Wonder Woman 1984 will bring Diana Prince’s most famous foe, the Cheetah, to live-action for the very first time, in the form of the one and only Kristen Wiig. But how exactly did this deadly feline femme fatale become Wonder Woman’s foremost baddie? Especially since she made only a few appearances throughout Wonder Woman’s first several decades in comics? Let’s unpack the long, strange history of the Cheetah and her rise to comic book infamy.
The original Wonder Woman comics of the ’40s by William Marston were highly unconventional for the time. Unlike her compatriots Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman didn’t have many recurring villains, due to Marston’s concept of rehabilitation for all criminals. Most villains whom Diana fought were then taught the error of their ways via Amazon philosophy (and some mind control, to he honest). So, few returned to imparting evil after tangling with Wonder Woman.
The original Cheetah appeared in Wonder Woman #6 in 1943, making her one of Diana’s earliest foes. Vain and spoiled debutante Priscilla Rich had no super powers to speak of, and was intensely jealousy of Wonder Woman. Additionally, Rich suffered from a split personality, and when her alternate personality eventually took over, she became a predator who aimed to take down the Amazon princess. After fashioning a costume out of an animal print rug in her home, Priscilla Rich took the name “Cheetah” and embarked on a criminal career.
(Interestingly enough, the Michelle Pfeiffer version of Catwoman in Batman Returns had more in common with Cheetah than it did with the comic books’ Selina Kyle… although I’m not sure that anyone involved with the Tim Burton film have ever copped to that.)
The Cheetah only appeared a couple more times in the ‘40s before vanishing from the pages of Wonder Woman for almost 20 years. Even after returning, she made only a handful of further appearances.
So how did she come to be viewed as Diana’s greatest enemy? The answer lies on Saturday Morning television. When Hanna-Barbera produced the Challenge of the Super-Friends for ABC in 1978, the Cheetah was enlisted as Diana’s counterpart for the Legion of Doom. And in fact, the only reason Cheetah made the cut was because Catwoman had been nabbed by CBS’ The New Adventures of Batman just a year prior, and ABC didn’t have the rights. Because Cheetah essentially took Catwoman’s place, she wound up with a reputation as Wonder Woman’s biggest foe.
In the early ‘80s, the original Cheetah’s niece, Debbie Domaine, was introduced, and became the second generation version of the villain. Between an excess of merchandising and reruns of Super Friends, this further cemented Cheetah’s status as Wonder Woman’s best-known enemy…even if the character herself became more and more of a Catwoman knockoff. It wouldn’t be until 1987 that Cheetah would become a character worthy of her status as Wonder Woman’s most famous baddie.
In the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC universe, the very concept of Cheetah was totally rebooted. Instead of a criminal in a kitty-cat costume, Cheetah was now a mystically powered were-cat. And instead of just being a vain beauty with petty jealousy as her primary motivation, Cheetah was now a renowned archaeologist named Barbara Ann Minerva.
Minerva was once cursed by an ancient African God named Urzkartaga. When she sought him out, he condemned her to transform into a beastly human-cheetah hybrid whenever the moon was full. She became obsessed with procuring Diana’s magic lasso for herself, setting her on a collision course with Wonder Woman several times.
By empowering her with the magic of a different set of gods, DC made Cheetah an adversary worthy of Wonder Woman at last. Now she was almost an equal to Diana in strength and speed, and her deadly claws were real, not a gimmick.
À la the New 52 reboot in 2011, Barbara Minerva was given yet another new angle. She was still an archaeologist, but was now and Indiana Jones-ish procurer of ancient relics. After discovering (and accidentally cutting herself with) a dagger that once belonged to a lost tribe of Amazons, she became possessed by the Goddess of the Hunt, transforming her into the Cheetah. Although she initially pretended to be Diana’s friend and ally, this incarnation of Barbara Minerva always secretly hated her.
The most recent version of Cheetah was born via DC’s Rebirth initiative in 2016. This version of Dr. Minerva was a combo of the previous two. She truly was Diana’s friend at one point, and helped her learn English when the latter arrived in America. But when she learned the truth of Diana’s history, and as such that ancient gods were real, she sought out the African god Urkartaga and was thusly cursed with uncontrollable animalistic urges. Minerva blamed Diana for her situation and for her own obsession with godly power, kicking off a longterm rivalry between the two.
So which version of Cheetah will Kristen Wiig play? Or more likely, how will Wonder Woman 1984 combine the many versions of Barbara Minerva for their take on the character? The trailer indicates that, at least early on, she is Diana’s friend. Plus, she seems to be a fellow museum employee, so we can guess that she will once again be an archaeologist. But will she get her powers from an African god? An ancient dagger? It remains to be seen. Here’s hoping that Wiig gives Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman a challenge worthy of the big screen.
Featured Image: DC Comics