The idea of a heroic female warrior is not new.[1] While Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel have given the trope unprecedented popularity, Homer makes the first Greek reference to the ancient Amazon warrior women in his Iliad. Old King Priam recounts “that day when the Amazon women came, men’s equals,” to fight in bloody war before the walls of Troy.[2] Later, the Roman poet Virgil gives one of the greatest battle scenes in his Aeneid to the female warrior, Camilla, queen of the Amazons and leader of their all-woman cavalry.

 

Watch, exulting here in the thick of carnage, an Amazon,

one breast bared for combat, quiver at hand — Camilla — now

she rifles hardened spears from her hand in salvos, now

she seizes a rugged double ace in her tireless grasp,

Diana’s golden archery clashing on her shoulder.

Even forced to withdraw, she swerves her bow

and showers arrows, wheeling in full flight.

And round Camilla ride her elite companions . . .

Godlike Camilla’s aides in peace and war and wild

as Thracian Amazons galloping, pounding along

the Thermodon’s banks, fighting in burnished gear

around Hippolyte,[3] or when Penthesilea[4] born of Mars

comes sweeping home in her car, an army of women

lifts their rolling, shrilling cries in welcome,

exulting with half-moon shields.[5]

 

Camilla slaughters warrior after warrior in her own epic rampage against the Trojan men. She is only cut down herself when distracted by a desire to plunder Chloreus’s gold armor and saffron cape. Focused on her loot, Camilla does not see Arruns’s javelin until it rips through her flesh, right beneath her naked breast.[6]

Virgil freely gives as much strength and courage to his women warriors as to the men, but as an artist, he must work with images from the world that God created. While generously praising the might of Camilla, he still must describe her having a woman’s body — and a woman’s body will communicate in form what God created it to communicate — sensual beauty, fertility, and vulnerability. Two images in particular reflect the essential and unavoidable tension inherent to the idea of a female warrior hero: her breast and her shield. Is it not curious that Camilla and her warriors ride with one bared breast, an image reflected symbolically in their half-moon shields which betray the woman’s true vulnerability through both need for lighter gear and the cut-out shape of her exposed breast?[7]

According to one of the most notorious Greek legends, Amazon women would cut off their right breast so it would not hinder speed and accuracy in archery.[8] This belief was supported by one etymological interpretation of the name Amazon, which combines the prefix “a” for “without” with “mazos” which means “breasts.” Whether or not this legend has any truth to it, the symbolism is telling. For women to fight as men, it must cost them something — something essential to their God-given nature as women.

The capacity to bear life is the basis of feminine identity. A woman’s capacity to hold life within herself and to nurture that new person through its vulnerable infancy and childhood requires an inherent softness that is incommensurate with the hardness of a male form prepared for battle. This means that to play the role of hardened warrior hero, a woman must in some way sacrifice the very thing that defines her as a woman. A man can step into the role of the warrior superhero without sacrificing any part of his masculinity or humanity because this is a role proper to his gendered identity as initiator and protector. He was made to lead and defend. But the more a woman takes on the role of the warrior hero, the less she can retain what essentially makes a woman a woman.

The most loved superhero movies are honest about this Faustian bargain, or what Wonder Woman 1984 calls the curse of the monkey’s paw. The worst female superhero films lie to us by trying to portray women and men as essentially interchangeable without cost, and as a consequence they ring false. Why else would we love Black Widow so much but be rather bored by Captain Marvel?

In Iron Man 2, Black Widow begins as a two-dimensional warrior spy whose skill set includes sex appeal, deceiving people, and beating up men. Natasha is smart, sexy, and powerful, everything both modern feminists and lazy, lustful men want a woman to be. She is an icon for the delusional male fantasy that a woman would both do the dirty work of battle for you and still want to have sex with you.[9] That’s not how real relationships work, at least not for long. The idea of a beautiful, powerful female side-kick who will both take the lead in battle for a man and still find him sexually appealing is pure fantasy. This is not the way a woman’s body or heart is made to work.

