''AT LAST, in a world torn apart by the hatreds and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and fears of men are mere child's play.'' It is December 1941, and Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, is making her superheroine debut in DC Comics. She is dressed in patriotic red, white and blue: red boots, a blue skirt with white stars, a red bustier with a gold eagle symbol. She is a princess, a goddess and an Amazon. She is lovely, wise, swift and strong, and she is here to save the world. What has become of her?
Her fate, and the fate of female characters like her, is explored in a new documentary called Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, which opens at ACMI this month. While the title suggests a plurality, the focus, inevitably, is on Wonder Woman. In the opening vox pop sequence, passers-by are asked to name superheroes, and everyone can reel off a host of names, from Spider-Man to Superman to Batman. But female equivalents? They hesitate. There are fewer choices, and Wonder Woman is at the top, the undisputed queen.
There have been, in fact, other women featured in comics and other female superheroes: the documentary name-checks Sheena, Queen of the Jungle; Phantom Lady; Miss Fury, for example. But Wonder Woman is one of the few survivors. And she was different, too, in some significant ways.
Until the 1990s, writes Danny Fingeroth in his book Superman on the Couch, ''if a woman was powerful - really powerful - she was either evil, or made evil by power''. He suggests that perhaps ''we just weren't ready for a superhuman woman who could be good and powerful at the same time. Women in pop culture always seemed like they could be one or the other. With the notable exception of Wonder Woman, there hasn't been a successful superheroine who was femme but not fatale, pretty much until Buffy.''
Wonder Woman appeared at a time when American women were being asked to take up roles in the war effort, in the workplace and on the factory floor. Her story of origins also has a suitably mythic angle. Just as Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus, Wonder Woman was the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, a lawyer and a psychologist who also invented a blood-pressure test that formed the basis for the lie detector. (A nice link with one of Wonder Woman's most potent weapons, her golden lasso of truth.) Writing as Charles Moulton, he came up with the idea for a comic-book heroine with inspirational qualities: he thought of her as a powerful propaganda figure, in preparation for the time when he believed that women would be in charge.
Reading the original comics, Guevara-Flanagan says on the phone from the US, ''I was pretty shocked at how radical they were''. Yet although Wonder Woman might have been created with a clear mandate to do good, she has been portrayed in ways full of contradiction and ambiguity, something the documentary explores. She might have superpowers - ''a hundred times the ability and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers'', according to the first Wonder Woman issue - but she is constantly being tied up and bound, chained and restrained with a kind of fetishistic insistence.
And - although it was she who first rescued pilot Steve Trevor, the man she is most closely associated with - she began to have relationship issues. In the 1950s, when comic-book publishers imposed a brand of self-censorship, female characters became more demure or low-key. And in the 1970s, there was a point when DC Comics stripped Wonder Woman of her superpowers, and turned her into something closer to a trauma queen, a woman with romantic quandaries and a clothing boutique.
But the decade also had her on the first regular cover of the high-profile feminist magazine Ms. In the documentary, one of the founders of Ms., Gloria Steinem, speaks of Wonder Woman being chosen because she would bring something ''powerful, universal and fun'' to the cover. She also recalls being part of a concerted lobbying campaign to get DC Comics to give Wonder Woman back her superpowers. In the end, she says, she received an exasperated phone call from a senior person at the company, telling her that the campaign had worked. Wonder Woman once more had her powers, her bracelets, her lasso and Paradise Island. And, he said, ''she has a black African Amazon sister named Nubia. Now will you leave me alone?''
In subsequent years, Wonder Woman didn't necessarily come across as a feminist, but she became a symbol of female power, writer and scholar Jennifer K. Stuller says, in an enduring way. And it was in the '70s that she also became a TV icon. Lynda Carter (right), statuesque, wasp-waisted, commanding, brought a signature style to the role, and it was she who came up with the idea of the transforming twirl that changed Diana Prince into Wonder Woman. (With a twirl, who needs a phone booth?)
Guevara-Flanagan's documentary shows us plenty of people - young girls, women and men - who find Wonder Woman inspirational, and it also gives plenty of examples of female characters from popular culture who have heroic qualities or powers. But where are Wonder Woman's new adventures coming from? And where does she figure in the current superhero pantheon?
In some ways, she is conspicuous by her absence. There was a pilot last year for a new Wonder Woman TV series, starring Adrianne Palicki (Tara from Friday Night Lights). But Guevara-Flanagan found it disappointing. ''They didn't know what to do with the character,'' she says. She was depicted as ''neurotic in an unsatisfying, unempowered way''.
Next year, there are plans for a Wonder Woman origins series, called Amazons. Yet among the slew of recent feature films about superheroes, all the big-budget blockbusters based on Marvel and DC Comics figures, Wonder Woman hasn't made it. Even B-list superheroes (Daredevil, anyone?) have their own movies. There have been numerous false starts, some of them with considerable potential. Guevara-Flanagan was excited, she says, when Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, was developing a Wonder Woman feature, and disappointed when it fell through.
In the documentary, Lynda Carter reflects on the fact that people didn't believe a woman could carry a show.
Is that still the problem today, in a big-screen context? Or is Wonder Woman too much of a positive, inspirational figure?
As Guevara-Flanagan points out, Wonder Woman's an ambassador, a mentor, she likes to reform her villains as much as she seeks to punish them. She's not a ''lone wolf''; she belongs to a group of women - she even has a good relationship with her mother. All this, Guevara-Flanagan notes, might be considered problematic when the fashion is for flawed superheroes.
But Superman is an old-school character, she points out, and he's had a potent afterlife. Even the virtuous super-patriot Captain America recently starred in his own feature. So what's the answer - or will we need a golden lasso of truth to find out?
■ Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines is at ACMI from December 27 to January 13.