This week you get something special. In an extended post, Elle tackles (nearly) everything good, bad, and ugly about the movie Wonder Woman. If you ever wanted to see what in-depth pop-culture criticism looks like, now’s your chance. But get comfortable, maybe grab a cup of coffee, put up your feet, and dig in.
[This post is 8,000 words long. It’s gonna contain spoilers. Just saying.]
You may remember a post I did all the way back in June, where I pleaded with the universe to make Wonder Woman a successful movie. And then, aside from comparing it favorably to the dumpster fire that is Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman script, I haven’t really mentioned it since, even though I’ve started doing film review-specific posts. You may have wondered, did Elle secretly not like it? Did something terrible happen, and the part of Elle’s brain that can process joy get damaged? (Yes, it did. And that damage is called “grad school.” Luckily the procedure didn’t entirely take.) Has Elle’s brain been overloaded by the sheer amount of Wonder Woman criticism she’ll have to grapple with? (Kinda.) But the real reason it has taken me this long to review is because the movie was too awesome for its own good. As in, fifth-highest grossing superhero film ever, good.
I saw Wonder Woman three times, at full price. I have never gone to see any movie three times at full price in my entire life. (The previous record holder for me was Guardians of the Galaxy, which I watched twice at full price and once at a discount theater.) I saw Wonder Woman opening weekend with my boyfriend, then a week or so later with a friend, then a couple weeks after that with another set of friends. At no point during any of my subsequent viewings did I have the thought process, “Since I’ve already seen the movie I probably don’t need to focus as hard on just enjoying it. I should take a notebook, so that I can scribble my thoughts about the movie for a later review.” I enjoyed it too much each time to even think about disengaging my eyeballs from the screen. (I was only even willing to go to the bathroom during the film after the second viewing.) But that’s okay, I told myself. I will just wait for the movie to come to the discount theater, and take notes on it then. So I waited for it to come to the discount theater.
It was still showing, at full price, at my local theater through mid-September. To put this into perspective, Wonder Woman came out on digital on August 29th, and it came out on DVD/Blu ray on September 19th. So it was still popular enough that a full-price theater dedicated space to it and continued showing it after it already came out on home video. I almost went to see it for a fourth time at full price with some work colleagues, but our schedules couldn’t align. It finally came to the discount theater in another town a couple weeks ago, but at that point I’d already spent the money to own it. So here we are.
Now, as I mentioned before, there is a lot of dialogue going on around this movie, and a lot of critiques as well. So for this review I’m going to reverse my normal pattern, and address criticisms and cons of the film first (and my own counters to some of those critiques), and then the pros afterward. Since we’re already at over five hundred words, I’m gonna guess this will take a while. So I hope you are patient with me while I deconstruct and then gush about one of my new favorite movies ever. Also, spoilers abound in this. I couldn’t really address all of the critiques and all of my love without spoiling the hell out of the film, so proceed with caution.
Critique number 1: the film fails to address the complexities of WWI, and/or that it simplifies the story into a WWII-esque story of Germans/Future Nazis=Bad.
There are a few reasons that the setting of Diana’s origin story was switched from WWII to WWI. It’s a hotbed for the suffragette movement, it’s a morally complex war, it deals with (currently depressingly relevant) issues of nationalism, and, as Ciara Wardlow points out, it helps the film avoid having too many parallels with Captain America, which it is still somewhat in danger of doing. (Wardlow even points out that both movies have handsome men named Chris playing characters named Steve who use airplanes to sacrifice themselves.) When I first heard that the setting was being changed, I was really intrigued. WWI gets skipped over a bit in high school for a few reasons, but namely because it is complicated as all get out, there’s basically no one in the fight who is on the “right” side, and it is overall a political clusterfuck that cost millions of lives. I thought it would be a pretty amazing opportunity to test Diana’s dedication to protecting mankind—what reason would she have to defend humanity in the middle of an indefensible war?
