Friday, November 26, 2004

A superhero/aviation conundrum

After we took the kids to see The Incredibles a few weeks back, I got to wondering about superheroes and the very special tools they use to help them fight crime and make the world a happy place for us puny non-superheroes.

Most of these tools are fairly easy to understand. For example, Batman’s Batmobile is a pretty slick car that can do all sorts of neat things. The technology, while somewhat far-fetched by today’s standards, is at least believable. Robin, while a gender- and orientation-challenged young man, is also fairly easy to relate to given the technology of the day.

Wonder Woman, however, has always made me, well, wonder.

First off, that bracelet stuff she wears is, on the surface, seemingly simple: it’s bulletproof. But what isn’t explained is her superfast reaction time that allows her to place her wrists right in the path of the bullet. This is an implied skill, and has never really been fully explored as part of her character development arc.

[Hey, I used the phrase “character development arc” in a post about superheroes. Fascinating!]

The fact that she wears it only on her wrists and doesn’t wear it in a more convenient place – like, say, all over – suggests a somewhat misguided approach to wardrobe development. Either this was an early version of a wardrobe malfunction, or her creators determined the safety benefits of covering her up with a futuristic Kevlar-like body suit were outweighed by the potential loss of babe-a-liciousness thanks to her minimalist and patriotic costume. This is a classic application of the ages-old struggle between form and function.

This also forces the blanket assumption that all bad guys will be shooting at her from the front. In her oft-repeating two-dimensional world, the evil criminal masterminds are too stupid to loop around the back and fire at her in such a way that she will not see the bullets coming fast enough to calculate the trajectory and position herself accordingly.

But the ultimate dopeheaded move involves her airplane. I know you’ve never seen it; that’s because it’s invisible. Well, not really invisible, because when she flies it, us proletarian viewers sort of see the outline. But that’s a story for another day. This piece of cartoon-aviation history begs a whole litany of questions:

  • Finding it: When she decides to go flying, how does she find her aircraft? Does she wander all over the tarmac until she simply bumps into it? If she stubs her Wonder Toe, does that preclude her from flying that day?
  • Getting it off the ground: Once she finds the plane, does her pre-flight and lights it up, how does she work with Air Traffic Control to obtain clearance for takeoff? As far as they’re concerned, she isn’t flying a plane. She’s just an oddly-dressed woman sitting all by herself in the middle of a huge expanse of concrete. If I were staffing a radar console, I’d send the padded wagon people to fetch her.
  • Pattern management: Assuming she manages to convince ATC that she’s for real, how, then, are other aircraft on the ground and in the air to be made aware of her presence? Does her plane carry some sort of transponder? Will other pilots laugh when they see a recumbent flag-wearer hurtling through the sky at near-mach speeds?
  • Stealthiness: Her plane may be optically invisible, but does it show up on radar? Based on my admittedly cursory analysis of the basic shape of the airframe, I’d have to say it is not remotely close to being a stealthy design. Its origins – I believe in the 1960s – pre-date the development of radar-absorbing-and-reflecting shapes and materials. If this assumption is true, then Wonder Woman is increasingly vulnerable in today’s higher-threat environments.
  • Lights on or off: Also, how do Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules apply to nighttime flight of this class of aircraft? Does she need to have lights on? She’s walking a fine line between flight safety and superhero derring-do, in my opinion. (And I haven't even raised the question of whether or not a government body like the FAA has jurisdiction over a superhero or her aircraft. That, too, is an issue for another day.)
  • Optical illusions: How is it that we can see Wonder Woman through the skin of the plane? If that’s the case, then she really isn’t invisible at all, is she? Similarly, where’s the fuel? Does the plane make that invisible, too? Come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen her arrange to refuel her aircraft. Perhaps the Superfriends already set her up with a lifetime supply of JP4. Or, horrors, the plane is nuclear-powered and we all live under the threat of an airborne nuclear power plant crashing into the corn fields just outside town.
  • You can't take it with you: And what about her luggage? Who jets halfway around the world to save humankind without taking so much as a good book or a healthy snack?
  • IFR or VFR: Are her instruments visible as well? Granted, the view is always side-on, so the viewer at home can’t really see the instrument panel. But on the assumption that we can escape from our two-dimensional televised jail just long enough to peer over WW’s shoulder, what would we see if we looked forward? Would it just be empty space (likely, given the fact that everything on the plane is invisible) or would we see dials and stuff? And if she’s looking at a blank panel, how can she fly by Instrument Flight Rules at the extreme heights and speeds that she routinely travels? Don’t tell me her eyesight is so good that all of this is moot. When the ceiling closes in and you’re battling thunderheads and wind shear, not even the Six Million Dollar Man’s bionic eye will save you. Optics can only carry you so far when you’re up in the sky. I honestly don’t think she ever achieved her instrument rating.

I could probably muse about this for the next few hours, but I think I’ve made my point abundantly clear. Are you aware of any other superhero – or even basic cartoon – inconsistencies that have vexed you for the better part of a generation? For example, what of the Flintstones series characters’ tendency to run past the same walls and furniture while being chased by a giant dinosaur. Their houses didn’t look that big from the outside, yet they seem endless during these chase scenes. What gives?

As I've said too often in my blogging past, discuss...


