I've talked a lot about the lesser known, less used Wonder Woman rogues. But who stands above them all as the Amazon's greatest enemy?
Probably the most well-known and iconic of Wonder Woman’s rogues is the Cheetah—owing largely to her longevity in being around since the Golden Age, but probably most due to being cast as Diana’s nemesis in Superfriends. And because of this, she is regarded as Wonder Woman's arch-enemy.
And frankly, I find this is a problem.
Don’t get me wrong…I’ve nothing really against Cheetah, per se. I appreciate her place in Wonder Woman’s mythos and recognize her iconic value. But she being the Lex Luthor to Wonder Woman's Superman..? Sorry, she just don’t live up to that.
For one thing, Cheetah isn't that compelling of a character in and of herself. She doesn’t really have a motivation. She kind of has something of a lust for power, but it’s a very broad and general one at that. Frankly, she comes across as more of a nuisance than genuine threat. She just pops up causing trouble with no real agenda or goal—save her vague quest for power.
Often, the arch-nemesis is, in one way or another, the dark reflection of the hero. More than just as physical and/or intellectual, the villain should represent the opposite or dark side of hero in a deep, fundamental overarching way. The Shadow archetype.
Plenty has already been said about how the Joker reflects and opposes Batman and Lex Luthor for Superman…but what does the Cheetah have in reflection of Wonder Woman?
The best I’ve ever seen writers come up with is, where Wonder Woman is blessed by her gods with these great abilities and powers, the Cheetah is cursed by hers and is a savage beast. While it’s a reflection, it’s kind of a shallow one. And depending on which version of Cheetah we’re talking about, some try to push some kind of jealousy/greed thing…but it’s not very well developed. Probably the most interesting thing about her is, even though her powers are supposed to be a curse, she is addicted to them.
Going along with the arch-enemy as Shadow idea, how does Cheetah represent a dark side of Wonder Woman? Cheetah is defined by being a beast, cursed, and petty. So, by pushing her as Diana's opposite, we're therefore defining Wonder Woman as being beautiful and loved.
Is that how Wonder Woman should be defined above all? Yeah, those are aspects of her character, but I wouldn't call them her most defining attributes.
The most interesting developments of Cheetah's character came during/around William Messner-Loebs' run on Wonder Woman where she started to show signs of reforming and grew into something of an unlikely ally with a grudging respect for Diana. These developments led to Cheetah actually freeing herself of her curse temporarily. However, it later became apparent that, even though her powers are a curse, she'd grown addicted to the power and ultimately became a villain again.
Like I said, I appreciate the Cheetah for what she is. I won't say she doesn't have her place in Wonder Woman's mythos or that she brings nothing to Diana's table. But we need to stop hoisting her up as Wonder Woman’s great, evil match. A hero is measured by their opponents, and when you’re throwing a crazed cat-lady up as the pinnacle of evil Wonder Woman has to face…no one’s going to take her seriously.
Cheetah has her place. But being Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis ain’t it.
Although he was around during the Golden and Silver Age, nowadays, thanks largely to the George Perez reboot, Ares is often thrown around as one of, if not the, great villain for Wonder Woman.
It seems an obvious choice. As the God of War, he opposes Wonder Woman on an ideological level and, being a god, he certainly poses a physical match for her.
I think Ares does fulfill an interesting role in Wonder Woman's story—though not as the archetypical Shadow. Rather what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “Tyrannical Father.”
The Tyrannical Father is the overbearing dark force that serves as the cause, or catalyst of the hero’s origin and leads to their journey in becoming a hero. In Campbell's Hero's Journey, a confrontation or atonement with this parental figure was a critical moment in the hero's quest. Perhaps the most famous application of the Tyrannical Father trope is Darth Vader in Star Wars.
I suspect it was partially an effort to create this figure for Batman that led to their making the Joker the guy who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in Tim Burton’s Batman. Frieza in Dragonball Z was this for Goku—being the one who destroyed Goku’s home planet. The Superman animated series kind of gave Brainiac shades of this by having him withhold information leading to Krypton’s destruction.
Now look at Wonder Woman. The gods gave her life and power because they knew she would one day have to oppose Ares. Most modern telling of Wonder Woman’s origin usually have the machinations of Ares serve as the catalyst that makes the Amazons hold their Contest. Further, part of what motivated Diana to enter the Contest and eventually become Wonder Woman was her desire for a purpose—Ares gives her that purpose.
So while Ares serves a critical role in Wonder Woman's rogues gallery, I'd be hesitant to call him her arch-nemesis.
Which finally brings us to Circe.
There was a Circe character that appeared in Pre-Crisis Wonder Woman, but the character as she’s currently known first came about early in the George Perez reboot. Circe’s first Post-Crisis appearance was notable in that she completely owned Wonder Woman the entire issue. In fact, Diana doesn’t even defeat her and only survives due to the interference of Hermes. Diana herself even acknowledges she had no chance against her and worries what might happen the next time they meet.
Since then, Circe’s emerged as a somewhat consistent opponent for Wonder Woman and maintained a mystique as an upper-echelon threat for her. For a while, mainly starting with Phil Jimenez’s run on the title, there seemed to be a genuine effort to push Circe as Wonder Woman’s true arch-nemesis.
Unfortunately, there was such an effort that Circe became pretty overexposed and, consequently, such overexposure saw her being thrust as a lead villain where she wasn’t needed or wanted. Specifically, the Who is Wonder Woman story arc—which saw Circe acting rather out of character—and the abysmal Amazons Attack storyline that immediately followed—which saw Circe enacting a nonsensical plan with no clearly defined goal and, most embarrassingly, getting taken out by Batman uttering a magic word he knew...just in case.
Since then, Circe’s been kept under the radar—her only notable appearance acting as the evil counter to Wonder Woman in DC Universe Online.
Overexposure and poor showings aside, for my money Circe makes a superior and fitting arch-nemesis for Wonder Woman. For starters, being a sorceress of god-like power, she can match Diana physically.
But more importantly, she opposes Diana on a deep, critical, and fundamental level. Like I alluded to earlier, the best villains represent the opposite of the hero in some capacity and Circe reflects Diana in a very fundamental way.
As I’ve frequently gone on about, the crucial thing about Wonder Woman and what drives her is her belief in peace and tolerance and that mankind is fundamentally good and decent.
Circe is the opposite. According to her backstory, she was once a corrupt princess that was driven away from her people after murdering her husband. She later sold her soul to the goddess Hecate in exchange for greater power in sorcery and, after exacting a terrible revenge on her people, has devoted her life to sowing discord and hatred. She uses her power to lavish herself with comfort and has lived for thousands of years in a bitter, selfish, and hateful existence.
So where Wonder Woman is defined and driven by her compassion, generosity, selflessness, and idealistic belief in the good of people…Circe is a misanthrope defined by her selfishness, hatred, and belief people are, deep down, nothing more than savage beasts.