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The Untold Truth Of Cheetah

2017's Wonder Woman was a huge success for Warner Bros and the DCEU, quickly becoming the most well-received movie since the company first started building its own cinematic universe to compete with the MCU. Patty Jenkins' film moves away from the dour, Zack Snyder-led boys' club of previous installments and brings Wonder Woman to life as a compassionate, inspirational hero, while still remembering how to have fun with its characters.

A sequel was inevitable, with Gal Gadot returning to the role and Jenkins once again directing. The first film features Doctor Poison, one of Wonder Woman's very first supervillains from the 1940s comics, as well as the Greek god Ares, one of her mainstay opponents of the last 30 years. For the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, it only makes sense to bring in Wonder Woman's most iconic villain, who's been a recurring presence (in various forms) in her stories for eight decades. It's time for the woman known as Cheetah to make her big screen debut.

Popular comedic actress Kristen Wiig portrays Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984, and although she might start out as geeky scientist Barbara Ann Minerva, she unsheaths her claws before the movie's end. But if you're not a big comics reader, you may not know much about Cheetah. So let's look back at the long history of Wonder Woman's feline nemesis, from the person she's been to the beastly baddie she turns into.

Four different people have been the Cheetah

Barbara Ann Minerva, who Kristen Wiig plays in Wonder Woman 1984, has been the main Cheetah in the comics since the 1980s, and is easily the character's most well-known alter ego. She's not the first Cheetah, however. While Minerva didn't debut until 1987, Cheetah debuted in 1943, only a couple of years after Wonder Woman herself.

That very first Cheetah was Priscilla Rich. She debuted in Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #6, by the original creative team of William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Priscilla was the one and only Cheetah until 1980. In Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #274, by Gerry Conway and Jose Delbo, the mantle was taken up by Priscilla's niece, an environmental activist named Deborah Domaine. DC continuity was rebooted in the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" event in the mid-1980s, leaving the door open for Len Wein and George Pérez to introduce another new Cheetah named Barbara Ann Minerva in Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #7. Finally, a man named Sebastian Ballesteros usurped Minerva's powers and briefly became the Cheetah in Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #171, but Barbara Ann Minerva returned to the role before long.

There have been more reboots in the years since, leaving Barbara as the only Cheetah to have existed in current continuity. Still, in a sort of homage to the others who have held the title, she has been known to use their names as aliases for her criminal schemes.

The first Cheetah was an heiress with no superpowers

Given that Wonder Woman stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Superman and has been known to fight Greek gods, you'd think her arch-nemesis would be comparably powerful. Surprisingly, Priscilla Rich, the original Cheetah, has no super powers at all — unless, of course, you count the same super power Batman has. As her name implies, Priscilla is indeed very rich. Her villainous origin lies in the moment Wonder Woman steals the spotlight from her at a charity event, making the young heiress intensely jealous. As any reasonable person would, Priscilla responds to the unintentional slight by putting on a cheetah skin costume and framing Wonder Woman for robbery, then trying to murder her. 

Despite her relatively low power level, Cheetah remained a thorn in Wonder Woman's side throughout the 1940s, even betraying her own country by passing on military secrets to the Japanese during World War II. In one story, Priscilla infiltrates Paradise Island and steals Queen Hippolyta's magical girdle of power, enabling her to finally go toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman ... until Wonder Woman manages to remove the girdle and easily defeats her. Later incarnations of Cheetah are much more powerful, of course, but back in those early days of comic books, a supervillain didn't really need amazing abilities. Mostly, they just got by on jealousy.

Cheetah often suffers from multiple personalities

One element of the Cheetah concept that's been there since the very beginning is the notion of the feline persona as a separate personality. Cheetah's human alter ego (whoever that might be at the time) alternately struggles against and gives in to the feral persona in their head . Before Priscilla Rich even turns her exotic rug into a costume, a fully outfitted Cheetah appears in her vanity mirror, encouraging the heiress to give in to her hatred of Wonder Woman and become the "treacherous, relentless huntress" that she already is on the inside.

Decades later, Debbie Domaine stepped into the Cheetah's furry shoes. Debbie is a genuinely nice person and a friend to Wonder Woman — until she's brainwashed by the international supervillain Kobra, who transforms her into a vicious huntress in her own right. For Barbara Ann Minerva, trailblazing scholar, the divide is more mystical, with the animal instincts of the Cheetah leading her down a path of animalistic viciousness that a buried part of her finds repellent. No matter how much she might struggle, the Cheetah within her demands to be free.

Cheetah has been a member of almost every DC villain team

Perhaps surprisingly, given her semi-feral nature, Cheetah is something of a joiner. Priscilla Rich is a founding member of Villainy Incorporated, an all-female team formed to take revenge on Wonder Woman, who has imprisoned all its members. Debuting in Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #28, the team made several appearances over the years, hoping to find strength in numbers against the powerful Amazon princess. Naturally, it never quite works out for them.

