Wonder Woman: A New Heroine Archetype? Or An Ancient One Reborn?

– By J.W. Fox –

Three weeks after its premiere, Wonder Woman is still on a roll. It is on track to surpass Man of Steel in box office receipts, with a shot of becoming the highest grossing movie in the new DC universe. It could even pass Iron Man, the gold standard of origin movies. No doubt about it. It is a consensus, from critics to hardcore fans. Wonder Woman is awesome.

Prescient Sci-Fi has already posted a review but the movie deserves a closer examination. Not only is it a great movie, it also features a groundbreaking character that represents a new archetype or, more accurately, the resurrection of an ancient one.

The First Superheroine

When it comes to comic book movies, it is a boys’ club. That truth is part of a broader problem in Hollywood, but for the purpose of this article, we are focusing on comic book movies. Wonder Woman is the first superheroine to shatter this particular glass ceiling in that she is the first true superheroine. DC introduced the notorious Harley Quin in Suicide Squad but Joker’s girlfriend is definitely not a superheroine. Harley Quin is a villain with no superpowers, and not likely to be a protagonist in her own movie. More to the point, her character is the conventional femme fatale, a long established archetype.

DC’s rivals over at Marvel have yet to produce a movie with a female protagonist. Black Widow is the Avenger’s most high profile female character, who remains stuck in secondary roles. She is also a femme fatale. Mystique is closest X-Men has gotten to a female protagonist, but she is also an obvious femme fatale.

Wonder Woman is no femme fatale, nor is she a secondary character of limited power and relevance. She was created for one purpose: to kill a god. Who else has that kind of origin story?

Of all the comic book heroines, only Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix has such extraordinary power. Unfortunately, she failed to control her god-like powers. Therein lies the problem. She became the stereotypical hysterical woman common to Hollywood movies of the mid-20th century. The colorful symbolism in the movie is also problematic. A woman fueled by raw emotions such as rage, wearing crimson with dark red eyes, is an obvious metaphor for a woman on her period.

Wonder Woman is far from hysterical. She consistently maintains an aura of dignity and wisdom. As she navigates through the world of men, she never for a moment acts overwhelmed or in awe of it. The more she experiences it, the more she pities it, able to see right through to its deep flaws.

Comparisons Outside the Comics

Given that there are no other comic book superheroines of Wonder Woman’s stature, we must look beyond the genre to find comparisons. If you measure by box office receipts and fan obsession, there are only a couple heroines that of the same magnitude as Wonder Woman. They are Katniss Everdeen and Rey.

The Hunger Games franchise dominated the box office for years. The first two films earned over $400 million in the US alone. As a character, Katniss is extremely well-developed, realistic, and admirable. More importantly, she is the primary driver of the narrative through all three novels. Is she a superheroine? No, but she is a remarkable heroine in a dark, dystopian world.

In terms of power (or “superness”) the only heroine with the potential to equal Wonder Woman is Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thus far we have only seen part of her story but it is clear she has a great destiny ahead of her and will likely be the protagonist of episodes 8 and 9. Rey is compassionate, capable, but young. So far, we have seen her only begin to realize her potential. Her walk on the hero’s journey has only begun.

Breaking Hollywood Stereotypes

Comic book movies have plenty of female characters but they are usually femme fatales and/or secondary characters. No matter how hard they try to create strong female characters, Hollywood seems unable to venture too far from stereotypes. The characters are strong, but usually no more than a love interest and/or damsel in distress.

For example, In The Matrix, Trinity is very capable, making major contributions in the fight against the machines but her biggest contribution is loving Neo. In the second and third movies, she is in need of saving like the typical damsel in distress. Tauriel from The Hobbit, is another example of a capable woman who is subservient to men and inevitably needs saving.

Hollywood also feels the need to sexualize and objectify any major female character, reinforcing the stereotype that her role is to be an object of desire for men. Black Widow wears a black leotard or cocktail dress about 99 percent of the time. In her first movie, Iron Man 2, she undresses in the backseat of a car while the driver tries to sneak a peek. In Age of Ultron, we see her fall for Bruce Banner although it is far from a traditional love story. Harley Quin, Jean Grey, and Mystique are also sexualized, placed in scenes where their “assets” are on display. Their love interest is usually the more important character (Joker, Wolverine, Magneto/Xavier).

