It started with a plane crash. Well, the fictional side of things did. It started with Steve Trevor, pilot of that plane, who was a member of the armed forces from “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!” When he crashed, he washed ashore on a remote island, inhabited by women, which had been doing its level best to stay away from the world of men. They had to, in fact.
Many years before, their queen, Hippolyte, had beaten Hercules, the demi-god, in a fair fight. Naturally, Hercules was a sore loser so when he could, he stole Hippolyte’s magic girdle, and without it, she had no powers and she, and her people, the Amazons, were forced into slavery, bound by chains, to serve the will of men. They escaped, and vowed to live by themselves, away from men, forever. They found an uncharted mass of land, which they dubbed Paradise Island, and so, with the eternal life theirs by right, lived happily and peacefully for centuries.
Until Trevor’s warplane crashes nearby and everything collapses. Trevor is injured but will recover thanks to the quick thinking of two young Amazons, enjoying the fact there’s “a man! A man on Paradise Island!” Quickly, the gods interfere. Aphrodite and Athena show up to let the Queen Hippolyte know that “danger again threatens the entire world.” They instruct her to send the strongest and wisest Amazon to deliver Trevor back to America, “to help fight the forces of hate and oppression.” A contest is held to find the Amazing Amazonian and who should win but the queen’s own daughter, who found and rescued Trevor to begin with.
Hippolyte gives her a new name, Diana, for her time in the new land, and she gives her a costume, red, white and blue, with a golden eagle across the front. Hippolyte tells her daughter that in America, a land Diana will learn to “love, and protect and adopts as her own,” she will “indeed be a ‘Wonder Woman’”.
And now, it seems, the world, especially America, might need a Wonder Woman again. This time she arrives June 2nd in the guise of Israeli actress Gal Gadot.
The Israeli born Gadot (pronounced gah-dot) is not the first to inhabit the iconic role, but she might be the first one to truly inhabit her creator’s vision of what a “wonder woman” should be. First appearing in 1941 in the back pages of All Star Comics #8, the star spangled girl sprang from the imagination of psychologist William Moulton Marston (writing as Charles Moulton). Marston, already in his late 40s by 1941, had pretty much been waiting his whole life for the moment to spring Wonder Woman on the world. Not that he had been trying to create what would become the most popular female comic book character ever, but everything he had done up until that point was leading him right to her doorstep.
And he’d done a lot.
When he needed extra money as a student, he won screenplay competitions for silent movie companies. As a Harvard educated psychologist, he’d been involved in coming up with the theories and initial hardware, which led directly to the lie detector. When Hollywood needed someone to handle the public, Marston was there to step in and led the Public Services department for Universal Studios. He also taught and wrote and offered his professional opinions and advice on legal matters whenever asked (and sometimes even when he wasn’t). But through it all, he also was a devout feminist, even before the term came into popular usage.
Marston was involved with women’s rights issues from the beginning, having associations with the suffragettes and birth control movements. He led an unconventional home life, as well, having a blended family with both a legal wife and a mistress (who also considered herself married to him) all living under the same roof and jointly raising their five children. All of which led to his beliefs that if women were in charge, the world would be a happier, less combative place. He authored numerous articles on the subject, decrying masculine power in favor giving oneself over to feminine domination. When he wasn’t writing himself, he was the subject of articles on the topic, many written by his live-in lover Olive Byrne, for magazines as homespun as Family Circle.
In one of those articles, “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” Marston lauded the current happenings in the world of comic book heroes, where characters like Superman, Batman and Captain America had just blossomed into genuine pop culture phenomenon. At a time when early comics were coming under fire, Marston praised them, as well as one of their most prominent publishers – M. C. Gaines.
Gaines, who understood business and self-promotion as well as Marston did, immediately brought the psychologist into the fold as part of an advisory council. Marston took advantage of the situation and immediately proposed a new character: “America’s woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip.”
Originally, Marston, who firmly and absolutely believed in the superiority of women over men, called his new creation “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” Gaines, who might have been concerned the name was a little too close to one of their other top selling characters, a guy from a far away planet called Krypton, simply dropped the first part of the name and in so doing, gave her the moniker we still know her by: Wonder Woman.