First, let’s compare the female body to Black Widow’s warrior abilities. Could a real woman, apart from the tricks of filmmaking, actually be as good a fighter as Black Widow? No. Admittedly in the Marvel comics, Natasha was given a weaker form of the super-soldier serum which gives her peak human abilities and enduring beauty, but not superhuman capacities as Captain America possessed. However, in the films, the source of Black Widow’s abilities are not clear and, unlike Wonder Woman or Wanda or Captain Marvel, she looks to many undiscerning eyes as an image of what a real woman could possibly be.

The truth is, women are significantly weaker than men physically, and judo-styled moves are insufficient to fully equalize the playing field between Black Widow and her throngs of male opponents. While the physical difference between men and women should be and historically has been perfectly obvious, the modern flood of feminist propaganda has made such common sense observations not so common. Recent research driven by the issue of transgender women in sports has shown the physical advantages of men over women to be undeniable. Men are 7-8% taller and 36% larger than women. Their upper bodies are 40% larger with larger muscle mass and more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Male bones are longer, thicker, and denser than female bones, which means women are more prone to injury and have lower force generation and reduced kinetic mass. Men have larger lungs and hearts and 12% more hemoglobin than women, which all leads to around 30% greater VO2 max. Men lift 35% more than women in competitive weightlifting and the striking power of men is 160% greater than that of women.[10]

Black Widow is playing a role that women can’t physically play, and when we live against our nature, it costs us something. What has it cost Natasha? To begin with, it has cost her her modesty. She uses sex appeal as one of her main weapons to distract, confuse, and manipulate the men to whom she is sent. The sensuality of her body is no longer a sign of life-giving love but has rather become a sign of manipulation. This too is a deal with the devil, for a woman’s beauty does not remain forever, nor are all women equally beautiful. When the beauty of the female body is separated from loving, committed union oriented toward the growth of family, it becomes not a gift but an enslaving ideal. As a tool to manipulate men, a woman’s beauty must be put in competition with other women. Few can win this war, and all will age and wear. But to love one man, one woman’s beauty is enough.

Second, let’s consider a woman’s heart. Women are not the only ones making a foolish Faustian bargain when they abandon traditional gender roles rooted in biology, natural law, and Scripture. When men give up their mandate to take the lead in responsibility for others, they abandon the very thing that a woman finds most attractive in a man. This is why Wonder Woman loves Steve Trevor and why his loving sacrifice is the most powerful part of her first movie. It’s the reason why Jack’s sacrifice for Rose made Titanic the first film to gross over a billion dollars. Had Rose slipped beneath the icy waters and left Jack alive, the movie would have never had the same wide appeal and cultural impact. There is a reason why the self-sacrificing male hero is the story women worldwide long to hear.

Gender relationships are made to work a certain way for two reasons. First, men are made to lead because this is how families are best built. Child bearing requires a softer, yielding body able to make a space for another human to grow within, and therefore a man must take the lead in protecting and providing for the woman so she can fulfill her more vulnerable role. We need each other. Gender difference is not the result of the fall; it is God’s original, good, beautiful design for mutual dependence, service, and love. Second, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, the gendered union between man and woman is an icon of the Gospel. The free, total, faithful, self-giving, and self-sacrificing love that a husband has for his wife embodies Christ’s love for his church. Just as Christ and his Bride play different roles in the story of salvation, so men and women play different roles in their gendered lives together here on earth.

Moreover, as Lewis bluntly confesses in That Hideous Strength, this complementary gender dynamic is an “erotic necessity.”[11] The epidemic rise of kinky fetishes, bondage motifs, and rape pornography reveals that when we remove the loving and erotic interplay between male leadership and feminine responsiveness, sex becomes dull, destructive, and crude. It is in embodying and acting out the mythos of gender that we find a natural and life-giving arousal able to draw from an infinite well of divine love that needs not the cheap, cartoonish kitsch offered behind the desperate doors of your local adult sex shop.