Debbie Domaine, in addition to initially being an agent of Kobra, is later recruited by the Ultra-Humanite into the Secret Society of Super-Villains, DC's premiere villain team of the 1970s and '80s. Cheetah joins the team in Justice League of America Vol. 1 #195. As a member of the Secret Society, Debbie faces both the Justice Society and the Justice League. Barbara Ann Minerva is a founding member of the post-Crisis version of the Injustice League, which debuted in the Justice League of America Wedding Special. She's part of the triumvirate the leads the League alongside Lex Luthor and the Joker, mirroring the much-celebrated "DC Trinity" of their respective arch-enemies, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman.

Cheetah has also been part of what might be DC's most enduring supervillain team of all, the Legion of Doom. But that team's first appearance wasn't in comics, but on the animated series, Challenge of the Super Friends.

She was a regular on Challenge of the Super Friends

In 1978, the children's cartoon series Super Friends, featuring DC heroes Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, was retooled as Challenge of the Super Friends, bringing it closer to the comics it was based on. Challenge expanded the cast of heroes, and introduced a team of DC Comics supervillains for them to square off against each week. The Legion of Doom, a creation of this cartoon, meets in a flying saucer-esque lair in a swamp, and is led by Lex Luthor. The Priscilla Rich version of Cheetah represents Wonder Woman's rogues gallery, alongside another animal print-clad Golden Age villainess, Giganta.

Cheetah's most memorable episode in the series is "The Secret Origins of the Super Friends," in which the Legionnaires travel back in time to prevent their enemies from becoming superheroes. Cheetah disguises herself as an Amazon and competes in the contest to determine who will become Wonder Woman, managing to defeat Princess Diana and become Wonder Woman herself. Her triumph is short-lived however, as the Flash also travels back in time and sets things right.

When the Legion of Doom was later introduced into the comics, Cheetah was made a member there as well. The team is also the focus of the final season of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, in which a particularly animalistic Barbara Ann Minerva is part of the team.

The forgotten Cheetahs: Debbie Domaine and Sebastian Ballesteros

While there have technically been four Cheetahs, the honest truth is that there are only two of real historical significance. Let's take a moment to review the also-rans: Debbie Domaine and Sebastian Ballesteros.

Debbie Domaine is Priscilla Rich's niece, and heir to her fortune. Ambivalent about her own wealth, Debbie becomes an ecological activist. She even makes friends with Wonder Woman after encountering the Amazon at sea. Unfortunately she is kidnapped by agents of Kobra, and a regiment of torture and brainwashing turns her into an agent of evil in a skimpier version of her aunt's classic costume. She never appeared in a Wonder Woman comic after her initial story, although she did turn up as a villain in various stories published over the next few years, including in "Crisis on Infinite Earths," the story that would ultimately erase her from continuity.

Sebastian Ballesteros is an Argentine businessman and lover of another Wonder Woman foe, the immortal sorceress Circe. In a 2001 storyline, he is able to convince Urzkartaga, the god who empowers Cheetah, to take the Cheetah's powers from Barbara Ann Minerva and give them to him instead. Sebastian is ultimately no match for Barbara Ann, however. Unable to access the Cheetah's powers, she instead steals the powers of one of the Furies of Greek myth, and ultimately murders Ballesteros, giving his blood to Urzkartaga as an offering in exchange for becoming Cheetah once more.

The modern Cheetah taught Wonder Woman how to speak English

When Barbara Ann Minerva was first introduced in 1987, she was depicted as a duplicitous woman who feigns friendship with Wonder Woman in an attempt to steal her magic lasso. When Greg Rucka and Bilquis Evely revised Wonder Woman's continuity in 2016 as part of DC Rebirth, however, they made Minerva into a more likable character, thus making her transformation into the vicious Cheetah more of a tragedy. The also tied her origin more closely into Wonder Woman's, cementing them as fated arch-nemeses.

In current continuity, Barbara Ann Minerva begins as a brilliant archaeologist with an impressive reputation. When an Amazon princess shows up in the US speaking what appears to be a dialect of ancient Greek, Dr. Minerva is called on to help translate. Thus, Barbara Ann actually teaches Diana the English language, and the two become close friends. Unfortunately, their friendship is doomed, and Minerva is led down a dark path that sees her lose her humanity.

Barbara Ann Minerva was cursed by an ancient god

Just as Wonder Woman can trace the origin of her powers to the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, her nemesis is also empowered by an ancient deity. Cheetah's powers come from an African plant god named Urzkartaga, and they're at least as much of a curse as they are a blessing.

In her travels, Barbara Ann Minerva learns of a ritual by which a human woman can become a bride of Urzkartaga, thus attaining great power. She attempts the ritual, having learned from her friendship with Wonder Woman that god-given superpowers are a very real thing. Unfortunately, what Minerva doesn't take into account is that ancient gods tend to be old-fashioned and often sexist. Because she isn't a virgin, the god rejects her, and with his rejection comes a horrific curse, transforming Barbara Ann into a bestial creature who craves human flesh.