As you might expect, one of the main critiques of setting the film in WWI is that the movie blunts some of the complicated edges of the conflict, and somewhat simplifies the movie until it better resembles a traditional WWII flick. One of the ways it does this is by (mostly) still positioning the Allies as “good” and the Germans as “bad,” including the beginning of the film where Steve Trevor literally says, “I’m one of the good guys, and those are the bad guys” while pointing at the Germans. Clare McBride points out that it also gives us a pretty stereotypical German Baddie in General Ludendorff, fantastically played by Danny “I will chew the scenery of every millimeter of this film” Huston. (And who, I learned by researching this, was an actual German general who went kinda conspiracy theory after the war. He “became a prominent nationalist leader, and a promoter of the Stab-in-the-back myth, which posited that the German loss in World War I was caused by the betrayal of the German Army by Marxists, Bolsheviks, and Jews who were furthermore responsible for the disadvantageous settlement negotiated for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles.” So, minus points for historical verisimilitude, bonus points for picking a legit crazy man who didn’t want the war to end.) He even does the bad guy cliché of shooting his own men to show how evil he is. And while we get some sense that the Allies are not totally on the up-and-up (Chief pointing out that Steve’s people basically committed genocide, the British officers who are more worried about the impropriety of a woman being in the room than actually solving the problems in the journal/being willing to let people continue to die rather than focus on the weapon), they get off pretty light altogether, something Wardlow points out is pretty historically inaccurate:
For all the fuss it makes over the chemical weapons Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) develops under General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), it ignores the elephant in the room: Both sides were equally guilty of utilizing chemical weapons with an awareness that said weapons would result in civilian as well as enemy casualties (not to mention that the use of poison weapons was already considered a war crime following the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907). Steve’s idea that handing over the formulas in Doctor Poison’s notebook to his superiors (as opposed to, you know, destroying them) would somehow help stop the Germans and not inspire the Allies to develop these weapons themselves is, at the very least, an incredibly naive attitude for a supposedly worldly, experience-hardened military man.
There’s also, as McBride acknowledges, the third act, where Diana kills Ares and the battle really *does* stop, just like she thought it would! Yay for really simple fixes to immeasurably complicated wars.
That all being said, there are other moments where I think the movie does a pretty good job of representing WWI, or at least representing some of its more horrific aspects. Up until the third act, there is a really fantastic conflict between Diana’s belief that killing one man will solve everything, and Steve Trevor insisting that things are more complicated than that, but going along with her anyway. The moment when Diana kills Ludendorff, believing he is Ares, and the war continues on behind her is one of the best in the film. And while this message is somewhat marred by the third act, it is shown to be correct in most of the film. This conflict is complicated. The Germans are figuring out how to surrender while still saving face, the English are trying to figure out how to pull out a win at the same time they’re trying to figure out an armistice, and there are tons of people caught in the middle. Most of the time, killing one person is not going to solve the problems of a war, and that message is particularly important coming in a superhero film. All too often, killing the main bad guy *is* the solution to a conflict. Just off the megalomaniac overlord, and all is well! He or she definitely didn’t brainwash an entire generation of followers who will probably be messed up forever and may or may not follow in their footsteps. This “kill one” philosophy is especially bad in the genre of films where the “hivemind/kill the queen and everything else dies” plot line is in effect, such as the first Avengers movie. The battle against the Chitauri is basically a violent game of Space Invaders that ends when Tony can blow up the mothership—suddenly no one has to care about all of the foot soldiers that remain, as they all slump over and die. Problem solved! This invasion was in no way a group effort that took dozens of moving pieces to put together and will take painstaking steps to undo. In Wonder Woman, at the very least the battle continues after Ludendorff, and even after Ares is killed and the German and Allied soldiers are celebrating together, it makes you cognizant of the fact that there are actual humans fighting.
Where I think the movie does a particularly good job is of detailing the personal effects of war. Charlie obviously has shell shock, what we would now call PTSD. He’s plagued by nightmares, self-medicates with alcohol, and can’t actually manage to shoot his gun. The men who are returning from battle as Diana and her group are leaving are clearly in terrible shape—some just stare blankly, some are missing limbs, some are on stretchers.The scene where Diana first gets to the front is also horrific. Children are crying, people are scrambling to leave, horses are mired in mud, and soldiers are dying slowly of wounds. The trenches are a bloody, smoke-filled hellhole where every inch of progress is paid for in lives. Even the people who are dedicated to the war effort, like Steve Trevor, cannot provide a plausible explanation for why it is happening or a solid defense of either side. Maru’s mask serves as a nod to the rise of facial prosthetics that was necessary in the wake of the war. (more on her, and on the mask, later.) Even the fact that the German soldiers and Allied soldiers celebrate at the end seems to underscore that the war is in many ways pointless, with soldiers on both sides being young, frightened, and willing to set down their arms if someone would give them permission to do so.
