Hollywood loves a good meet-cute, and the new trailer for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice delivers several. The most dramatic comes towards the end, when Batman is about to be incinerated by the evil, lumpily menacing Doomsday. Suddenly, (ta-da!) Wonder Woman shows up to deflect the eye-blast with her supershield.
“Is she with you?” Henry Cavill as Superman asks Batman, with urbane comic timing. “I thought she was with you,” Ben Affleck replies in grim, bat-dude voice. Rim shot, end of joke.
For a Wonder Woman fan, it’s nifty to see actress Gal Gadot perfectly coiffed and dressed in her fierce costume. But the sitcom tinge to her introduction is also a little depressing. In this set piece, Superman and Batman are the slightly dopey TV dads, caught flat-footed in their testosterone fugue by a sexy, exciting interloper. You could almost see it as a scene from CBS mega-hit Big Bang Theory, with Sheldon and Leonard startled from a nerdish contretemps by the emergence of Penny (admittedly, Big Bang Theory has fewer explosions).
The original Wonder Woman, as imagined by William Marston and artist Harry Peter, worked differently. Her first appearance in All-Star Comics #8 in 1941 didn’t feature Superman or Batman, and wasn’t about Wonder Woman going to man’s world. It was about man’s world coming to Wonder Woman. For those not versed in Wonder Woman lore, Paradise Island is Wonder Woman’s home; an island of indeterminate location entirely populated by a super advanced race of literally Amazonian women, plucked by Marston from Greek myth. The whole point of Wonder Woman, as Marston conceived her, was that women were superior to men. The comic opens with a plane crashing, and two women in beachware rushing to the scene of the accident. “Princess, it’s—it’s,” one of them stutters. To which our hero, Diana, the Wonder Woman-to-be, declares, “A Man! A Man on Paradise Island! Quick! Let’s get him to the hospital!”
In the Batman vs. Superman, the first scenes with Wonder Woman show men trying to figure out to whom this female interloper belongs. In the comic, on the other hand, the first scenes feature a female community dealing with a strange male outsider. In the movie, the normal baseline is male. In the comic, it’s female.
When Wonder Woman first debuted, its plotline was both daring and unusual. Creator Marston—a psychologist and polyamorist who believed that women should rule the world—presents, in his first story, a female-only society in which women doctors treat patients, a queen rules, and women warriors compete in athletics and battle for honor.
None of this is presented from the perspective of a male viewer; Steve Trevor, the downed pilot, is conveniently unconscious for the entire comic. Wonder Woman looks at him with erotic interest (“So she is in love!” her mom, the queen, declares. “I was afraid of that!”) but he never looks back. Instead, the Amazons use futuristic technology to examine his past and see how Steve ended up on the island. He’s framed, literally, by the female gaze.
Although it follows the typical pattern of Hollywood’s superhero genre, introducing Wonder Woman in a film called Superman vs. Batman is completely antithetical to Marston’s original matriarchal vision. The whole point of Wonder Woman, as Marston conceived her, was that women and women’s communities were more important than, and in fact superior to, men. As Marston declared:
“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary powers to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing—love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring … And that’s the point; not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power.”
Marston’s gender essentialism can seem off-putting and antiquated to modern readers. But in some ways he remains startlingly progressive. Note that he says “not even girls want to be girls.” For Marston, girls should want to be girls—and boys should want to be girls too. Everybody should want to be Wonder Woman. In his view, the heroic standard was a woman, not a man.
Maybe other bits of Batman vs. Superman will present Wonder Woman differently. Or perhaps her own movie, scheduled for release in 2017, will allow her to become a central figure in her own right, rather than a bonus addendum in a universe dominated by dudes.
I’m not necessarily holding my breath though. There aren’t many pop culture narratives in which women set the standard. In the recent Supergirl, for example, Superman hovers in the background, a more famous ideal against which the heroine is judged. Even Jessica Jones—an otherwise fairly nuanced portrayal—is still a minor, marginal hero in a world dominated by male thunder gods and genius playboys.
Superwomen are always being super in a man’s world. Even some 75 years later, most people still see Paradise Island as, at best, a strange, distant land, rather than as home.