Fortunately, Marvel develops Black Widow into something more than a sexualized fantasy warrior. She becomes more human and believable as her story unfolds because we discover the deeper price she has paid for her fighting abilities. In The Avengers, Natasha is sent to recruit Bruce Banner and a personal relationship begins to grow between them. Banner repeatedly mentions how he feels like a monster (the script rather belabors this point). His superpowers seem to have cost him his humanity — his ability to be in society and to have intimate relationships — and Natasha responds to this vulnerability. We see her drawn to Banner in a way that she is not drawn to any of the others. Neither Steve Rogers nor Tony Stark nor Thor are damaged by their powers: Bruce Banner is, and this is something Natasha understands.

In Age of Ultron, Natasha reveals to Banner the nature of her combat training. To become an elite espionage agent, the capstone of her training in the Red Room involved a hysterectomy — the permanent removal of her feminine capacity to home and birth new life. Bruce felt like a monster because his masculine strength had taken a corrupt form, and Natasha felt like a monster because her feminine strength had been corrupted and deformed. Black Widow’s very name captures the contradiction inherent to the female warrior: her power to kill robs her of her power to have a family. Yet through her vulnerable and emotional confession to Bruce, Natasha is humanized. She reveals her deepest longings and they are wonderfully feminine; she wants a fruitful relationship with a man and it is her secret grief that this capacity has been taken away from her.

Black Widow’s final moments reveal the redemptive grace in Natasha’s life, for her life as a warrior ends with a reversal of the Faustian bargain that began it. To receive the power of the Soul Stone, a person must give up the one they love most — a soul for a soul. In Infinity War, Thanos the anti-father sacrifices his adopted daughter, Gamora, to gain the power of the stone. To retrieve the Soul Stone for the Avengers in Endgame, Natasha freely sacrifices her life to give Hawkeye the stone so he can return and bring back his family. Natasha began her life as a warrior by being forced to sacrifice the possibility of ever having a daughter to gain her supernatural powers, and Natasha ends her life as a hero sacrificing herself so Hawkeye might have his daughter again.

In the Marvel films, Hawkeye was Natasha’s Christological hero, the one whose compassion rescued her from the KGB and the evil that enslaved her. In response to that salvation, she served throughout most of the films as a helpmate to the Avengers, using the power she was given in the fight against evil. In Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Age of Ultron, the moments that most characterize Natasha are the moments she is making space in her own heart for the sorrows, struggles, and cares of others. Despite the deceptive and corrupting message of her sexy-warrior personna, Natasha’s most intimate relationships reveal a feminine soul.

Intuitively, we know that men and women are different and that women cannot fulfill uniquely male roles without sacrificing part of their femininity. This is precisely what the heart of Black Widow’s story tells us and we love her for it. In the final analysis, she tells us the truth.

The recent success of WandaVision rests on similar grounds. Like Natasha, Wanda’s deepest desires and secret sorrows are feminine. As represented by her superpowered sitcom fantasy, what she wants most is a husband and a family, and the drama of the whole series arises from the premise that her superpowers are incommensurate with the family she desires. Like Natasha, Wanda attracts us because her character deals somewhat honestly with the conflicts inherent to women warriors. Incredibly, Marvel actually taps into the truth and power of Wanda’s femininity to excuse her from full moral culpability for oppressing and controlling an entire town.

Captain Marvel, by contrast, tells us very little truth about who women are and how they were made to live, which is why it is one of the lowest rated and least-loved Marvel films, despite its free pandering to the feminist ideology of the age. Whereas Black Widow resonates with us on an archetypal level because of what her powers cost her as a woman, Captain Marvel doesn’t resonate with us because she never sacrifices anything to become the great lead hero of the universe. Carol’s life doesn’t show us the Faustian bargain a woman must make in order to become a warrior. She never wanted to be a woman in the first place.

Every flashback in the film shows us a girl who wants to be a boy — playing baseball with the boys, driving recklessly around the racetrack with the boys, training with the men in bootcamp, partying in the roadhouse bar like a man. It’s not just that she wants to play baseball, drive race cars, or train on the ropes course, which would be fine; it’s that she wants to do those things with the men and at the same level as the men. Her backstory is centered on her desire to be like a man, that is, to be what she isn’t.