There is also something to be said for making the real bad guy the milquetoast-seeming British aristocrat/politician. While it is sincerely hard to take David Thewlis seriously as Ares once he puts all the armor on, there is something really brilliant about making the avatar for war a rich, Anglo-Saxon man. Is there a better symbol for the majority of the conflicts that have erupted over the last century or so? Is there a better symbol for the corruption that causes seeming allies to fight against one another, that causes people to work against their own interests, that conquers nations and then politely suggests that we should all set down our weapons, that does everything possible to create conflict and then claims plausible deniability? I don’t think so.
One last note about this critique is that the setting in WWI leads to some additional weirdness that is mostly the fault of Batman v. Superman. The fact that Wonder Woman is a complete unknown quantity to both Batman and Superman strongly suggests that A, the existence of a fighting warrior woman on the front lines of WWI was somehow lost to history; B, that Wonder Woman probably sat out WWII for… reasons… because she doesn’t reappear in the history books there; and C, that she’s basically been lying low for the last century, also for… reasons. So she just chilled for the whole “rise of Hitler” thing. My best explanation is that she’s so upset over the loss of Steve Trevor that she puts down her arms, but I really don’t like that explanation so I’m ignoring it.
Critique number 2: Wonder Woman is too pretty to be a good female character
A few critics, most notably (and stupidly) James Cameron, have argued that Wonder Woman can’t be held up as a feminist icon because she is too pretty—she is conventionally attractive, a sex object, and therefore not a “true” feminist icon. I’ll admit, I was initially really skeptical when I found out they had cast a former Miss Israel as Wonder Woman. Whereas many of the male actors who play superheroes bulk up for their roles, I was fairly convinced that Gal Gadot was going to be forced to remain waifish and that Wonder Woman’s supernatural background was going to be used as the excuse for why Wonder Woman can kick ass with 0% muscle mass and stiletto heels. Luckily, I was at least partially wrong—Gal Gadot definitely had muscle tone, and halfway sensible wedge boots.
Now, there’s two things to consider with this critique. The first is that yes, of course it is possible to be both sexy and kickass. Cameron especially seems to equate “strong” female characters with “masculine” female characters—unsexy, gun-toting, heavily muscled women. But that is not the only way to show strength, or to have a woman be admirable. You can be very femme and still kick ass. You can be gorgeous and still kick ass. And at least Wonder Woman doesn’t try to shy away from or dismiss the fact that Gal Gadot is drop dead gorgeous. I particularly love the moment when they dismantle the “glasses magically make someone unsexy” trope when Steve tries to use this on Diana and his secretary, Etta Candy, scoffs “Really? Specs? And suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?” There’s also a pretty good moment where it’s clear that Etta is aware of beauty norms, even if Diana either isn’t or doesn’t care about them, and she recognizes Diana’s lack of care for the privilege that it is:
“Is this what passes for armor in your country?”
“It’s fashion. Keeps our tummies in.”
“Why must you keep them in?”
“Only a woman with no tummy would ask that question.”
Wonder Woman is sexy, and everyone knows it, and Etta Candy does not have time for your nonsense.
That being said, there is room in this critique for my favorite phrase, “a range of representation.” Wonder Woman has the disadvantage of being one of the only female-led superhero films out there, and thus it has to be a stand-in for a lot of different types of film and a lot of different types of women. And of course, the first breakout female-led film stars a conventionally attractive woman, even if it does some cool stuff with side characters (more on that later). But there are a few times where beauty ideals are front and center in this film. They’re in the middle of a mud-drenched battlefield and sleeping outside, but Diana’s hair is constantly simultaneously bouncy and sleek. There are a few close-ups of her face where it is undeniable that she is wearing eyeliner after spending the night camping in enemy territory. There was even a mini-furor over the summer regarding a trailer that showcased Wonder Woman’s armpits. One issue was that many fans thought that since Diana comes from an all-female island where gender norms and beauty ideals would ostensibly exert less pressure, Wonder Woman should fairly logically have armpit hair and leg hair, because no man/corporate entity has ever tried to convince her that it’s dirty or wrong to do so. The other issue was that someone had pretty clearly mucked about with CGI to blend and smooth Gadot’s actual armpit. If your movie is so obsessed with the female lead’s looks that you are spending CGI money on making her have more attractive armpits, there is some weirdness going on. So even though Wonder Woman, and her importance, should not be dismissed simply because of her looks, there is definitely room to talk about what beauty ideals she is representing.
