The more I think about Wonder Woman 1984, the madder I get about it. It’s got so much sloppy writing that could’ve been fixed with another draft. Then it peppers in some great stuff that prevents me from outright writing it off. One of those was the live action debut of Cheetah, but even that could’ve been executed better. (Screen Junkies stole my alternate title!) I really shouldn’t have been surprised that the movie stumbled with Barbara Minerva when it’s precedent set by the comics & cartoons. There will be multimedia SPOILERS below because now I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating Cheetah.
I reported WW84 followed Cats by not giving a kitty nose to Cheetah. Upon looking at rare close-up, it turns out the underside of Cheetah’s nose is indeed feline. Meow culpa! The rest doesn’t resemble Kristen Wiig’s distinctive nose though. (Girl Most Likely is a WW84, Captain Marvel, Beeboverse, Happy!, Ghost World, & Blade Trinity crossover. Someone needs to get Matt Dillon into a comic book movie so he’s not the odd man out anymore.) So did they forget to replace stunt double Whitney Coleman’s face in the final edit or was this its most convincing CGI?
Everyday McFarlane Toys doesn’t announce a movie Cheetah action figure is a personal insult to myself & Kristen Wiig. Even if the studio didn’t deliver her design promptly, that’s no excuse not to fast track so it’s available by the time it hits DVD. I’m getting antsy since Todd still hasn’t made the BOP Harley Quinn, & he’s already gearing up for Snyder Cut toys. Not all of us can afford a life-size Cheetah statue. Lookit her crazy kitty legs! (Aside from special inner ears & the inability to retract their claws, cheetahs tend to be as anxious as cinematic Barbara was pre-wish.) Barbie Barbara is a bit basic.
Although they were aiming for a power corrupts spin, Barbara never crossed the supervillain Rubicon in Wonder Woman 2: Wish Boogaloo. She just becomes rude. The worst thing she did was thrash the handsy harasser who didn’t learn his lesson when Diana gracefully threw him away. It still came across as a positive female empowerment moment despite her excessive force being filmed like a horror movie. Now if she had killed him by tearing off all his appendages, it would’ve better conveyed that she’d broken bad. Both she & Diana beat up secret service agents. Her not wanting to give up her wish(es?) was selfish but not particularly evil. Diana’s reckless endangerment of the body Steve possessed was arguably more irresponsible. If it wasn’t for Max destabilizing the world, Diana probably would’ve let her remain empowered. (Wish Week ’84 had better be referenced in future films.) She doesn’t eat anybody once she becomes Cheetah. It kinda feels like Barbara & Diana could even recover from this falling out with some time & effort.
If Circe is in WWIII, can she begin the film be transforming Barbara Minerva into an upgraded Cheetah? Or have her go full George Perez via Urzkataga? That last WWII fight was insufficient screentime for Wonder Woman’s archnemesis! (At least it happened, unlike fellow ex-bespectacled nerd Floronic Man vs. Swamp Thing.) It is possible Barbara retained her Amazonian attributes after the film’s end due to something the gamers call “stacking.” So if she did get two wishes & only renounced the second, she could’ve kept her immortality & meanness to become the scumbucket classic Minerva was in the comics by the time the third movie set in the present happens. She really needs to do some unambiguously villainous deeds to justify her return. Induct her into The Legion Of Doom once she’s truly transformed into Diana’s antithesis. (Lex & Deathstroke need to recruit Black Manta & whichever rogues appear in the long-delayed The Flash too.)
Although the character was called “Barbara Minerva,” the movie version of Cheetah felt more reminiscent of Debbie Domaine. She’s the second Cheetah everyone forgets about who was a fundamentally good person until she got brainwashed. There are some concerns the film straightwashed her, although Barbara is only a confirmed lesbian in Rebirth continuity. (It’s similar to how Colossus is straight in the main 616 universe, gay in the Ultimate universe, & nobody knows in the movies.) The classic version definitely shagged Snapper Carr in Final Crisis: Resist. (That bizarre coupling was supposed to start a redemption arc?) The Rebirth revamp is also on the opposite personality spectrum of original Minerva.
