WAR & PEACE: GIFTED
Wise as Athena. Beautiful as Aphrodite. Stronger than Hercules. Swifter than Mercury. These descriptions seem pretty straightforward, but surprisingly, the most consistent thing about Wonder Woman’s powers and abilities is their inconsistency. How strong, fast, smart, resilient and capable she is varies wildly from story to story. Often, writers seem unsure about how powerful she is and allow the stories to dictate her capabilities as opposed to writing to her physical and other strengths.
They face this dilemma: How does one write stories for a character that is as strong and invulnerable as Superman, almost as fast as The Flash, has immediate access to some of the most dangerous weapons in the universe, cannot be lied to or deceived, and has no discernable weaknesses? For some writers, the solution is contrivance. They find ways to depower the character in an effort to maintain the conflict and drama in the stories. Other writers embrace the full breadth of her abilities, but find themselves having to pit her against increasingly outrageous, over-the-top menaces that risk damaging the suspension of disbelief.
Wonder Woman’s powers proved problematic from the very beginning. Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston (aka Charles Moulton), began by writing Wonder Woman (aka Princess Diana or Diana Prince) with the idea that all of her powers were a result of her Amazon training and were gained through incredible discipline. This spoke clearly to Diana’s guiding principle, which was “With hard work, anyone can be Wonder Woman!” Her feats were accordingly wondrous and yet attainable – at least by comic book standards; she could run up to 65 miles per hour and lift automobiles.
But by the end of Marston’s run, Wonder Woman was lifting entire coliseums and moving faster than the speed of light. Perhaps the power-up was dictated by comic book convention – catering to the needs of an audience that wanted to see greater and greater feats performed by the hero in order to remain engaged. Or maybe it was a means by which he could explore notions of female dominance and supremacy. In any event, it began what would be a decades-long, and often heated, tug-of-war between two visions of the character – the powered-down version and the powered-up version – with writers and readers on both sides of the rope.
George Perez ran into the same problem when he reinvented Wonder Woman in 1986. He started with the notion that she would be somewhere in the middle-tier of the power hierarchy (although, he did give her the ability to fly outright, rather than just glide on air currents as she did prior to the revamp). In “Wonder Woman” (second series) #8, she could overturn a tank, but couldn’t outright lift it. But by issue #24, she lifted the USS Constitution – a 2,200-ton ship – with ease. As early as issue #14, she was willing to hold the weight of Themyscira (Paradise Island) on her shoulders. William Messner-Loebs, whose run followed Perez’s, reduced her strength once more. But when John Byrne took over the title after Loebs, Wonder Woman was being touted as second in strength only to Superman.
As her strength fluctuated, so did her resistance to bodily harm. She went from needing her famous “Bracelets of the Aegis” to deflect bullets, death rays and other projectiles, to being able to survive nuclear explosions, molten lava, the depths of the ocean, and the vacuum of outer space. John Byrne explained this with simple physics, claiming that sharp objects with significant force behind them could do damage in a way that blunt objects could not. Readers rejected an explanation that made Green Arrow’s arrows more of a threat to Wonder Woman than Doomsday’s fists. Phil Jimenez explained that Wonder Woman was able to survive extreme conditions because of an invisible, mystical force field that activated whenever she crossed her bracelets. But what about when she’s survived these conditions without crossing her bracelets? The answers seemed only to raise more questions.
Her speed has also been in flux. Sometimes, she’s capable of near-light speed; other times, she can barely keep up with Jesse Quick. These downright befuddling and contradictory displays of power continue to be frustrating for readers and can have the effect of pulling them out of the stories when the disparities can’t be adequately reconciled.
Even amongst the readership there’s sharp division about where Wonder Woman’s power should fall. There’s a vocal and loyal contingent that defines Wonder Woman by virtue of Superman. They believe that anything he’s able to do, she should be able to do as well. We’ll call them Equalists. Equalists cite Marston to support their beliefs. In their view, a Wonder Woman who isn’t every bit as powerful as Superman betrays the feminist and gender equality ideals central to the character.
An opposing point of view, from some Superman readers and others, holds that making Wonder Woman Superman’s physical equal compromises his status as DC’s resident alpha-male. We’ll refer to them as Apexists. Equalists are outraged by this position and accuse Apexists of misogyny and sexism.
Yet another group of loyal readers prefer the original Wonder Woman from the 40s, whose comparatively modest powers and abilities are, as stated previously, a result of her Amazon training. This group – the Traditionalists – believes that granting her enormous Olympian power creates an inherently conflicted narrative. She can’t expect to motivate people to live up to her example if she, herself, attained that position through birthright and privilege, rather than hard work and fair play.