Critique number 3: the deformed villain trope
Speaking of beauty ideals, the film is also being criticized for its portrayal of Maru, “deformed” villains and the continuation of the “deformed villain” trope that I spoke about a few weeks ago. “Dr. Poison” has facial prosthetics, but a picture of her that is pointedly shown earlier in the film reveals no facial disfigurement, making it clear that her changed looks are likely the result of her own experimentation with deadly chemicals. The extent of her disfigurement is shown in a dramatic reveal at the end of the film that manages to mix horror and pity in a particularly not cool way, as explained by Alaina Leary:
These kinds of “facial reveal” moments are common in visual media where a character has a facial disfigurement or other disability. In Wonder Woman, the scene is meant to encourage sympathy, but it’s clear that audience is still supposed to be shocked by the sight of Dr. Poison’s face, since earlier in the film, we see a photograph of her before she was scarred. The movie sets us up to spend time wondering how she became disfigured, as if disability is an exciting or terrifying mystery and not a facet of a person’s lived experiences.
Diana ultimately says that she stands by humanity because she believes in love — something that’s visually shown when she’s looking at a photograph of Steve in present time — but the physical removal of Dr. Poison’s mask, and her disfigurement in general, isn’t necessary for this character development. It gives the audience the impression that if we don’t see disability and disfigurement as inherently evil, we must see it as something worth pitying, even when the disabled person has been nothing but villainous. We aren’t supposed to come to conclusions about Dr. Poison based on her actions in the film, but instead based on the way her face appears.
We honestly could have gone through the whole film without any reveal, or any indication that Dr. Maru ever looked different than she does now. That would remove this horror/pity thing, as well as most moral associations with her disability—maybe she was born with it. Maybe she was in a terrible flaming-shot accident in Evil Medical School. Who knows?
Critique number 4: LGBTQ+ erasure (specifically the L and B)
While I’m not particularly surprised by this one, I am somewhat disappointed. Wonder Woman is canonically bisexual in the comics at this point, but while it was maybe hinted at in Diana’s discussion of reading all 12 of Clio’s Treatises on Bodily Pleasure, it doesn’t really get any play in the film. I sadly cannot for the life of me find the article that discussed this, but I remember one author pointing out that when Diana and Steve kiss, Diana clearly knows what she’s doing, which presumes that she’s been getting some practice on the all-female Themiscyra. And for being an all-female island, queer love doesn’t even get much showcasing on Themiscyra itself. There are some implications that Antiope and Menalippe are romantically involved—the two are frequently together on screen, and when Diana accidentally injures Antiope, Menalippe quickly rushes to her side. After Antiope is killed, Menalippe again rushes to her, letting out an anguished cry. But while the clues are fairly clear, they still remain implicit—nothing explicitly romantic happens between them. And since queer erasure and bi-erasure is a major problem in media, it’s a bit disappointing that the filmmakers seemed to think they couldn’t even have queerness on an all-female island. (This is mocked pretty fantastically in this SNL skit.) There’s currently a petition to make Wonder Woman’s bisexuality film-canonical as well, so we’ll see if the filmmakers are willing to do so in the sequel.
Critique number 5: changes to Diana’s origin story that reintroduce the patriarchy
In most versions of Wonder Woman, her origin states that she was molded out of clay by her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, specifically didn’t want her origin to depend on a man. (Marston was admittedly an odd duck and it would take longer than this post already is to delve into his weird mix of feminism and fetishism, but read Jill Lepore’s book and get back to me.) But writers got bored of that origin after a while, and started playing around with it, including having her receive her powers as gifts from goddesses. In at least one of the cartoon versions of the character (I genuinely forget which) it is revealed that her father is Hades, who is a Bad Dude in the cartoon. But it wasn’t until the New 52 reboots where her origins got an official reset—now she was the daughter of Zeus, and the whole clay thing was an Amazonian version of the stork story. This version also had Ares being the one teaching her how to fight. This attributes a lot of Diana’s power and abilities to men, as opposed to the female-only version for most of Diana’s history. This is the version that is somewhat used in the film, as Diana is told by Ares that she is the daughter of Zeus. Granted, he could be lying (I find that mustache untrustworthy) but this explanation fits with a lot of weird ominous stuff that the Amazons talk about in the beginning, asking Hippolyta if they should tell Diana the truth, etc. So we take a character that in-universe is meant to be purely made by women, and slap a “Brought to you by the Patriarchy” sticker on her.