Minerva has also been bungled most egregiously in the seminal DCAU. The unnamed JLU version was a Splicer (Don’t even get me started on how Batman Beyond treats Splicers!) rather than magically empowered. Bruce Timm thought so little of her that he didn’t want her to survive her debut story. She was also seduced by Batman because Timm thinks every woman is horny for Batman. Wonder Woman defeatss neither her nor Circe in this series. (JLU would also start the trend of giving Diana an Olympian father.) The JLA Adventures: Trapped In Time edition fares better. Both of those were voiced by black actresses, which misses the point that Minerva is specifically a white colonialist defiler. The latest DC Super Hero Girls adapts Minerva most faithfully. Bonus points to Doom for casting Claudia Black.
Cheetah must be at least as powerful & more cunning than Diana. An archnemesis isn’t just one individual, however, but also the ethos they represent. Barbara Minerva is institutionalized inequality. She was horrifying even before acquiring Godlike power. Wonder Woman’s mission to bring peace to the world will be hollow with people like Minerva in power. She’s old money living in a castle in Nottingham filled with looted culture & an African manservant. Unlike Indy, she doesn’t think artifacts belong in a museum. This evil precursor to Lara Croft sacrificed another archaeologist to access Urzkatarga’s power. (What if Urzkartaga is catnip?) Her cultural appropriation unambiguously hurts people. After she unwittingly cursed herself, she didn’t have any moral objections to tearing out human hearts. Once she got over her initial disgust at being inadvertently transformed into a Furry, she discovered human children are succulent. It’s not enough for this narcissistic aristocrat to thrive; she has to victimize those she considers inferior too. Everyone is her prey. I’m not saying Minerva ought to be a full-on Nazi (Diana already has a few of those in her rogue’s gallery), but I am saying she wouldn’t go out of her way to oppose white supremacists unless they inconvenienced her.
Barbara Minerva (whose name could be translated as Strange Wisdom) being Wonder Woman’s ideological opposite sounds like it should write itself. George Perez & Len Wein laid such fantastic groundwork for her. Frustratingly that often gets ignored in favor of her merely filling out a team or being a recognizable monster. I can understand DC & WB shying away from exploring how awful Minerva is to avoid making her too unlikable. (They also ignore her tail can stretch abnormally long.) Without emphasizing her malignant toxicity, however, there’s no there there. Depicting Barbara Minerva as a racist one-percenter cannibal with a superiority complex crystalizes Wonder Woman’s virtues by comparison. Not every enemy needs to be easily redeemable.
Cheetah isn’t a subtle foe. That’s appropriate since Wonder Woman is larger than life. Classic Minerva sells it because she has a personality like a freight train. (Priscilla Rich, whose Golden Age weakness was compliments, was given Minerva’s swagger & penchant for blood rituals when she was revamped for Justice.) Movie & Rebirth Cheetah feel so small. Having her be a former colleague of Diana’s doesn’t automatically make their dynamic richer. A Cheetah that’s only obsessed with Wonder Woman limits her potential. Cheetah needs to be actively making the world a worse place. What are her goals for when Wonder Woman is out of the way? Since Ares wants the planet engulfed in an endless churn of chaotic warfare, differentiate Cheetah by making her a defender of the status quo … where the world is firmly beneath her heel. Let her use her economic might to barbarically oppress others so she’s not just a physical threat. She could raid extraterrestrial cultures if she gets bored of Earthly ones too.
Instead of the the traditional “two sides of the same coin” speech, Barbara would tell Diana “We’re nothing alike. You’re a glorified homonculus from a backwater island. I’m the pinnacle of generations of genteel English breeding who’s explored the world. How dare you look me in the eye?”
Greg Rucka introduced Dr. Veronica Cale to be Wonder Woman’s Lex Luthor. While it’s good to introduce new threats, Minerva was already filling that niche. Cale eschews a unique visual in favor of being mistaken for a Fox News anchor. Her petty resentment despite being a successful entrepreneur makes Cale too much of a Luthor clone minus the nifty Lexosuit. Effort would’ve been better spent building up Cheetah. At least her jealousy is rooted in imperious entitlement not whininess. Had she been invented a decade later, she might’ve been named Karen Cale.
Although she is a very prominent foe, it’s difficult to find stories with her as the main antagonist. Too often she’s paired with others. DC doesn’t help Minerva’s reputation by shuffling her off for other heroes to fight. It wouldn’t be so bad if was with characters in the same power class as Diana like SHAZAM. It’s not even Vixen or Hawkgirl, who would have some meaty parallels to explore to offset the power imbalance. Having regular humans like Catwoman & Green Arrow defeat Cheetah within a single issue is embarrassing. Quit treating her like a communal punching bag! When you have Wonder Woman’s archnemesis be vanquished like a chump it reflects poorly on Wonder Woman. Killing off characters to build up villains is often wasteful, but Cheetah could at least maul some lower tier characters to reinforce her status as a Demi-Goddess threat. Heroes ought to be terrified of her when she shows up. Surely Lex & Joker can’t be using all the plot armor, of which she’d need less because she already has superpowers.
