, as Hollywood is consumed by a fierce debate over the lack of opportunities for women in top executive suites as well as in front of and behind the camera. Though men continue to outrank women on studio lots and are much more frequently employed on high-profile films, things are beginning to change.

Actresses such as Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Lawrence have been advocating to get paid the same rates as their male co-stars, and studios have made a commitment to hire more female directors. “Captain Marvel” will feature a strong female protagonist in Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, with Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Kent, and Niki Caro among the women being considered to direct. In a bid for gender equity among the blockbuster set, Disney has entrusted its $100 million-plus adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” to director Ava DuVernay. And “American Honey” helmer Andrea Arnold is considered a serious Oscar candidate.

The female-driven “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, will likely be seen as the fulcrum of Hollywood’s strides in this direction.

The brainchild of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman injected a radical edge into the comic-book medium. Her origins have shifted over the years, rewritten and reimagined as new artists have taken a crack at the character. But at least in that initial conception, she was an immortal warrior, raised on an island utopia populated exclusively by women, who journeyed to Earth to fight crime and the Axis powers in WWII. She was equal parts pin-up and pioneer.

“She wasn’t being rescued by a guy; she was a woman in control of the situation,” says Trina Robbins, one of the creators of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” the first comic book produced entirely by women. “When she got tied up, she’d break the chains, break the ropes, and rescue herself.”

Her bustier and high-heeled boots may have appealed to boys’ prurient instincts, but her message of gender equality helped politicize a generation of future feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem. It was Steinem who put Wonder Woman on the cover of one of her first issues of Ms. magazine in 1972, forever linking the character with the fight for women’s rights.

“Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts,” Steinem wrote at the time.

“The key attributes of Wonder Woman that have been consistent over the years are a belief in justice, equality, wisdom, and peace.”
Diane Nelson

Steinem’s essay hit just as the feminist movement was kicking into high gear, but its message was amplified three years later when Lynda Carter slipped on the bullet-proof bracelets on the 1970s television show “Wonder Woman.” Carter’s effervescent, can-do portrayal of the superhero and her alter-ego, Diana Prince, helped introduce the character to a new generation of fans.

“Sometimes you have to use a tiara to make a point,” says Carter. “She doesn’t let anyone push her around.”

One of Carter’s fans was “Wonder Woman” director Jenkins. Growing up, she admired the way Carter’s performance blended strength with sex appeal.

“She was the female superhero that you could be or wanted to be,” Jenkins says. “I was mesmerized by her. On the playground, growing up, when the show hit and was so great, she was just something that every girl, and probably many guys, sparked to and wanted to pretend to be.”

Wonder Woman was more than just a rallying point for feminists — she was embraced by the gay rights movement. In part that was because Carter became an outspoken advocate for gays and lesbians, but also because gay readers identified with this outsider who refused to bend to societal dictates.

“I’m gay, and as a kid growing up, she was one of my first crushes,” says Carol Tilley, author of “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics.”

“I identified with both her message of empowerment and also the setting and context of the original comic, with the Amazons and the emphasis on pleasure and bondage. There was an independent attitude that spoke to me.”

Lassoing the Zeitgeist:
Gloria Steinem’s Ms. featured the character in 1972.

Seventy-five years after Wonder Woman first picked up her lasso of truth, she remains a frustrating anomaly. While the percentage of female comic-book readers continues to rise, female characters make up scarcely more than 30% of the DC and Marvel universes, according to a 2014 survey by analysis site FiveThirtyEight. That’s not to say that Wonder Woman is all alone: There’s Supergirl and Catwoman, Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch, and “X-Men” characters including Mystique, Storm, and Jean Grey. But from there, the club grows ever more exclusive.

“There’s not a lot of competition,” says Jill LePore, author of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” “Wonder Woman was created to fight for democracy and equal rights for women, and sadly, she’s still fighting that fight.”

Unlike Spider-Man or Batman, whose vigilantism is rooted in teenage wish-fulfilment, enabling readers to soar through the night sky unencumbered by gravity while fighting crime, Wonder Woman was a polemical figure from her inception. As LePore notes, Marston told his editors that the comic was intended to trumpet “a great movement under way — the growth in the power of women.”

In Marston, a peripatetic psychologist who had invented an early version of the polygraph and had been drummed out of the academic mainstream, Wonder Woman couldn’t have asked for a more iconoclastic creator. Harvard-educated, Marston was seen as a radical; he believed women to be the equal of men, was inspired by the suffrage movement, and was sympathetic to gay rights.

After falling down the tenure-track ladder, he would have a stint as a psychological consultant to Universal Pictures. He’d get media attention for his offer to administer a lie detector test to Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, but would remain something of an outlier in the staid climate of pre-World War II America. His personal life was no less colorful. The married intellectual was polyamorous, having children with an assistant who lived in his family home.

After advocating for comic books as educational tools in a popular magazine of the day, Marston was approached to work as a consultant by comics publisher Max Gaines. In that capacity, he came up with the idea of Wonder Woman in 1941.

He conceived her as a figure out of Greek mythology, suffused with superhuman strength. In the original comic, if Wonder Woman is enchained by men, she loses her powers. That led to numerous instances of her being tied up and sparked a contentious debate over whether Marston was making a point about cultural subjugation of women or simply using the character to explore a penchant for BDSM. Her creator’s sexual proclivities aside, Wonder Woman quickly emerged as one of the most popular heroes of the Golden Age of comic books.

“The key attributes of Wonder Woman that have been consistent over the years are a belief in justice, equality, wisdom, and peace,” says Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. consumer products. “As a god who came from Paradise Island, she was conditioned to be suspicious of men, but she very quickly got to a place of fighting for equality and fairness for people of all genders and likes.”