Critique number 6: Gal Gadot’s nationality and history of military service
This, admittedly, is a critique I feel woefully ill-equipped to handle. There was a lot of back and forth over the summer over whether Gadot was inhabiting an imperialist narrative as a white woman on a savior mission, which then led to a discussion of whether Gadot, as a Jewish woman from Israel, counted as “white,” which led to another discussion about the intersection of race and religion. It also led to a discussion of Gadot’s participation in the Israeli military, and certain posts she made about Israeli military maneuvers that resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. It may seem like a cop out (hell, it is a cop out) but I’m going to do my best to provide some links for people who discuss these issues, but I’m not going to weigh in myself. It’s above my pay grade, and I obviously need to add more texts about Judaism and the Israel/Palestine conflict to my reading list. I know that it is a sign of privilege to be able to take a step away from the conversation. I know that it is a sign of privilege that I do not disavow Gadot for her comments. And this is one of those times I’m going to not take the high road, and I’m just going to have to be queasily aware that I’m taking the easy way out. Sorry, all.
Lara Witt: https://wearyourvoicemag.com/more/entertainment/gal-gadot-wonder-woman-white-feminist-hero
Hari Ziyad: http://afropunk.com/2017/06/the-success-of-wonder-woman-proves-liberals-are-ok-with-imperialism-as-long-as-its-led-by-a-white-woman/
Sarah Pulliam Bailey: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/06/07/how-the-jewish-identity-of-wonder-womans-star-is-causing-a-stir/
Critique number 7: The treatment of people of color
This is the area where I can both see what the filmmakers were trying to do, and also go “…how the hell did you think that was a good idea?” You can tell that the filmmakers were genuinely attempting to make this movie diverse. There are women of color on Themisycra, two-thirds of Diana and Steve’s posse is non-white, and there’s even a brief discussion of the fact that white Americans committed genocide against Native Americans. But… damn did they do things in some clumsy ways. Even on my first watch, my eyebrows crept up near my hairline when I realized they were legit naming their Native American character “Chief” and making him able to perform smoke signals. There are women of color on Themiscyra, but few of them get any lines, and many of the black women fall into some pretty bad racial stereotypes, as discussed by Valerie Complex and Robert Jones, Jr: the caretaker/tutor whose main job is to exasperatedly follow Diana as she scampers around the island is pretty clearly falling into the category of mammy, while the main black warrior exemplifies the “brute” stereotype. A couple of other black characters briefly get a line or screen time, but not frequently. Jones and Complex also point out that though there is an Asian Amazon listed in the credits, she’s not very visible, and there don’t really seem to be any non-black women of color on the island. It would have been neat to see Menalippe or even Hippolyta as a character of color, and to see more diversity even among the non-speaking characters.
As someone (again, I have lost the link, and apologize. Did you know this movie came out in June and I’ve been reading about it since then? My memory is a bit fuzzy. And I wasn’t smart enough to start a page for links way back in June.) pointed out, the appearance of background characters of color stops immediately once Diana and Steve return to London. There is one group of non-English troops as they are leaving for the front, and I think I spotted one black soldier among all of the white soldiers. But from then on the only characters of color are Sameer/Sammy and Chief, who fall so hard into the “token” category I’m surprised they didn’t hurt themselves. They do get some cool moments of their own, but it’s all wrapped up in a lot of tokenism. Let’s unpack.
So first, Sameer/Sammy. Sameer is a con man, and something of a letch (because we’ve never seen a film where a man of color is a liar and hypersexualized. Totally new ground here). Sameer is never ascribed a specific nationality in the movie (that I know of) and is played by a French/American actor named Saïd Taghmaoui. According to a Wikipedia page I found (so you know it is true) the character is Moroccan. But the fact that he is never really given a specific origin is part of his problem. Writer Partha Chakrabartty assumed he was Indian, and specifically mentioned the fact that Sameer’s nickname “Sammy” was used as a colonial slur by the British against Indians in South Africa as a corrupted version of “swami.” Sameer’s clothing doesn’t provide a lot of helpful advice either, as the main cap he wears for the majority of the film is identified by Chakrabartty as an Indonesian Songkok (though to my totally untrained white girl eye it does resemble a Moroccan fez) and at one point in the movie he dons a turban to portray a Muslim? self-deprecating driver. Sameer gets his moment to help Diana understand the world/get more woke when he discusses the limitations that other people, including himself, can face: “Not everyone gets to be what they want to be all the time. Me? I am an actor. I love acting. I didn’t want to be a soldier. But I’m the wrong color. Everyone is fighting their own battles Diana. Just as you are fighting yours.”