Unlike her predecessors, Minerva becomes the Cheetah costume rather than wearing one. Her nakedness must’ve skeeved somebody out at DC since there was a period where she wore clothes to battle. (This might’ve been to deflect controversy over whether Wonder Woman’s costume is too risque.) None of her outfits were as interesting as her bare fur & paradoxically made her look more naked. (Have Cheetah & Giganta ever bonded over their mutual love of animal fur prints?) They’ve gone back to nude Cheetah, but now there’s a connotation that she’s too savage for couture. It’d be a more interesting statement if she chose to eschew attire as a reflection of her arrogance. Using Dr. Manhattan as an example of the most powerful beings requiring the least clothing, this would be Minerva flaunting her invulnerability. Cats have no shame in rubbing their nudity in everyone’s face.
Cheetah was a character that benefited from being a legacy rather than saying each noticeably different iteration is supposed to be the same person. Now there are three distinct versions of Barbara Minerva (original, New 52, Rebirth) in mainline DC canon. The New 52 confuses the issue in an attempt to streamline her by saying each identity is merely an alias used by the single Cheetah. (Ironically Geoff Johns would later insist that The Joker is actually three separate guys.) The New 52 Barbara Minerva is a watered down version of the original. Being a work friend of Diana’s is the main contribution that carried over to subsequent revamps. She did have the power to turn others into were-cheetah under her thrall. That would be a handy power to make her a more versatile solo threat. It didn’t help her much in practice, yet it works when Joker & The Batman Who Laughs (I know it’s a classic reference, but it’s not a snappy name) fight the Justice League. See which side DC’s bread is buttered on?
The Rebirth version of Cheetah has more depth than the New 52’s, but she feels like a completely different character than classic Barbara Minerva despite reincorporating Urzkatarga. I’m probably in the minority that thinks making her a tragic lesbian wasn’t the best move. Having Wonder Woman’s archnemesis be gay could be misconstrued as homophobic. (Wonder Woman did flee from her all-women home with the first boy she met & corporate is wishy-washy about letting Diana be explicitly bisexual.) Marginalized LGBTQ readers could identify with Minerva too much & give her a pass on her unrelated villainous deeds. (Gothamites have granted Oswald Cobblepot full amnesty.) She gets duped into becoming Cheetah twice by Veronica Cale, which deprives her of agency. Dr. Minerva is prevented from murdering her. Cale is an unnecessary extra step added to Cheetah’s origin. Emphasizing Minerva as a victim feels icky if it’s not building up to her claiming Cale’s pharmaceutical company & Godwatch. She wasn’t a terrible or ambitious person before getting cursed, so it doesn’t feel like she has the drive to develop into a nefarious supervillainess. Rather than cementing Cheetah as Wonder Woman’s Joker, this retcon downgrades Minerva to her Man-Bat. (I say this as someone who likes Man-Bat.)
Coming up with great stories for Cheetah may be easier said than done. If that’s the case, maybe they shouldn’t have her pop up so often until they have a worthy showcase for her. That way rare Cheetah appearances could have some extra impact. In the meantime, someone can finally get around to updating Baron De Boar.
Writers make Cheetah look lame because they don’t respect Wonder Woman. I just don’t understand why a movie that’s supposed to highlight Wonder Woman would do likewise.
There really isn’t a pithy conclusion to this piece. It’s just me pointing out that creatives have made choices I don’t agree with. Look at all this free advice I just gave DC & WB! I still will gladly accept a retroactive consultant’s fee.
Young Justice missed the point of Devastation. She’s supposed to be a youngling imbued with an array of powers by Kronos. They just made her an adult bruiser henchwoman. How dare they make me resent a woman being depicted with muscle mass!
Fans of the vintage television show may’ve been delighted by the Asteria cameo, but that could’ve been a way to work in Nubia instead. Perhaps she’ll appear in the third movie or the Wonder Girl TV series?
Someone once wrote “Gal Gator” as a typo, & now I’m picturing an alligator dressed as Wonder Woman.
Black Lightning’s season four debut will probably strike next. Maybe some Riverdale housekeeping will seep in too.