Carol’s personality is primarily an anti-personality — defined by her opposition to her feminine nature. As a result, she is hard, closed, sarcastic, and egocentric. Her best friend Maria describes her as smart, funny, powerful, and “a huge pain in the ass.”[12] Carol didn’t get along with her family; she didn’t have a romantic relationship; there is no part of Carol’s backstory that tells us she values anything that is unique about being a woman or really anything else besides her own ambition. Maria remembers how Carol wanted to prove herself at all costs and was always looking for her hero moment. The only way we know she is a woman is because of the shape of her body; there is nothing feminine about her personality, her desires, or the role she plays.

I am hard on Carol Travers because I am like her, and we are usually hardest on ourselves. As a young adult, I too was hard, closed, sarcastic, and egocentric, but not because I was a powerful female destined to break patriarchal stereotypes. I was unfeminine because I was broken and alone and afraid of my vulnerability. Like so many others in Generation X, I am a child of divorce, and I was hurt by the breaking of the father-daughter bond. I grew up feeling that I needed to protect and care for myself. I didn’t have the strong and stable covering that would help me learn how to be safe and secure with my desires for a husband and a family. To compensate, I worked to establish my own independent sense of security by feeding my ambition, trying to prove myself, and always looking for my hero moment. If Captain Marvel portrayed Carol as broken, I would have compassion for her and understand her, but the movie portrays her hard, egocentric personality as a positive good. That characterization does not show me the truth. Why should we praise in Carol Danvers what we demand be broken in Tony Stark? This is narrative driven by our ideology, not our true humanity.

The film also lies to us about why Carol wasn’t able to compete with the boys in baseball or boot camp; rather than be honest about the fact that the female body cannot keep up with the male body in such physical endeavors, the movie presents her as held down by misogynist attitudes.

This feminist theme is further developed through the mind control of the Kree, for Captain Marvel is a not-so-subtle story about deconstructing traditional gender roles. When the film begins, Carol has had her extraordinary powers for over six years, and the only reason she cannot use them is because she has been brainwashed by the Kree. Carol’s Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg, controls Carol by telling her that her emotions make her vulnerable and that she must suppress them. The patriarchal, brainwashing Central Intelligence tells Carol that she is weak, flawed, and helpless — the usual lies attributed to misogynist oppression of women. But Carol, the feminist hero, realizes that by believing the lies she has “been fighting with one hand tied behind my back.”[13] Now that she sees through the matrix of patriarchal lies, Carol is free to use all her powers. And what can a woman who is free from the patriarchy do? Anything! To prove it, Carol starts glowing all over and takes down a whole space army single-handedly, giving Captain Marvel the most anti-climactic, childish ending of any Marvel movie.

Fantasy is thrilling because it explores the boundaries of the possible and because magic — be it supernatural or technological — functions as a narrative symbol for the divine. We long to be lifted from the limitations and sorrows of the fallen natural world, and we know such transcendence requires participation with the supernatural. But when fantasy denies that there are any moral or relational limits to human nature, it goes too far and begins to deceive rather than inspire.

Captain Marvel violates our moral and relational limits in two ways. First, by taking on, as a woman, the role of lead male hero, Captain Marvel destroys what it means to be a woman. A true feminist would not give us women who are simply free to act like men but women who show that the unique qualities and tasks of womanhood are themselves as valuable as those of manhood. We should indeed create female characters who are powerful and brave and clever, but a woman’s power and courage and wit is going to be expressed a bit differently than a man’s power and courage and wit because she has different capacities and different callings.

Second, Captain Marvel inappropriately violates moral and relational limits by having completely undefined and unlimited powers.[14] She is too god-like. And when powers are so great and so vague, the challenge of plotting a great story is gone. It is the limits of our powers which create dramatic tension and the need for heroic action. Even Christ took on limits when he became human and then shocked man and angel alike by defeating evil through death on a cross. The joyful surprise and narrative power of the Gospel comes through the way God accepted limitation and then used those very limits to shake the powers of hell and turn the world upside down. When Captain Marvel can destroy the terrifying space army in two minutes by simply flying straight through their ships like a blonde fire bullet, it’s boring, and the only thing it symbolizes is the cosmic inflation of Carol’s egocentric ambitions.

