There are certain villains who don’t need much push to fall into that never-ending cycle of evil, resentment, and constantly seeking new henchmen. Characters like Thanos, Lex Luthor, or Darkseid rarely lack motivation to walk that path. They’re expected to because they each fill a particular role. They’re the kind of villains whose existence makes the struggle of the heroes necessary. They provide obstacles that often have to be surmounted with fists rather than words.
Then there are the villains who need a much harder push to get going down that path. These are the Walter Whites of villains, characters who try to live an honorable life, but tend toward darkness when circumstances work against them. As such, the dynamics driving these characters tend to be more complex. Sometimes, they can be downright erratic because it’s not always clear whether such a character qualifies as a villain. When those dynamics are working, though, such characters can be compelling.
Most of Wonder Woman’s villains don’t fall into the category of a Walter White. Historically, her villains involve gods, demigods, mythical monsters, and alien tyrants. The dynamics with those kinds of characters tend to be pretty basic. That’s what makes Silver Swan a breath of fresh air in James Robinson’s ongoing run in Wonder Woman. She’s no demigod or mythical monster, but her conflict with Wonder Woman is uniquely dramatic in that it’s so personal.
The story that begins in Wonder Woman #38 takes someone who never showed an inclination towards evil and guides them along. Wonder Woman #40 marks the culmination of that journey. It puts Wonder Woman in a difficult position, one in which every punch and every attack she unleashes against Silver Swan is like a jab to the heart. It’s one of those battles that’s destined to feel like a loss, even when she wins. That kind of inner struggle tends to bring out the best in Diana.
There are key instances in the story where Wonder Woman demonstrates that unique strength. The path that leads to her showdown with Silver Swan is pretty direct. There aren’t many diversions or mysteries to solve. There’s no need for Batman’s detective skills or a favor from Olympus either. Indeed, it’s straightforward that there’s not much room for tension. Given Silver Swan’s willingness to attack hospitals and slit throats, particularly the one of the long-lost brother that Diana just reunited with, there isn’t much need for subtlety.
Much of the clash and the story around it in Wonder Woman #40 fairly basic. Silver Swan’s motivations don’t include some grand, deranged vision that involves tearing the universe asunder while using the pained cries of her enemies as background music. She just hates Wonder Woman because she feels betrayed by her. Before she becomes Silver Swan, she believes she’s Wonder Woman’s friend. She draws strength from that as she deals with her own personal issues. Then, when she really needs that friendship, it’s not there and that pushes her over the edge.
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In terms of the catalyst that turns someone from a friend to an enemy, it’s pretty shallow. Silver Swan is no Lex Luthor or Joker. She’s no Mole Man, either. She never comes off as psychotic or broken. If anything, she comes off as petty, as though she’s somehow entitled to Wonder Woman’s support during her time of need. She sees her as the emotional equivalent of an Uber driver, someone she can call on to feel strong and loved again. She doesn’t seem to realize that Wonder Woman, as a full-fledged member of the Justice League who has to battle alien tyrants and demigods every other week, has a lot on her plate.
This is what makes Silver Swan seem downright petty, even by villain standards. It also makes it hard to see her side of things when the battle between her and Wonder Woman finally erupts. Quality villains, even the exceedingly unlikable kind like Lex Luthor and Darkseid, have some sort of grievance to bring to the table that makes their hatred of heroes seem legitimate. Silver Swan’s primary grievance is that Wonder Woman didn’t inconvenience herself enough for Silver Swan. That makes Silver Swan difficult to sympathize with.
She still manages to come off as a highly-driven villain that hurts Wonder Woman on an emotional level. That part of the story carries plenty of dramatic weight and that gives Wonder Woman #40 a sense of depth. However, the impact of that depth is somewhat undermined by how rushed the final battle ends up being. There isn’t much time to build the tension. There’s still plenty of heartfelt strain, but it ends before anyone needs to catch their breath.
That’s somewhat necessary, though, because a good chunk of the story is spent on how Diana’s long-lost brother, Jason, is adapting to being part of Wonder Woman’s life. That’s a compelling story in its own right and while it does make for some colorful moments in previous issues, it’s more of a distraction in Wonder Woman #40. Despite being a demigod like Wonder Woman, Jason does more to hinder rather than help his sister’s efforts against Silver Swan.
Wonder Woman’s family drama and her personal drama with Silver Swan don’t effectively mix. Given how dramatic and convoluted things can get whenever demigods are involved, that’s a missed opportunity. Further, the aftermath of the battle itself leaves a lot of issues unresolved. While Robinson does plant the seeds of new mysteries and further complications with Jason’s story, it doesn’t make for much impact because it contributes so little to the battle against Silver Swan.
On paper, the story surrounding Silver Swan and Wonder Woman’s newfound family connections has all the necessary components for a big, dramatic tale full of heart, tragedy, and jokes about Zeus’ various infidelities. It’s an opportunity to create a new villain for Wonder Woman that tests her in ways that make iconic heroes even greater. Just being able to do that without creepy clown makeup is an accomplishment in modern comics.
Unfortunately, the story that culminates in Wonder Woman #40 doesn’t make use of those components. The characters and situations are there, but connections and motivations aren’t. Silver Swan isn’t going to be placed in the same tier as Lex Luthor, the Joker, or even Cheetah anytime soon. Robinson does leave her story open for more development, but she has a long way to go before she becomes the kind of villain that deserves Wonder Woman’s tears and fists.