Comparing Wonder Woman to Superman is an error in judgment that diminishes both characters. She should be defined on her own terms and he on his. Seeking to depower her is also folly because it removes crucial elements of fun, fantasy, and scale. She does, however, need a baseline from which to operate. It’s the writer’s responsibility to research the subject matter and maintain consistency without jeopardizing their creativity. And, ultimately, it’s the editor’s job to make sure that happens.
One of the things that Marvel has over DC is their handbook. “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe” is an exhaustive encyclopedia containing the detailed histories, powers, and abilities of all of their characters. Marvel writers never feel restricted by the handbook, but rather use it as a guide for consistent storytelling. DC’s version, “Who’s Who: The Definitive Guide to the DC Universe” seems inadequate in comparison, as it fails to provide any authoritative detail. Perhaps that explains the inconsistent displays of power: Without a solid compendium, DC writers are left to make it up as they go along. It’s one of those rare instances where too much freedom is not a good thing.
The contemporary Wonder Woman is a character based primarily on Perez’s efforts. Although he began by downplaying her powers and abilities, he would come to adjust his work so that she lived up to the powerful principles he established. Let’s analyze that doctrine in order to underscore the rules by which Wonder Woman’s powers must abide.
The Perez Doctrine
At birth, Wonder Woman was granted superhuman abilities by five Olympian goddesses and an Olympian god. As she grew and matured, so did her powers. And, according to “52” #11, her abilities are, at their peak, equal to the Olympian gods who bestowed them upon her – unlike the similarly-powered Captain Marvel, who receives only a portion of his benefactors’ abilities.
Demeter granted her “power and strength like that of the Earth itself.”
These gifts give Diana direct access to the power of Gaea, high-mother of the Olympian gods. This implies that Diana is gifted with tremendous, almost limitless strength, an astonishing resilience to bodily harm, and an extraordinary healing factor.
Aphrodite gave her “great beauty and a loving heart.”
Wonder Woman is stunning (see Lynda Carter or any drawing by Brian Bolland, Adam Hughes, Phil Jimenez, or Nicola Scott), and she’s just as beautiful on the inside. Wherever possible, Diana uses her tremendous capacity for love and kindness as a means to disarm her opponents. This practice is referred to as “loving submission.”
Athena granted her “wisdom.”
This endowment imparts Diana with genius-level intelligence across a wide range of subjects, including: the sciences, literature, linguistics, mathematics, engineering, the creative arts, and, especially, warfare. She’s a master strategist, an almost unbeatable combatant, an unparalleled martial artist, and the greatest warrior the planet has ever known.
Not too long ago, Athena bound her vision to Diana’s. As a result, Diana was afforded divine foresight. However, with the defeat of the Olympians during “Countdown,” it’s unlikely that this bond between them still exists.
Artemis gave her “eye of the hunter and unity with the beasts.”
Diana’s senses are superhumanly acute. Her hunter’s sensibilities make her capable of wielding any weapon with remarkable skill. She also possesses animal empathy and can communicate with all manner of wildlife. Her mere presence can calm even the most ferocious of beasts.
Hestia granted her “sisterhood with fire – that it may open men’s hearts to her.”
This accounts for Diana’s charisma, and is the source of her ability to discern the truth. It’s nearly impossible to lie to Diana even without the “Lasso of Hestia” (with the lasso, it is impossible to lie to her). Furthermore, she cannot be deceived by illusions, and seems to be highly resistant to hypnosis and mind-control.
Hermes gave her “speed and the power of flight.”
Diana can fly at hypersonic/sub-light speeds, and is fast enough to move at “invisible speed” while on the ground. Her reflexes are swift enough for her to deflect bullets, lasers, and other projectiles with her bracelets.
- She’s displayed, on rare occasions, the power to channel the Godwave (the sum total of all divine power), astral projection, and the ability to regress to her pre-birth, non-organic state. These acts were accomplished through intense meditation and prayer, and at great risk to her personal well-being. They shouldn’t be considered immediately accessible.
- At one point, she and her sister, Troia (aka Donna Troy), shared a psychic/empathic bond which allowed them to communicate telepathically and sense when the other was in danger.
- Diana also has access to an Amazon glamour (i.e. magic) that allows her to disguise her appearance, as she does when she transforms – with a burst of light and stars – from Diana Prince into Wonder Woman.
Now that we’ve established a foundation for Wonder Woman’s powers, where do you fall? Are you an Equalist, an Apexist, or a Traditionalist? Discuss this article at the CBR Wonder Woman message board!
Robert Jones, Jr. is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. He is webmaster of the blog Son of Baldwin, and is currently working on his first novel.