Cheetah, one of Wonder Woman’s most iconic foes, is coming to life for the first time in live-action in Wonder Woman 1984, and hers is a story that the creative team behind the movie couldn’t wait to tell.
Played by Kristen Wiig, Cheetah is a character who star Gal Gadot describes as “my favorite villain,” and who producer Charles Roven calls “one of the greatest villains of the canon of Wonder Woman, and probably one of the greatest villains in the superhero canon of all the superheroes.” (We agree, ranking her at #69 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time.)
Wonder Woman 1984 is taking cues from a number of Cheetah comic book story arcs, combining them together for a version uniquely suited to the movie’s story. Wiig’s take on Cheetah begins before her transformation, when she is still Barbara Ann Minerva, an iteration of the Cheetah character first introduced in 1987’s Wonder Woman #7.
“We thought that [Barbara’s Cheetah] would be an appropriate villain, not only because of the legacy value, but because of what she is at the beginning of the movie and what she aspires to become,” said Roven.
Like her comic book counterpart, Wiig’s Cheetah begins as a friend of Gadot’s Diana Prince before Wonder Woman 1984’s villain, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), makes her an offer too good to refuse. Barbara works with Diana at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. where she is a gemologist in the archaeology department. Barbara is described as brilliant, sweet, and funny, but also overeager and longing for more confidence — and all the admirable qualities she wants in herself, she sees personified in the Diana Prince of the ‘80s.
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“I think they’re both lonely, and Diana sees Barbara’s insecurity and it touches her. And also Diana kind of sees things that she misses in her life in Barbara — her humor, her light … [Diana] really makes her feel good when she’s next to her,” Gadot explained when IGN and other journalists visited the set of Wonder Woman 1984 in August 2018. “Barbara sees other things in Diana that she doesn’t have, necessarily, and they kind of really attract together, and they can be amazing best friends.”
But there’s not much superhero conflict in a friendship, so of course, things quickly go off the rails. As we hear in the first trailer for Wonder Woman 1984, Maxwell Lord’s pitch to the world is essentially selling the American Dream: “Life is good, but it can be better, and why shouldn’t it be? All you need is to want it. Think about finally having everything you’ve always wanted.”
This seductive promise proves to be tempting for Barbara, and she falls prey to his scheme. But what happens when everyone gets exactly what they ask for? Barbara turning to Maxwell Lord not only makes her more confident, more seen by the world, and physically stronger, but also sends her on the dark path to becoming the savage, vicious Cheetah. As Gadot teases, Barbara as Cheetah “turns 180 degrees — and she’s incredible.”
For Jenkins, that duality and distinction between Barbara’s personality and Cheetah’s was what made Wiig such an interesting actress to play the role. “Anybody who’s jealous of you and wants to be like you, why not make that a great, fun, charming, interesting character?” she said, comparing Wiig’s Barbara to the first movie’s Etta Candy, played by Lucy Davis. “I am interested in telling a grounded story of how you want to be like somebody else, and so [Wiig] became a great version because she has both [of those qualities].”
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Gadot praised Wiig’s performance, saying, “Working with Kristen Wiig is such an amazing experience. She’s funny and she’s sensitive. … It’s a villain that you love. You understand where she’s coming from. She plays her in such an interesting, charming way.”
Wiig wasn’t on set to be interviewed during our visit, but during a Q&A with Entertainment Weekly, she said of Barbara’s transformation into Cheetah: “I’ve never really played someone who walks into the room and owns it — especially when she starts out so insecure and self-deprecating. We didn’t want to see Barbara in Cheetah, and I didn’t want to see Kristen in Cheetah, either.”
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While Jenkins is attempting to tell a grounded version of Cheetah’s origin story, her transformation through Maxwell Lord’s scheme does seem to take clear cues from the comics. As suggested by the first trailer, Lord may be channeling the powers of the plant god Urzkartaga to fulfill his promise of making people’s wildest dreams come true, a promise that likely only can be granted through supernatural abilities. Jenkins confirmed there is “definitely magical stuff going on in our movie,” which ties back to Barbara’s transformation.
“It’s not unlike in the first movie [2017’s Wonder Woman] how, just because something supernatural has been going on, you’re teased into it and then you realize that it’s taking place at a greater level,” she said. “It’s not like [Barbara’s transformation is] the first [supernatural] thing that you’ve seen in the film.”
A recent teaser for Wonder Woman 1984 focuses on Barbara’s transformation, with her saying, “I don’t want to be like anyone. I want to be an apex predator.” This seems to be a snippet from the full new Wonder Woman 1984 trailer that Warner Bros. will be debuting as part of Wonder Woman 1984’s panel during DC FanDome on August 22.
Terri Schwartz is Editor-in-Chief of Entertainment at IGN. Talk to her on Twitter at @Terri_Schwartz.