If Black Widow and Wanda represent the most feminine of our contemporary superheroines and Captain Marvel represents the least, Wonder Woman is the most ironic. On the one hand, the psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1943 to be “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”[15] Marston was a polygamist who openly enjoyed erotic bondage and admired the way “women enjoy submission — being bound.”[16] Marston also supported Margaret Sanger’s work to free women from biology so they could step into their role as matriarchal leaders of a new world. He believed women could bring about a peaceful world matriarchy by teaching men “to enjoy being bound . . . [for] only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society . . . Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.[17] In other words, Wonder Woman was created to train men to enjoy the erotic pleasure of being controlled by women who attain power through the suppression of their fertility, for Marston believed we will never learn to love our neighbor unless we eroticize that love. Marston’s sexual ideals certainly give Diana’s glowing rope of truth new meaning.

The initial setting for Wonder Woman presents us Marston’s ideal matriarchal paradise. On the island of Themyscira, Diana’s home, there is no need for men as women have all the roles and power that the men would have. The women warriors live in perfect peace with each other, and the first Wonder Woman film makes sure to let us know that sexual pleasure is still a part of their idyllic, lesbian culture. Men are not necessary to them for anything; sexual gratification included.

Themyscira is a godless island, lying to us about the nature of human relationships as well as the nature of God. Humans were created to bear the image of God in the world, both glorifying Him by showing forth His love and character in the physical world and enjoying divine relationship with Him together. This imago Dei is not complete without both men and women living in loving, other-oriented communities. Woman without man is a godless creation, a world with no one to create it and love it. Man without woman is a loveless god, a divine power with no one to serve or love. In the creation story of Genesis, it is the woman who represents the relational character of God and foreshadows the truth of the Trinity. The masculine alone represents a divine creator, but in order to know that the divinity is love, there must be a relational component to Him. It is not good that man or woman should dwell alone.

On the other hand, the basic plots of both Wonder Woman films are surprisingly faithful to these gender archetypes and honest about what it costs a woman in order to play the world’s hero. The first film works well because the climax offers us a timeless heroic sacrifice. Once Diana leaves Themyscira, it is Steve Trevor who leads the adventure. He introduces Diana to the world of men, he leads her onto the battlefield, and he is the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, dying to save his world and his love. Despite its obvious imitation of Captain America, Steve Trevor’s heroic victory is genuinely moving because it touches on genuine truth. Christ our hero has sacrificed Himself to save His world and His bride. It is the rescue we need and the rescue we need our stories to tell us. Because of Steve’s heroism, Diana is empowered to complete her own mission in a way that symbolically resonates with the work of the church. It is the love of Steve and, as we discover at the end, the power of her true father Zeus, that enables her to overcome the evil of Ares.

Moreover, the first film shows us what it will cost Wonder Woman to be the superhero savior of Earth — the one relationship her feminine heart most desires. The conflict between her desires as a woman and her identity as the world’s superhero frames the primary plot of the second film, Wonder Woman 1984. The movie opens with a memory from her training on the island of Themyscira. She cheats in a contest and, in rebuke, Diana’s mother and her aunt Antiope warn her that, “No true hero is born from lies.”[18]

This anecdote sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfolds into a profoundly ironic reflection on the contradictions of the female warrior trope. The primary villain, Maxwell Lord, nearly destroys the planet by tempting people to wish for what they have not been providentially given. Enlivened by Pedro Pascal’s first-rate acting, Mr. Lord depicts this Faustian bargain with flair. In exchange for the illicit power to transcend your given situation, the wisher loses their most valuable possession. Maxwell Lord loses his health to become the wishing stone, Barbra Minerva loses her kindness to become like Diana, and Wonder Woman loses her divine powers to bring back her love, Steve Trevor.

