Wonder Woman 1984 will see Diana of Themyscira facing off against one of her greatest rivals: Barbara Ann Minerva, also known as Cheetah. Even though she’s one of Wonder Woman’s most famous villains from the comics, this is the first time we’re actually going to spend quality time with her in an adaptation. But who is she? Curl up kitty cats, it’s about to get complicated.
The latest version of Cheetah is being played by Kristen Wiig in Wonder Woman 1984. Based on what we’ve seen in the first trailer, this version of Barbara looks to start out as a friend of Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot). She appears to be on the shy, nerdy side, but eventually, her claws will come out. This might be the latest incarnation of the famous feline warrior, but it’s certainly not the first. Here are the different incarnations of Cheetah we’ve had over the years on the page, and how they’ve been translated off of it.
Cheetah debuted in 1943's Wonder Woman #6, written by William Moulton Marston, with ink and pencil work by Harry Peter. She started as Priscilla Rich, a socialite with a split personality who vowed vengeance against Wonder Woman for stealing the spotlight at a charity party—yeah, that’s real. Priscilla takes on Wonder Woman by dressing up in one of her fur-skin rugs so she can go out and steal stuff, and also works to subvert the heroine at every opportunity. Priscilla’s Cheetah doesn’t have any superpowers, but she does have a strong desire for revenge. And lots of cat puns.
We’ve seen this version in classic DC animated shows like Super Friends, where she was a member of the Legion of Doom. She wasn’t often the focus on the main plot, with the exception of episodes like “The Secret Origins of the Super Friends,” where she went back in time to replace Diana as Wonder Woman. And while she’s mostly been replaced in the comics canon with the Barbera Minerva incarnation, the likeness of Priscilla’s Cheetah was later used to inform her design in Batman: The Brave and the Bold...even though that version of the character was still Barbara. Told you it was complicated!
Deborah Domaine was a shorter-lived incarnation of Cheetah who only existed in the comics, first arriving in 1980's Wonder Woman #274—from writer Gerry Conway, penciler Jose Delbo, inker Dave Hunt, colorist Jerry Serpe, and letterer John Costanza. While visiting her aunt Priscilla Rich on her deathbed, the young environmental activist learned a secret: her aunt used to be Cheetah. It was at that moment a terrorist leader called Kobra was recruiting new villains, and set his eye on Cheetah. Since Priscilla was dead, he chose to abduct Deborah and brainwash her through torture, turning her into the new Cheetah. It was seriously messed up. Eventually, she escaped Kobra’s clutches, but kept the Cheetah identity, moving onto the Secret Society of Super-Villains.
Before going into the main Cheetah of the post-Crisis era, I thought I’d give a brief shoutout to the even-briefer run of Sebastian Ballesteros, the first (and so far only) male Cheetah. He surfaced in 2001's Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #170, from writer and penciler Phil Jimenez, co-writer Joe Kelly, inker Andy Lanning, colorists Patricia Mulvihill and Heroic Age, and letterer Comicraft. Between the Wonder Woman Vol. 2 run of 2001 to 2004, Sebastian emerged as a business tycoon who yearned for the powers of the Cheetah, so he usurped Barbara and took them for himself. Wonder Woman later killed him, soooo...there’s that.
This is the Cheetah most of us grew up with and recognize today. Created by George Pérez, and Len Wein, Barbara debuted in 1987's Wonder Woman Vol 2 #8 (by Pérez and Wein, with inker Bruce D. Patterson, colorist Tatjana Wood, and letterer John Costanza), where she started as an archaeologist searching for the legendary lost city of the Urzkartagan tribe. She found it but it came at a price. Her team of explorers was ambushed and she found herself in the company of Urzkartagan high priest Chuma, who said they were in the middle of a ritual that would imbue a young woman with the spirit and powers of a cheetah god. Barbera decided that young woman should be her, performing a human sacrifice in order to do so, and Cheetah was born.
There have been several different versions of Barbara as Cheetah across DC’s multiple continuity reboots. In The New 52, she was a member of an ancient society that hunted humans for sport. The latest DC Rebirth-era incarnation launched in 2016 with Wonder Woman Vol 5 #8—in an arc from Greg Rucka, Bilquis Evely, Romulo Fajardo, Jr., and Jodi Wynne. In this series, Barbara began as Diana’s friend who taught her English and the ways of the world. Instead of Cheetah being a sacrifice she chose to make, the powers were a curse forced upon her after the plant god Urzkartaga tried to marry her against her will but discovered she wasn’t a virgin. Hmm! Well, no matter where she started, Barbara’s story always ends up the same. As a half-human, half-cheetah hybrid imbued with extraordinary abilities thanks to the powers of a god.
It’s this Cheetah that we’ve seen in more recent animated shows, movies, and video games, with differing levels of “catness.” In some versions, she’s basically a furry. In others, like 2019’s Wonder Woman: Bloodlines, she goes full feline. She’s been “spotted” in the Injustice 2 video game, DC Super Hero Girls, Harley Quinn, and the Justice League series, as well as the 2012 movie Justice League: Doom. In the show, she made out with Batman. It was weird.
For the most part, Barbara’s Cheetah has only made brief appearances in movies and shows. For example, in Lauren Montgomery’s 2009 animated Wonder Woman film, Cheetah doesn’t show up until the end—just in time for Diana to punch her in the face. Most of these shows haven’t bothered exploring the character’s backstory either, which is ripe with intrigue. I mean, come on, how many times have we heard about why Joker is the Joker? But the story of a half-cheetah deity who’s either the goddess of the hunt or the victim of a horrific curse—depending on which version you’re looking at—hasn’t been worth delving into? The only time her origins have been mentioned was on Justice League…and there, it was changed to a science experiment gone wrong!
It may have taken way too long to get Wonder Woman on the big screen, but the decades-long absence of Cheetah also feels like a major misstep. Hopefully Kristen Wiig’s debut as the powerful and obsessive feline warrior finally does her justice. Meow.
Wonder Woman 1984 was originally set to be released in theaters today but due to the novel coronavirus, its current date is now August 14. We’ll let you know if that changes.
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