Essays · Movies

Wonder Woman as Champion of Empathy

In an era of hatred, outrage, and contempt, Wonder Woman offers the world a necessary symbol of strength through compassion.
Wonder Woman Arms Crossed
By  · Published on May 31st, 2017

After nearly a lifetime of obsessing over comic books, when the term “Super-Hero” is used in popular culture, my brain immediately summons the DC Universe. In particular, my go-to Super Heroes are the Trinity: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They may not have been the first spandex characters to hit the newsstands, but they were the first to strike a chord with the populace beyond the four-color children’s entertainment. More would follow suit, but the Trinity were the first to refuse to be confined to one medium, breaking out into serials, television, novels, and movies. Once out of their box, they refused to climb back inside.

The appeal of Batman is easy to work out on the couch. The Dark Knight was born from tragedy, fashioned his code of justice from a need for revenge, and dedicated his life to preventing the horror that happened to him from happening to others. He’s a truly nightmarish illustration of America’s “No Fair!” sense of underdog entitlement. Superman simply fights the good fight because that’s how apple pie loving middle-American parents raised him. He’s the personification of the golden rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), a walking-talking example of how we all should behave, but with the bonus of unstoppable strength. Wonder Woman is a little trickier.

In her forward to the book, “Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film,” director Patty Jenkins writes, “Love. It’s difficult and requires great bravery and acceptance. But to be strong enough to love in the face of darkness is the thing that sets Wonder Woman apart from so many before her.” Created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was this psychologist’s attempt to show children what The Beatles would preach decades later, “All you need is love.” Of course, Marston would make things a little more complicated by sprinkling in his kinks for BDSM; the Amazonian princess would too often find herself wrapped in chains, rope, or her lasso. Still, Wonder Woman’s origin is her own desire to see beyond the shores of Paradise Island, to aid a humanity destined to destroy itself. Wonder Woman’s true super power is her empathy, and that is a hero our current world urgently craves.In 2011, when DC Comics re-launched their line as The New 52, there was a lot of contention from the classic (a.k.a the old) comic’s community about this edgier, continuity-free branding. Some of it was seriously justified (I’m looking at you Catwoman), and some of it was most certainly not. When it came time to revamp Wonder Woman, DC hired writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang to realign the character to her mythological roots. To be fair, the character was always playing on that battlefield of mythology, going toe-to-toe with deities like Ares, Hercules, and Circe on multiple occasions, but this was their attempt to ground her origin for an inevitable contemporary film adaptation. However, somewhere along the line, company and creative team would disengage, and the more traditional Wonder Woman pulp adventurer would return to typical spandex theatrics.

The classic origin of Wonder Woman involved her mother, Hippolyta, fashioning her child from clay, praying to the gods, and being rewarded for her devotion with a miraculous offspring. The first major alteration that Azzarello and Chiang’s run commits are tossing that transformation off as a ridiculous flight of fancy. While Diana was raised under that delusion, it is revealed early on in the series that Zeus appeared on Paradise Island, seduced her mother with one of his many undeniable forms, and is the true father of Wonder Woman. While my initial reaction to this revelation was disappointment (I mean, come on, how wonderfully weird and perfectly mythological is that clay baby story?!), Azzarello and Chiang use this retcon as a means to go full epic poem with The New 52.

Wonder Woman is now a blood about a myriad of Greek Gods, and the family squabble she inherits becomes the driving force of this six-volume series. Zeus no longer sits atop Mount Olympus, he’s vanished from the pantheon, and his throne is begging for a butt to plant. His son Apollo is the god most anxious for the seat, and for the first half of the series appears to be orchestrating all manner of doom to prevent any other sibling from taking the chair. His biggest threat seems to be the last-born child of Zeus who resides inside a Virginia farm girl named Zola, who thought she was just knocked up by some random truck stop beauty. After Hermes prevents a centaur assassination divined by Zeus’ vengeful bride Hera, Zola is dropped into the hotel room of Wonder Woman, and the Amazon is brought into the conflict.

What starts as a minor annoyance relatable to any high school babysitter, the revelation of Diana’s godly origins redefines her role as Zola’s keeper. The fury that wells within Wonder Woman to these gods using humans as pawns on a chessboard pushes her towards compassionate heroism. The Amazon has nothing to fear, but the contempt that these all-powerful, glory-seeking immortals direct towards lesser beings. That’s the injustice that fuels her character.

When Zola is whisked off to the underworld by Zeus’ brother Hades, Wonder Woman and Eros dive right in after her. It’s all a ruse to bind Diana into a marriage contract, one that cannot be signed until she pledges her love for Hades via a hangman’s noose thread from her lasso of truth. It looks like Azzarello found a way to still pay tribute to Wonder Woman’s kinkier origins after all. The BDSM games don’t last long, Wonder Woman and Eros fight against a sea of blood and muscle, and the underworld skirmish sets up a series of further titanic clashes that will ultimately climax in a demi-god battle royale impossible to predict.

The true excitement of The New 52 relaunch is how Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang manage to reconstruct Wonder Woman over the course of one, long story. Stretching over 35 issues, there is not a single one-and-done comic. Even when the company mandate demanded a 0 issue prologue, Azzarello finds a way to incorporate Diana’s first meeting with her stepbrother War into the fabric of this meticulous epic. This saga reveals a character worthy of all those Greek Gods we study in high school. In doing so, Azzarello and Chiang make their case that superhero comics are the true successors to classical mythology.

The creators were not interested in integrating Wonder Woman into the rest of the DC Universe. There are no guest appearances of Batman, no Justice League team-ups, and no mention of the budding romance with Superman, which was lighting sales on fire in other spin-off titles at the time. Azzarello and Chiang committed to the New 52’s no-continuity cage, and while this may have caused some alienation with the rest of the DC readers, it allowed them to craft one of the most successful and singular Wonder Woman runs.

Like Batman, Superman, and the rest of her Justice League bros, Wonder Woman has the strength, the costume, and the sidekicks that link her to the language of the comic book. What sets her apart from the actions of her compatriots, however, is her driving force to fight for others. She makes your war, her war. In discovering a godly origin, Batman would have gone on a hunt for Zeus, Superman would have had yet another parental identity crisis, but Wonder Woman looked to help a half-sibling yet to be born. Azzarello and Chiang provide all the appropriate demands for action, villainy, and heroics, but with their New 52 endeavor, they stick to the definition of Wonder Woman as compassion. Here is a hero that fights for those that cannot, a person that could have lived out the rest of her days on an island of perfection, but instead chose to bring a piece of that perfection to rest of the world.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)