Ultimately, Barbara Ann Minerva does gain great power from Urzkartaga, despite the drawbacks. Her speed, strength, and agility, as well as her vicious killer instincts, make her a formidable foe, even for someone like Wonder Woman.

She was tricked by another villain but blamed Wonder Woman

As depicted in Wonder Woman: Rebirth, Barbara Ann Minerva's transformation is ultimately the fault of another Wonder Woman villain: The business tycoon known as Veronica Cale.

Cale was introduced to DC Comics in 2003 by Greg Rucka and Drew Johnson, in an effort to give Wonder Woman her own Lex Luthor. Since first appearing in Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #196, she's become one of Wonder Woman's greatest foes. Cale is rich, successful, extremely intelligent, and resents everything Wonder Woman stands for. It is Veronica Cale who sends Barbara Ann Minerva on her expedition to gain the powers of Urzkartaga, hoping that an empowered Minerva might be able to help Cale find Wonder Woman's homeland of Themyscira. Wonder Woman had previously promised to help Barbara Ann if she ran into trouble, but Cale and her sidekick Dr. Cyber disrupt their lines of communication and keep Wonder Woman too busy to check on her friend until it's too late.

Unaware of the extent of Cale's manipulation, Cheetah blames Wonder Woman for her transformation into a bloodthirsty beast. Although Barbara Ann occasionally regains her humanity over the years and ultimately understands that Veronica Cale is to blame for her predicament, she and Wonder Woman remain enemies.

Cheetah is one of the fastest characters in the DC universe

In discussions of which DC Comics characters are the fastest, Superman and the Flash tend to be the main focus. Cheetah's name rarely even comes up — but honestly, it probably should.

During the "Flash War" comics storyline, longtime Flash writer Josh Williamson gave DC Nation his list of the ten fastest DC characters. The first three are all versions of the Flash: Barry Allen, Wally West, and the Reverse Flash. Superman comes in fourth. In fifth place is the Black Racer, a swift-moving and inescapable incarnation of Death. And sixth on the list? Barbara Ann Minerva, the fleet-footed Cheetah. That puts her ahead of Wonder Woman, Shazam, and basically everybody else. It also means she's not quite as fast as Death, but close to it, which you have to imagine is something Barbara Ann is pretty proud of. Empowered by a god and given the aspect of the fastest animal on land, Cheetah's speed is no joke.

Cheetah had a fling with pre-Superman Clark Kent

In the convoluted history of comic book characters, it can seem as if everyone has hooked up with everyone else, and the Clark Kent/Barbara Ann Minerva fling from the Superman: American Alien comic is a prime example. Not only did the pre-Supes Clark Kent have a romantic tryst with Barbara, but she may also have helped him establish his dual identity.

The premise for this comic is wonderful: Clark Kent wins a trip to the Bahamas, but his plane crashes. He finds his way to Bruce Wayne's yacht, but the billionaire isn't there. Naturally, everyone assumes that Clark is Bruce Wayne, and Barbara Ann, another guest on the yacht, convinces him to go along with it. In fact, Barbara even drops this one on Clark: "You can still be yourself, even while being someone else. Hell, it might even be easier."

Clark and Barbara open up quite a bit to one another throughout the storyline, with Clark even dancing around the idea of sharing his true, alien origin with her. Eventually the two part ways with fond memories of one another, and it's a fascinating look at two characters who "might have been."

Cheetah makes her big screen debut in Wonder Woman 1984

In Wonder Woman 1984, Kristen Wiig plays a new take on Barbara Minerva (leaving out the "Ann" this time). She's a socially awkward geologist who works at the Smithsonian alongside Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who is secretly Wonder Woman. When their museum acquires a magical stone that grants wishes, Barbara wishes to be like Diana. When her wish comes true, she's surprised to learn that being like Diana doesn't just involve charisma, grace, and confidence, but also literal super-powers. When she realizes Diana is trying to undo the stone's magic, she dons an all-animal-print outfit and engages the Amazon in one-on-one combat,  becoming something of a modern Priscilla Rich-style Cheetah in the process. By the end of the film, the villainous Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) grants her further wish to be "an apex predator" by turning her into a vicious cat-beast, much like her comics counterpart becomes.

Unfortunately, all Cheetah gets to do in full were-cat mode is lose one poorly-lit fight with Diana. Also, despite being Wonder Woman's greatest comics villain, she's overshadowed throughout the film by Max Lord. Nevertheless, Wiig is perfect in the part, and the movie makes a point of showing that she's still alive at the end, so hopefully she'll get a chance to come back at some point in the DCEU. After all, Cheetah is definitely a villain worth keeping around.