After years of waiting, Wonder Woman opened this weekend to rave reviews and big box-office numbers. With the Warner Bros. film a smashing success, speculation about its sequel is already high, with what period the film will be set in high on the list of questions. But whether the follow-up is another period piece — a WW2 set during World War II, perhaps — or set in the present day, the question of which villain should be featured is an easy one to answer: Cheetah.
While Wonder Woman is one of the best-known superheroes in the world, her rogues gallery is not nearly so renowned. Her most consistent opponent from the Golden Age to the present has been Ares, Greek god of war and the antithesis to Diana’s own pacifism. But, with Ares the central villain of the first film and having seemingly perished alongside the film’s secondary antagonist, Doctor Poison, it’s unlikely we’ll see the god return for the second outing.
With Ares off the table, Cheetah is an obvious choice for villain. Her story — especially in the most recent telling — mirrors Diana’s own, and would pit Wonder Woman against someone she would rather treat as a friend. It also offers an opportunity for truly revolutionary storytelling in a genre that has been relying increasingly on tropes.
Who Is Cheetah?
Given DC Comics’ long and complicated history, with multiple crises and reboots, it’s no surprise there have been multiple Cheetahs over the decades.
The first, Priscilla Rich, debuted in 1943 in Wonder Woman #6 as a socialite who suffered a psychotic break and developed a second personality — the Cheetah — who committed crimes to get revenge. While this Cheetah was certainly fun (and offered Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, a chance to explore and popularize psychological ideas), she wasn’t a real match for the superheroine. Rich’s Cheetah had no real superpowers; she was simply a troubled rich woman in a cheetah skin. (Rich’s niece, Debbie Domaine, succeeded her as Cheetah.)
When George Perez rebooted Wonder Woman in 1987 following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, he reinvented Cheetah as archaeologist Barbara Ann Minerva, who gained supernatural powers from a dark plant god, Uzkartaga. However, something went wrong in the transformation (in Perez’s telling, it was that Minerva wasn’t a virgin), and she experienced disabling pain in her human form and a cruel, cannibalistic euphoria while in cat form. Minerva’s Cheetah has been a consistent opponent of Diana since her first appearance.
More recently, Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, Bilquis Evely and Liam Sharp have given Minerva much greater depths of characterization as part of Wonder Woman‘s “Rebirth” continuity. Like the post-Crisis Cheetah, this Minerva is an archaeologist, but she’s introduced into Wonder Woman’s story at the very beginning, as first an interpreter and later as a friend. However, she comes to blame Diana for her transformation into Cheetah. In a dramatic retcon, Rucka & Co. reveal that it was Uzkartaga who had corrupted Miverva during the transformation process, rather than any flaw in her, and, with Diana’s help, the two succeed (temporarily) in freeing Minerva from her curse.
Cheetah Is a Dark Mirror of Wonder Woman
Where Ares is Diana’s antithesis — the god of war against the princess of peace — Cheetah is much more Diana’s dark mirror. Minerva and Diana might have grown up in different worlds, but they are otherwise have a lot in common, so much that they became fast friends in the most recent telling. And, like Diana, Minerva gained the power of god at great personal cost. But Minerva, perhaps because of her humanity, could not fully control that power, and it drove her to villainy, while Diana’s power propelled her to greatness.
Because of that relationship between Minerva and Diana, using Cheetah as the sequel’s villain provides further opportunities to explore what it is that makes Diana — and Wonder Woman — unique, especially the strength of character and compassion that underpins every decision she makes.
That would follow a long tradition of having superheroes face off against opponents who are like them, only evil — their opposite number. Whether it’s Tony Stark facing off against Iron Monger in Iron Man, Superman fighting General Zod in Man of Steel, or Steve Rogers confronting Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger, superhero movies have often drawn from this well to make their heroes seem even more spectacular. Having Wonder Woman fight Cheetah would in that sense be nothing groundbreaking.
A Cheetah-Focused Sequel Could Revolutionize Superhero Movie Storytelling
On the other hand, Cheetah opens up the potential for some truly original storytelling that would build on Wonder Woman’s core strengths and values.
In the typical “dark mirror” villain story, the hero faces off against someone like him, but more powerful, and he is only able to win through the strength of his character. At the end, the hero stands triumphant, and — in virtually every cinematic case — the villain lies dead.
But, unlike the vast majority of those villains, Cheetah has turned to evil not because she’s inherently bad, but because she has been corrupted by the power of a dark god. Moreover, she began as Diana’s friend. Although she’s not unwilling to kill when it’s necessary, Diana would never willingly kill a friend who has been corrupted by evil. Instead, she would go out of her way to cure Cheetah of the corruption that had caused so much pain to herself and others.
That would be a radically different take in a genre defined by the conflict between good and evil. It recognizes that evil rarely sees itself as such, and that reconciliation is often a better solution than victory in battle.
It is also the ultimate expression of Wonder Woman’s philosophy, as best phrased by writer Gail Simone during her run on the DC Comics series. According to her Diana, “We have a saying, my people. ‘Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify, and don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.'”
By curing, rather than killing, Cheetah, Wonder Woman could show us what makes her so unique to begin with: her desire to seek peace by ending the problems that created strife in the first place. This might just be the message we need in a real world torn apart by war and hatred.
In theaters nationwide, director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman stars Gal Gadot as Diana, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Robin Wright as General Antiope, Danny Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, David Thewlis as Ares, Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta, Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison and Lucy Davis as Etta Candy.
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