Directors also portray them from a masculine perspective, known as the male gaze. The gaze emphasizes what men find appealing, namely breasts, cleavage, flat stomach, legs, and ass. In contrast, you will find no male gaze perspectives in Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is very beautiful but the camera angles are not intended to highlight her incredible legs or any other part of her body. The focus is on the action and the characters without emphasis on anyone’s “assets.”

Wonder Woman is not a stereotype, nor is she sexualized or objectified in her own movie. That alone makes the movie groundbreaking.

Archetypal Origins: Athena

If she is not a stereotype, femme fatale or objectified female character, what is she?

Wonder Woman is a hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell. What sets it apart, of course, is that the hero is a woman. If you go back through mythology, you will find few analogues. Greek and Roman mythological traditions lack great heroines (at least not human ones). Judeo-Christian tradition has no one even remotely resembling a great heroine. In some pagan traditions, there is Gaia or Mother Earth. The goddess is at the top of the pantheon. There are also monotheistic traditions with the one goddess possessing distinctively feminine characteristics.

The best analogue is the goddess Athena. The goddess of war and wisdom has a calm temperament, slow to anger, and only fights when there is some higher purpose. She is also a symbol of enlightenment and civilization. The city of Athens, the center of Greek culture and science, is named after her. Interestingly, she is rarely depicted as having a husband or children, which would contradict the social norms of the time. She is also described as the patron of heroes, often guiding them on their quests (thank you Wikipedia).

Oddly, Wonder Woman’s true name Diana, is the Roman name for the Greek goddess Artemis. Artemis is a huntress, protector of nature, preferring solitude in the forest. She is the protector of women and children as well but never depicted as nurturing or having any desire for family or children of her own. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, bears some resemblance to Artemis but has more in common with Athena. The Amazons are charged with protecting humanity from Ares, which is pretty distant from the charge of protecting nature, women, and children. She is also not a hunter or expresses any particular fondness for nature.

Is Wonder Woman a modern manifestation of Athena? Well let’s start with the obvious. Wonder Woman is a goddess and daughter of Zeus. Like Athena, she is a goddess of war but has a peaceful temperament, seeing violence as only appropriate in certain circumstances and only when a higher purpose is served. The movie’s backstory claims Ares killed the other gods, including Zeus, presumably. That would leave her as the last goddess from the Olympian pantheon, left to be raised and trained by the Amazons.

Diana Prince is depicted as a patron of the arts in both Dawn of Justice and Wonder Woman. She appears to be the curator at the Louvre, and adapts to a modern urban life during her time in the world of men.

There are some differences. In the myths, Zeus is alive and ruler of the gods. Athena is a good daughter, and loyal and obedient. When Athena involves herself in the world of men, she is usually an ally or guide to heroes. The great heroic acts are always done by the men, not her. In a sense, Wonder Woman is a modern myth that installs Athena as the ruling goddess. It is her finally getting her chance to lead without meddling from her Olympian brethren.

A New Archetype?

The Wonder Woman is, in many ways, the first of her kind. She is the first superheroine of the comic book genre. Unlike most other strong female characters, she is not a femme fatale. She has full agency in her movie, driving the plot and overcoming the antagonist on her terms. At the same time, she resembles the Greek goddess Athena, an ancient archetype. The combination of superpowers with the Athena archetype is unique but maybe is best described as a modern take on Athena.

We should hope that the success of Wonder Woman will change how Hollywood depicts heroines as well as strong female characters in general. Fewer femme fatales or secondary characters who are there to be physical attractive and/or love the hero. Marvel is planning a Captain Marvel movie with Brie Larson as the titular heroine. It is scheduled for 2019 and would be the first female-led Marvel movie. It is believed the next X-Men movie will center on Dark Phoenix, but the character is not a heroine. It seems likely DC will make a Wonder Woman sequel but there is no official news on any other female-led films in the works.

Maybe we will see a Black Widow or Scarlet Witch movie now. Maybe X-Men will finally make an origin film for one of its female heroes, like Storm or Rogue.

We can hope.


J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.