Immediately, from her initial appearance in December of 1941, just as the US was getting ready to enter the fray, she did what the other main characters didn’t or couldn’t do… she actually did her part and, in the pages of her stories, fought the Nazis and the axis powers. For Marston, the war itself was a way for women to gain more strength and decrease the time frame for his predicted matriarchy. Because, as Tim Hanley points out in his book Wonder Woman Unbound, “With her inherent moral superiority and loving nature, Wonder Woman was created as a response to the dominant traits of male superheroes.” Marston saw Wonder Woman and her comics as a way to pave the way for young readers to fully understand and embrace the coming revolution.
While the revolution hasn’t exactly come to pass the way Marston anticipated, his character has endured in ways he probably couldn’t have predicted. In 1972, Ms. Magazine’s co-founder Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the first ever issue of the first magazine devoted to feminist causes (as well as including an essay inside lauding the character for her “feminism and strength.”)
Through the years, Wonder Woman remained one of the few characters to consistently have her own, self-titled comic (even Captain America faded from view for a while after WWII ended). She was the first (and for a long while, until Marvel’s Agent Carter in 2015, only) female comic character to have her own movie (1974 starring Cathy Lee Crosby) and TV series (1975-79 starring Lynda Carter).
Then something strange happened. Comic book characters on the silver screen came back with a vengeance and all of the big male heroes (and even some minor ones) found themselves with movie deals. Starting with Iron Man in 2008, men in tights were all the rage, but even with such strong female heroes as the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) or the aforementioned Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) it wasn’t until 2016, in Batman vs. Superman, that Wonder Woman finally made it to the silver screen. And that’s where Ms. Gadot comes in.
When news of her casting was first announced, it was met with an amazing amount of derision and skepticism. The comic fan community, known for being vocal in its fidelity to the source material, thought Gadot was too skinny and weak for the role. In true Wonder Woman style, it didn’t take long for her to shut them up. When asked about it on an Israeli TV program, especially in relation to the size of her bustline (traditionally drawn as, shall we say, ample) and feminine physique, the former IDF soldier responded that she was “the Wonder Woman of the new world.” Then, in order to make sure she could handle the physicality, Gadot undertook, as she says, “A very serious training regimen – Kung Fu, kickboxing, swords, jujutsu, Brazilian…1,000 and 1 things,” just to gain body mass.
It worked. The former Miss Israel (who, by the way, did all her own stunts when she appeared in Fast and Furious (2009)) didn’t have much screen time in Batman vs. Superman, but she absolutely stole every second she had. She was able to hold her own going to toe to toe with stars Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck and any doubts about her toughness were laid to rest when she was shown to be taking the lead against an extremely powerful monster-like super-villain while Batman and Superman stand behind her. Even when the film got routinely bad reviews, Gadot was praised for her performance.
Now comes her first solo big screen outing, where (after recasting WWII as WWI) we get the full origin story the Amazonian princess (complete with downed flier Steve Trevor, this time played by Chris Pine) envisioned by William Moulton Marston. Even in the trailer for the film, we can already see how the character is holding steady to the initial concept of a strong and powerful woman, one who understands her power but, as opposed to her male counterparts, is compassionate in its use.
While this current incarnation takes place 100 years ago, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch (especially in light of her appearance in the upcoming Justice League films) to imagine the dark haired warrior coming from a far off place as a metaphor for current times, inspired by the promise of an America that once was the “shining city on the hill,” a place where equality and justice for all was a rallying cry and not a demarcation of weakness.
It’s nice to think that just maybe, there could be a world like the one envisioned by Marston and brought to life in the pages of Wonder Woman, where the power of women was not to be feared but was accepted and invited, where we could all stand shoulder to shoulder to protect those who needed protection from the enemies who would harm us.
Then again, maybe a nice piece of fun, escapist cinema, to spend a couple of hours away from the summer heat is all we’ll get – but with Gadot’s Wonder Woman in charge, it just might be enough.