But Wonder Woman didn’t always maintain standards true to the ideals established by her creator. Instead, she became, in LePore’s words, a “bellwether” for feminism. In her initial incarnation, Wonder Woman refused to get married. There were still social constraints, however. She may have been a member of the Justice Society, a super team that also boasted Batman and Superman, but she was tasked with being its secretary, often left behind as the men battled various global threats. Yet she could still be counted on to take on progressive issues, joining striking workers in the picket line or taking on rapacious industrialists.

Of course, these storylines unfolded as women were joining the workforce for the first time, taking on jobs to support wartime industries while American men were overseas fighting.

After Marston’s death in 1947, the character’s independent edges were sanded off. There were more stories that had her mooning over her love interest, Air Force officer Steve Trevor. At one point, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Wonder Woman surrendered her powers and put her star-spangled outfit in mothballs while she donned mod-wear, managed a boutique, and learned martial arts from a Chinese mentor named I Ching. It was all very Emma Peel, and it didn’t last.

“We’re here to keep the characters vibrant and contemporary, and that means having a fearless approach to the characters and the mythology,” says Jim Lee, publisher of DC Comics. “Sometimes that can go in directions that aren’t great, to be honest. I think she worked as a taco truck worker for a period of time, but it was short-lived.”

Like Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman has become a de-facto symbol for female empowerment. It’s a legacy that DC Comics, the character’s rights holder, wants to honor, as it prepares to craft a series of cinematic adventures around the warrior princess. To that end, the comic-book publisher and Warner Bros., the studio behind the films, stressed the importance of finding a female director.

Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Hardwicke, and Mimi Leder were among the names that were bandied around before the studio tapped Michelle MacLaren, a director best known for her work on “Breaking Bad,” to make the film. But the studio reportedly disagreed with MacLaren’s vision for the picture as a “Braveheart”-style epic, leading to her exit. They then turned to Jenkins, who helped guide Charlize Theron to an Oscar in “Monster,” to take the reins on what they saw as a more character-driven, less action-oriented story.

“When we parted ways with Michelle, there were all these conversations about can a woman direct a superhero tentpole, which is just ridiculous, because if it was a guy who left, we wouldn’t be having that conversation,” Snyder says. “But when Michelle left, we wanted to be sure we didn’t just go, ‘OK, let’s go to a man now.’”

“There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding her transition to film. Anyone who cares about Wonder Woman sees her as a character who is antithetical to violence and darkness.”
Carol Tilley

But Wonder Woman faces a steeper test than being a flashpoint in the culture wars. As a member of the Justice League team, she has a pivotal role to play in the DC cinematic universe. She is an integral part of an ambitious plan by Warner and its DC unit to counter what Disney has done with Marvel Comics, by launching a series of sequels and spin-off films centered on its costumed heroes.

So far, DC’s results have been mixed. “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” an antihero adventure about a group of super villains, made more than $1.6 billion collectively. However, critics excoriated the films, pummeling them as dreary, leaden affairs. That’s put the studio and the comic-book company in the weird position of trumpeting their commercial appeal, even as they vow to do better creatively.

“We were very aware of the challenging critical reviews, although it’s hard to reconcile that with the tremendous box office success of both movies,” says Nelson. “Fans are really loving it.”

The look of the new DC universe also has some fans of Wonder Woman on edge. The earlier DC films unfold in a dark, urban hellscape, one in which Batman is an aging alcoholic and Superman is a divisive figure, feared by some parts of the population who think his godlike abilities make him a threat. In this kind of post-apocalyptic environment, is there room for a happy warrior like Wonder Woman?

“There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding her transition to film,” says Tilley. “Anyone who cares about Wonder Woman sees her as a character who is antithetical to violence and darkness.”

Despite the “Wonder Woman” movie unfolding against the disheartening backdrop of World War I, Jenkins insists that the film will be different tonally from dystopian comic-book movies. She cites Richard Donner’s “Superman,” with Christopher Reeves’ aw-shucks protagonist and John Williams’ triumphal score, as an inspiration for her film.

“Wonder Woman’s not a dark character,” says Jenkins. “I want to tell a very positive story. I feel like for years everything was leaning harder and darker. There was an expectation that Wonder Woman needed to be tougher or harder, too. But for me, the final victory is if she remains warm and loving.”

Creating the film also meant sifting through thousands of comic-book tales — many of them contradictory — in order to figure out how to tell the story.

“Patty has really taken a very inclusive approach and tried to weave a lot of these disparate elements into one cohesive whole,” says Lee. “Fans who have been reading ‘Wonder Woman’ for decades will be really blown away by how [the film] synthesizes the origins and brings her into the modern era.”

The filmmakers acknowledge, however, that no matter how much fidelity they have to the source material, the character’s longevity means that some fans will object to Wonder Woman’s first big-screen appearance.

“Having been in the world for 75 years, she comes with a lot of expectations and many preconceived ideas, mainly from the comics, but also from the TV show,” says Gadot. “I think it would be impossible to match everyone’s vision for her.”

In order to get in the right frame of mind just before shooting commenced, Jenkins reached out to Carter, the woman who’d inspired her playground heroics. She wanted to get tips on how to bring Wonder Woman to the silver screen.

“Some of the best advice she gave me was, ‘I never stopped playing Diana when I started playing Wonder Woman,’” Jenkins says. “This is a person with character and emotion and feeling. You don’t want her to be an automaton or someone we don’t relate to.”

For more on “Wonder Woman at 75” click here.

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