The new Wonder Woman film has most of what Wonder Woman fans would expect from a cinematic adaptation of her comics. There's Paradise Island, the distant utopia where women warriors live and fight together, sans men. There's the magic golden lasso which compels people to tell the truth. There are the magical bracelets that deflect bullets (and the occasional World War I shell, since the film is set in that era). Steve Trevor, brave airman in need of rescue? Yep. Etta Candy, jovial sidekick? She's there. Improbable CGI superfeats? Of course.
Fans of the classic comics may miss a few iconic bits of the Wonder Woman mythos, though. Wonder Woman has some funny repartee, falling in line with Marvel Cinematic Universe films: at one point, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman archly explains to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) that men are necessary for biological reproduction, but not for pleasure. But while there are jokes, the comics’ more whimsical elements have been shelved. There's no invisible plane. (At least not as far as audiences can tell.). And the Amazons in the film ride normal, everyday horses, rather than giant battle kangaroos.
Battle kangaroos haven't been part of the Wonder Woman mythos for some 65 years. But in the original 1940s comics, written by William Marston and drawn with elegant stiffness by Harry G. Peter, kangas were one of the most visually distinctive — not to mention gloriously silly — aspects of life on Paradise Island. Amazons rode kangas in their Paradise Island military contests, and they even had special giant sky kangas that could take them to other planets.
Marston and Peter even had an origin issue for the giant kangaroos. In 1947, Wonder Woman #23 revealed that the kangaroos were brought to Paradise Island by cat-headed male aliens when Wonder Woman was a child. After some fighting, it turned out that the aliens were actually human-looking women. They joined the Amazons, and their giant kangaroos replaced the Amazons’ former mounts — giant bunnies. (Marston and Peter never got around to an origin issue for the bunnies.)
It's clear enough why Wonder Woman 2017 doesn't have giant kangas or bunnies: space-hopping kangaroos are silly. They're a fun concept for kids, but the movie is aimed at an older, more serious and sophisticated audience. Adults want a tormented Wonder Woman grieving for fallen comrades, not a cheerful Wonder Woman using her magic lasso to make dignified Amazon doctors stand on their heads. (The magic lasso was originally a lasso of command — much more broadly useful than the lasso of truth.)
The film's revamping of Wonder Woman's origin helps underline the difference in audience and tone. In the comic, Wonder Woman's mother crafts a child out of clay, and Aphrodite grants it life.
That's a child's story about how babies are made, the fantasy of an awkward parent who isn’t ready to get into the birds and the bees and the kangaroos. The film is mature enough to know better. In the movie version, the Amazon Hippolyta claims she crafted Diana — the future Wonder Woman — from clay, and Zeus animated her. But eventually, a character pointedly suggests that Hippolyta and Zeus made Diana the old-fashioned, biological way. Kids love kangaroos and don't know where babies come from. Wonder Woman 2017 is smarter than that.
But being smarter in this case feels a lot like being staid. The whimsical children’s version of Diana's birth is much more adventurous than the movie version. In Marston and Peter's comic, Aphrodite and Hippolyte make a child together, in an intentional vision of lesbian parthenogenesis. Marston lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth and their lover, Olive Byrne. He had children with both women. Elizabeth and Olive lived together for decades after Marston died; they were almost certainly bisexual. Marston was attuned to the possibility of unconventional family structures. He created a Wonder Woman origin story that cut out men, and refused the logic of patriarchy, whereby power travels from father to child. The film, in asserting that the facts of life must be the facts of life, and in attributing Wonder Woman's specialness to Zeus’ power as a god, dismisses Marston’s politics in order to tell a more conventional story. It’s supposedly more adult, but Marston might have considered it naïve.
Marston wasn't just a polyamorist, he was an academic psychologist and sexual theorist whose ideas seem daring even in 2017, and were more so in the 1940s. Marston's Emotions of Normal People (1928) argued, contra Freud, that children's erotic bonds with their mothers were normal and awesome, and if cultivated could save the world. He believed that everyone's erotic life was bound up (as it were) in dominance and submission, and he believed that female love leaders could use their erotic oomph to direct men and women alike to a utopia of peace, love, and bondage games.
