Superheroes are often symbolic representations of any number of emotional, psychological, or behavioral traits. In them, we see highly exaggerated and stylized versions of ourselves. Taking an oath to wage a lifetime war on crime, Batman embodies obsession of the highest order. Deadpool, created in the ’90s, can be seen as a manifestation of the stereotypical (yet often spot-on) characteristics associated with Generation X, namely the triple-threat combination of cynicism, sarcasm, and irony. With his berserker rage always threatening to burst free, Wolverine is symbolic of human beings’ struggle to contain our own animalistic inner demons. Catwoman, an antihero who has walked the line between villainy and heroism, reflects how so many of us who believe we’re good at heart still wrestle with doing the right thing in stressful situations.
When you survey the field of superheroes though, one stands out as being so singularly representative of love, compassion, and hope that it’s hard to compare her to anyone else. This hero, of course, is Wonder Woman. Certainly, superheroes in general inspire hope in legions of fans and followers. In fact, Superman is also often representative of hope. Like Princess Diana, he’s an also outsider to our world. Yet even Superman’s brand of hope doesn’t quite compare to Wonder Woman’s. His powers are awe-inspiring and his motivations true, but when it comes to offering pure, unfiltered love, compassion, and hope, no superhero represents these ideals better than Wonder Woman.
Throughout her comic book and multimedia career, and on the eve of her first starring role in her very own feature film, Wonder Woman has exemplified the promise of hope for many of us. This began in her earliest incarnation in 1941, when creator and William Moulton Marston imbued her with strong feminist ideals. Marston’s compassionate yet fierce feminist hero ran counter to most opinions and depictions of women at the time. Marston created a uniquely feminist and fiercely autonomous character in an age when that simply wasn’t the norm. Even today those characteristics remain impressive, especially when compared to the greater superhero community. Wonder Woman is warm and supportive, yet also fierce and independent; a peaceful warrior. She has battled a variety of villains not with brute strength alone—although she certainly possesses and wields that power—but instead with a heavy dose of compassion. More than most superheroes, Wonder Woman attempts to rationalize with her enemies, to talk them out of battle, to help them submit to her love and compassion. By doing so, she shows these villains a measure of understanding not usually offered by her peers in the superhero community. And this compassionate respect can inspire both heroes and villains to hope in ways they hadn’t believed possible before. One such example has been her often humane treatment of troubled nemesis Barbara Minerva, also known as Cheetah. In fact, in DC Rebirth’s current Wonder Woman series, writer Greg Rucka is doing tremendous work fleshing out the complexities of the two women’s relationship.
Being that the majority of her adventures take place in comic books, Wonder Woman will likely always engage in some form of physical combat with her enemies. That is simply a fact of the genre. However, she usually only does so as a last resort. She will use more passive and defensive tools and approaches, including her Lasso of Truth, created by Marston as an allegory for feminist appeal, as well as deflective arm bracelets. Diana from Themyscira was raised in a utopian society of loving warrior women. Through various reboots and reinterpretations of her origins, that dichotomy between nonviolence and violence has remained an integral part of her character. Whereas other superheroes seem to be waging vicious war against crime and injustice, you might say that Wonder Woman is instead waging heavy peace.
Unfortunately and unlike Batman and Superman, her two colleagues in DC’s Trinity, Wonder Woman has too often been mishandled by writers, artists, and editors who either misunderstood her legacy or couldn’t grasp it at all. Look no further than her Silver and Bronze Age adventures, spanning several decades of published history, for some of the more egregious mistreatments she’s had to endure. In those years, her message of female empowerment was abandoned in favor of her pining for male suitors (including good old Steve Trevor), seemingly deriving her self-worth from whether or not these men rang her up on the phone. Unfathomably, she then had her powers taken away, reducing her to little more than a martial arts expert in a white pantsuit (don’t ask). These years are worth a look if only for the unmitigated disaster that they represent; it’s akin to a car wreck in that you don’t want to but you can’t help but look. During times like those, it’s been all too clear that the (mostly) male creators in charge of her stories simply couldn’t get a handle on a complex character like Diana, one who combines great strength, intelligence, independence, kindness, and compassion into an ability to inspire hope in others.
Thankfully, her history is also filled with examples of creators and fans who do understand her, as well as what makes her unique. Gloria Steinem and her fellow second-wave feminists famously saw Wonder Woman as a feminist hero at a time when DC Comics didn’t seem to understand this. To these women, she was the ideal representation of female empowerment. That’s key to Diana’s appeal: unlike many heroes, she is rarely portrayed as someone who elicits fear in others. Instead, her extraordinary and fearsome powers are usually seen as secondary to her dominant and aspirational personality traits. People of every race and gender classification see in Wonder Woman someone that they want to be like, someone who represents all of our better natures by steadfastly offering compassion, kindness, and love to her fellow citizens of the world.
Superheroes like Captain America and Superman are often seen as the epitome of aspirational characters; both repeatedly show us what it means to be a true hero through their actions and integrity. They represent ideals we can all believe in by fighting for truth, justice, and The American Way, after all. Wonder Woman is something more, though. She is a character whose appeal crosses borders, racial and gender lines with exceptional fluidity. Like most powerful superheroes, she can take down an army on her own. Yet it’s her warmth, sensitivity, kindness, compassion, love, respect, and empathy that combine to create a wholly unique character in the comic book cannon. No matter the editorial missteps or sales figures for her multimedia appearances, Wonder Woman will live on in the hearts of fans everywhere that draw continuous inspiration from her strength of character. She is a hero to many of us not for her success in battle, but instead because she is symbolic of the best aspects of human nature. In her, we see what it means to care for and love others, to truly put their feelings ahead of our own. When times are difficult and the world appears in turmoil, Wonder Woman is there to remind us that we can all be better than we ever imagined possible.