So everyone's wondering who will be cast as Wonder Woman in Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman movie. (If Hollywood studios had any marketing moxie left, they could make this into the greatest "casting search" story since Scarlett O'Hara, but they don't and therefore they won't.) I'm also wondering who will be the villain in the film, and when I turned my mind to that question, something occurred to me:
I can't think of a single good Wonder Woman villain.
I'm sure Wonder Woman must have had some long-running regular villains in the comics; I haven't read a lot of the comics (the ones I did read all seemed to have covers proclaiming that Wonder Woman was dead -- or is she?), so I don't know who they've used as her adversaries over the years. But I don't think there's a single Wonder Woman villain who has become part of pop-culture consciousness. The TV show never had any regular villains, unlike the "Batman" TV show, which used all kinds of recurring villains from the comics. And people I've talked to are like me: they know Wonder Woman, and Steve Trevor, and maybe Etta Candy, and that's really about it. No memorable villains.
What I find surprising about this is that I would have thought Wonder Woman would be the kind of character who'd lend herself to more, not fewer, good villains: unlike male superheroes, who aren't usually allowed to hit women, Wonder Woman can get into fights with men and women, theoretically doubling the potential for effective villains. And yet there's nothing; she doesn't even have a gallery of villains to compare to the relatively bland Superman rogues' gallery, let alone Batman or Spider-Man.
I suppose that a possible explanation for the lack of good Wonder Woman villains is that there's a lack of good ways to connect a villain to Wonder Woman. In general, a good comic-book villain has some kind of connection to or parallel with the hero, which can be summed up like this: That which creates the hero also creates the villain. Batman, who has the best villains, also has the most obvious parallel with all his adversaries: he's a human who adopts a bizarre costume and gimmick in order to fight crime, and his villains are humans who adopt bizarre costumes and gimmicks in order to commit crimes. The Joker is a guy who had a traumatic experience and reacted to it by dressing up in a crazy costume and inventing lots of gadgets; so is Batman. They just have different goals.
Superman is harder to connect to a villain and therefore has fewer good villains, but there is a winning formula for a Superman villain, which I recall Paul Dini mentioning when talking about the Superman animated series on a DVD extra: Superman is a guy who has immense power and uses it for good, and his villains are people who get a taste of power and want to use it for evil. Lex Luthor is the best Superman villain because he's obsessed with power, and the uses of power is what Superman is all about.
So with that formula in mind, what created Wonder Woman, and how could that create a successful villain? Well, she's a superpowered Amazon from an island of super-women, who comes to "man's world" to fight evil and redeem our corrupt and brutish society. The obvious parallel to that would be a villain who is also better and smarter than mortal men, but wants to destroy man's world instead of making it better. This leads to a lot of alterna-Wonder-Woman (remember Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman, from an episode of the TV show?) and a lot of man-hating Amazon women who want to wipe out mankind.
As I see it, the problem with that formula for a villain is that it means a Wonder Woman villain has to be as cut off from our world as Wonder Woman is -- more so, actually, because Wonder Woman is sort of trying to fit in to our world, whereas a smugly superior villain would feel no need. So instead of being a mad scientist or a gangster or someone who just wants to steal some baubles from a museum, a Wonder Woman villain just comes in, proclaims his/her superiority and evil plan, and Wonder Woman stops him/her. Not a lot of potential for the things that make a good villain, like being semi-sympathetic or funny or scary. In Batman terms they're a bit like Ra's Al Ghul -- someone wiser and more powerful than common humanity -- but you wouldn't want to see Ra's Al Ghul every week.
What kind of villain Whedon will use for his movie presumably depends on what kind of take he has on Wonder Woman; but I don't have to be Comic Book Guy to proclaim that the success of the movie will depend not only on who plays Wonder Woman, but how strong the villain is. And if it's another rogue Amazon out to destroy mankind, I won't get my hopes up for the finished picture.