The original Wonder Woman comics were whimsical and playful because they were for children — but also because they were sexual. Instead of massive CGI battles and explosions, the original Wonder Woman comics mostly featured stories where Wonder Woman and the villains alternated tying each other up and ordering each other around. Everyone got to top from the bottom and bottom from the top.
Marston very much intended for his playfulness to appeal to childish sensibilities and adult ones at the same time. He even wrote a comic about it: Sensation Comics #31, from 1944. In that story, Wonder Woman travels to Grown-Down Land, where children rule and force adults to take grown down medicine to make them children, too. Along the way, Wonder Woman is compelled to obey the dictatorial children, and she receives a sound spanking from toddlers while a mob of babies cheers. “It’s pretty tough being a grown down lady’s slave!” Wonder Woman exclaims. All in good fun, of course.
Sensation Comics #31 is pretty shocking even to the most jaded modern reader. Eroticized material involving toddlers, much less infants, remains taboo for most audiences. But Marston's comics aren’t out of line with other early children's literature. Peter Pan's innocence is so aggressive precisely because the sexual tension of a boy flying into a girl’s bedroom window is so overt. In her monograph Between Women, Sharon Marcus writes about Victorian doll stories for children, which often involved children spanking, beating, and tying up sentient animate dolls.
When people read such stories from a contemporary perspective, they tend to talk about repression and perversion. But Marston's goal was to encourage children not to be repressed. He wanted his readers (young and old) to embrace their imaginations, whether it took them to sky kangas or ritualized spankings. In Wonder Woman 2017, the Amazon games are all oriented toward battle preparation and the serious work of war. In Marston and Peter’s Paradise Island, the Amazons train for battle and athletic contests. But they also have a game where some Amazons dress up in deer skins while others hunt them, capture them, and pretend to eat them. Fighting and competing are fun, but so is goofy flirtation with your sisters. And if children got the message that lesbianism was acceptable, normal, and fun — well, Marston, Elizabeth, and Byrne would certainly approve.
Wonder Woman 2017 does occasionally channel the childish spirit of the original comics. Many superheroines on-screen, from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow to Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy, find their powers a burden and pine for normality. But Gal Gadot seems to genuinely enjoy her superfeats. In one scene, when she leaps across a ravine and grasps onto a ledge, she smiles gleefully, as if to say, "I am more awesome than I even knew!" Marston would approve; his Wonder Woman also really enjoyed her powers.
But in general, the more adult Wonder Woman is a more conventional superhero than Marston and Peter’s version. Gadot's Wonder Woman talks vaguely about the power of love, but mostly, her adventure involves beating the tar out of bad guys, and eventually slicing them apart with her sword — a phallic weapon added to her repertoire long after Marston died. Wonder Woman doesn’t lead Etta Candy and her sorority sisters to the stars to fight the evil Pluto. Instead, she and Steve recruit a pallid A-team of stock male mercenaries to fight, while Etta stays behind in London. Realism means that only Amazons and men have the adventures. Real women hang back at headquarters, and answer the phones.
Granted, few viewers would really want a fully Marston-derived Wonder Woman film, whatever that would look like. (Some sort of combination of Barbarella and Caged Heat?) Mainstream audience Wonder Woman fans, and moviegoers in general, want a heroine who overcomes personal tragedy, trades quips, and fights for rights — in sequences packed with lots of special effects.
I don't begrudge anyone their successful, badass Wonder Woman movie. But I think it's worth remembering that something is lost when you trade in the kangas for horses, and the whimsy for angst. Playfulness opens up possibilities for children of all ages. Marston and Peter were hopping about on distant planets decades ago. The new Wonder Woman, whatever its virtues, suggests we still haven't caught up with them.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.