The longer Steve stays, the weaker Diana grows. She resists renouncing her wish until there is no other hope for saving Earth. With the world on the brink of nuclear war and total destruction, Steve insists that she must let him go. Diana confesses and emphasizes that this relationship is the one thing she wanted, the one thing she asks in exchange for everything she gives the world. It is a vulnerable and tender desire every woman knows. But this one thing is incompatible with the superpowers that make her the hero and leader of this narrative world. She can’t have her heart’s desire as a woman and be the hero. It is a moving and poignant moment of surprising truth offered in a movie made as feminist propaganda.

Diana saves the world by renouncing her false wish. In her climactic speech, she tells Maxwell Lord, “Everything has a price, one I’m not willing to pay, not anymore. You can only have the truth, and that is enough.”[19] Indeed, Diana. Secular feminism has a price, one I’m not willing to pay, not anymore. We can have the truth, the truth about what it means to be a woman, and that is enough. God has made womanhood and it is good and beautiful, and I am glad to be a woman and to have a home full of daughters. My daughters and I don’t need female heroes who tell us we are free to act like men. We need women characters who inspire us to love being women who act like women.


Author’s Note: Many thanks to Nathan Alberson, Jake Mentzel, and Ben Sulser at Sound of Sanity and Sanity at the Movies for inspiring both this essay and many a good dinner conversation with my daughters. For more on the gender iconography of your favorite superhero movies, I encourage readers to start with the Sound of Sanity episode on Wonder Woman and the Sanity at the Movies episodes on Princess Leia and Wonder Woman 1984.

 


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Citation Information

Annie Crawford, “Super-Women and the Price of Power,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 153-178.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/super-women-and-the-price-of-power/


Endnotes

[1] To limit its scope, this essay will only consider the symbolic meaning communicated through the most popular superheroes films and not the extended and vastly more complicated world of comic books.

[2] Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1.189.

[3] As one of his great labors, Hercules stole the magical girdle from the Amazon Queen Hippolyta.

[4] One non-Homeric legend tells of a hand to hand combat between Achilles and the Amazon Queen Penthesiea. After Achilees killed Penthesiea, her helmet fell and Achilles fell in love with her for her great beauty as she lay dying.

[5] Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 2006), 11.766-782.

[6] Virgil is not here chastising Camilla for a feminine love of clothing. An inordinate desire for plunder is one of Virgil’s primary themes and what leads to the downfall of several men in The Aeneid, including the climactic death that ends the epic.

[7] Virgil, The Aeneid, 1.594. The Latin word here is the dative singular, mammae.

[8] The Amazon women were a popular subject of Greek visual art; however, the warrior women were never portrayed as having a breast removed. This may be explained by the well-established Greek artists’ obsession with physical perfection. Certainly there was no need to portray Athena, the goddess of battle, as mutilated in any way.

[9] For a discussion of why female warriors appeal to men, see Nathan Alberson’s explanation in his “Open Letter to Rae from Star Wars” at https://warhornmedia.com/2016/03/07/an-open-letter-to-rey-from-star-wars/

[10] Gabriel A. Higerd, ”Assessing the Potential Transgender Impact on Girl Champions in American High School Track and Field,” United States Sports Academy, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2021. 28313943. https://www.proquest.com/openview/65d34c1e949899aa823beecad873afae/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

[11] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 2003), 146. For a full discussion of Lewis’s view of gender, see my essay, “Gender and the Imago Dei: Together We Reflect The Image of God” in the Spring 2021 Issue of An Unexpected Journal, https://anunexpectedjournal.com/gender-and-the-imago-dei-together-we-reflect-the-image-of-god/.

[12] Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019), Disney Plus streaming.

[13] Captain Marvel.

[14] This charge could be made against several other characters in Marvel. The franchise as a whole struggles to maintain consistent, definable laws and boundaries for its fictional world. As a result, the viewer is asked to exercise considerable suspension of disbelief, but so long as the special effects are cutting edge, it is a bargain most are eager to make.

[15] Christopher Klein, “Wonder Woman’s Surprising Origins,” HISTORY, last modified January 12, 2021, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.history.com/news/wonder-woman-origins.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 210, emphasis mine.

[18] Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins (Warner Bros, 2020), Amazon Prime streaming.

[19] Ibid.

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