Photominer said...

Awww dude, sometimes you have to just enjoy. Like Bugs Bunny and the rest all sorta sounding the same, you gotta just live the moment and enjoy the fantasy. Did you really notice all that stuff about Wonder Woman? I never did, my focus was firmly placed where it was designed to go, thus ensuring ratings galore. :-)

Otherwise you start thinking about James Kirk's cross species pollination effort, or whether Smurfs really only had one female smurf and how that dynamic played out (there's one that begs to be explained to the young uns eh?) or how did Sgt Rock never lose a cigar butt or a member of Easy Co. even though they only fought the toughest, meanest Germans, Japanese, and prehistoric lizards (that actually was an episode). Enjoy, she always crossed her hands up to block bullets in the right place cause guys always, always aimed for her um, attributes.

Rambling Rene said...

Thank GOD I'm not the only one who thinks about that damn plane. Seriously, I don't tend to dwell on things, but (and I'm not joking) not a week goes by that I don't have flashbacks of the cartoon and the side view of her flying through the clouds in an invisible airplane.

In the live action one, with Linda Evans (?) is it just me or did she have really square hips?

Diane said...

Oh Carmi - it seems you have given this much thought. While I tend to obsess about many things that eventually get me nowhere, this is something that has not yet crossed my mind (until now).

And Rene - it ws Lynda Carter, and I personally think the square hips were a result of unflattering costume design more than real anatomy. Her cleavage, though, seemed to be what the costume designers focused on most.

Jef said...

Actually, to fully understand Wonder Woman, you have to go back and understand her creator, Charles Moulton, which was a pen name for William Moulton Marston. Marston is credited for developing the lie detector so it would seem logical for him to create a magic lasso made from the tiny links of her mother's magic girdle to make an unbreakable rope that compels whoever is ensnared in it to tell the truth.

Marston had some interesting ideas about dominance and submission and went on to pen some historical novels that had a tinge of a S&M flavor. He also lived with his wife, children and his assistant, Olive, who I think he had a child by as well.

Bullets and bracelets are a game that amazon girls play. It is meant to develop hand eye coordination. Having the bracelets welded onto young amazon girls is a right of passage and if the bracelets are chained together by a man, Wonder Woman temporarily loses all of her power. This goes back to when no one could conquer the amazons and then one day Hercules seduced Qyeen Hypolete and stole her magic girdle, given to her by Aprhodite, and lost all of their powers. Eventually, the Queen pleaded with Aprhodite and she helped the amazons overcome Hercules and take her girdle back and they sailed to Paradise Island. In later stories Wonder Woman would go beserk if she ever lost her bracelets, but I can't remember if this was something that Marston came up with.

In regards to the invisible plane, Wonder Woman controls it by mental telepathy. In the first few comic books she rolled it into a barn outside of D.C., but in later stories she summoned it with her mind. She also used a mental radio to communicate with her mother, Steve Trevor and the Holiday girls at the local Holiday College.

Wonder Woman taught that all women could do the things she could do if they just believed in themselves and in some stories ordinary girls were taken back to Paradise Island and learned to do the things wonder woman could do.

If you are so inclined, there is an interesting series of books by Les Daniels on Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman that give a thorough history of each character from inception through 2000.

Photominer said...

Wow, thats alot of info, I feel slightly guilty for my off-the-cuff comment earlier. I guess I should be more aware of the impact cartoons have on kids since it can take such a huge amount of a child's time (how many parents plop the kids down in front of a video for an hour's relief?).

What did Midge ever see in Moose anyway?

Chris said...

Re: Moose's appeal.

He's big, strong, fully capable of protecting her (while not all women want to be protected, and most of us are quite capable of taking care of ourselves, sometimes it's nice to know you've got the big guns in your corner). While he seems a bit dim, maybe he's just shy. He may be a fascinating conversationalist when they're alone. And odds are pretty good he's not critical or judgemental - Moose isn't the kind of guy to say "Are you sure you want to go out looking like THAT?"

And maybe Midge just likes having a boyfriend she can boss around.

Jamie said...

Uh, like, duh! The cuffs on Wonder Woman ATTRACT the bullets, so all she has to do is cool choppy movements and it looks good.

And when your plane is invisible, you don't ask ATC, you just go when you see the opening.

Hope that helped!

Rambling Rene said...

I think Jef wrote his senior thesis on Wonder Woman. ;)

Jef said...

Funny you should say that, Rene. I had to create an educational website based on William Moulton Marston and that's where I learned some of this stuff. Plus, I had some books with reprints of the original Wonder Woman comics when I was kid and used to watch the show on T.V. Imagine what I could do if my brain were filled with something useful? It boggles the mind. ;)

Unknown said...

First, I must admit to always wanting to be Wonder Woman. The plane thing always bugged me. If it's invisible but she's not - what's the use? Thank you for pointing out all the problems this presents. I'm glad I'm not the only one that bothered.

L said...

yeah, and what happens if Wonder Woman needs to pee while she's flying the plane?

you know what else bugs me? They don't sell adult size Wonder Woman underoos... I used to have a pair when I was a kid, and they rocked!

let me know if you plan on an in-depth analysis of Batman or Gilligan's Island-- they were a couple of my favorite shows too :)