Sameer is frank about the fact that racism has kept him from the career he wanted, and landed him in this particular service.
Then you have Chief, who, as we have already noted, is named Chief, and performs smoke signals. Smoke. Signals.
The thing that makes me really upset about Chief is that if you know some background details, his character is actually really freaking amazing. When Chief and Wonder Woman first meet, they exchange words in a non-English language—words that aren’t translated, unlike every other instance of a non-English language in the film. Well, turns out, they are speaking to each other in the Blackfoot language. Also turns out, Chief is introducing himself as Napi, a freaking demigod. He is also the first person that Diana actually shakes hands with. That’s really exciting, and hopefully an in for future demigod team ups in the Wonder Woman universe. Eugene Brave Rock, the Native American actor who plays Chief, also got a lot of input on his wardrobe so that it was culturally appropriate. And while that is incredibly important, it’s also a pretty subtle positive thing next to the potential negatives of his seemingly token role. There was also a moment with Chief that had the potential to be great, but kinda muddled at good. When he’s explaining his role in the war as a trader and not a fighter, he explains why he might as well be on the front:
“I have nowhere else. The last war took everything from my people. We have nothing left.”
“Who took that from your people?”
“His people.” [indicates Steve.]
Here Diana, who has previously been shown to be immensely empathetic and curious about the various bad things in the world, gets handed an explanation that Steve and his people have essentially committed genocide… and she just lets it go. There is no more discussion, no double take, not even a dirty look to Steve. Just “ah, your people lost everything… cool fire.” Not cool, Diana. Not cool.
Now. With all of the criticisms hopefully adequately addressed and now out of the way, let’s talk about all of the reasons that I freaking love this movie.
Pro number 1: OMG middle-aged women kicking ass!!!
I almost started crying five minutes into this film. Why? Because I could not remember a time in my life where I had seen so many women over 30 being total fucking badasses and the camera just loving them for it. I legitimately can’t remember the last time (if there ever was a time) that women around 40 and older got to play so many active roles. Connie Nielsen/Hippolyta is 52, Robin Wright/Antiope is 51, Lisa Loven Kongsli/Menalippe is 38, and Ann Wolfe/Artemis is 46. The fact that all of these women are on screen, living it up, and being portrayed as the freaking goddesses they are just makes me exultant. Robin Wright is just killing it and I adore her.
I was also really pleased with how closely they paired the ages of the two leads, Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. It’s not unusual for male leads to have a 10, 20, or even 30 year gap over their female costars, and after 45-year-old Ben Affleck was cast to be Batman and there was some obvious push/pull between their characters in Batman vs. Superman, I was afraid that dynamic was going to continue. But there’s only a five year difference between Chris Pine, 37, and Gal Gadot, 32. For comparison, Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk, is 49, and Scarlett Johannson, who plays Black Widow, is 36. Other properties are a bit better—Robert Downey, Jr. is 52 and Gwyneth Paltrow is 45, and Natalie Portman is actually two years older than Chris Hemsworth. The only time I’ve seen the age dynamic seriously reversed in superhero movies in recent memory is with Henry Cavill (34) as Superman, and Amy Adams (43) as Lois Lane. But Amy Adams is also ageless and possibly a vampire. (Also I just realized Ma Kent aka Diane Lane had to have stumbled on Clark at the tender age of 18, because Diane Lane is only nine years older than her “son’s” love interest.)
I also also really loved Etta Candy, and I wish we had gotten to see more of her. (Though she is included in a fun feature on the DVD/blu ray). Though I’m less familiar with her in the comic, apparently the comic-version of Candy is an incredibly self-confident lady who led a commando unit of sorority girls, was made an honorary Amazon, punched her fiancé during their wedding when she found out he was a Nazi spy, and saved Wonder Woman a ton. So she probably should have been coming along with the Howling Commandos the group of people with Wonder Woman.
Pro number 2: Gal Gadot kept her accent, and the world changed to accommodate her
Distressingly often when a non-US or non-English actor or actress is cast in an film, they are asked to smooth out their accent so that the lazy English speakers who think they don’t talk funny can better understand them. Even more often, movies that are set in a place or time where one would plausibly have an accent seem to be overrun with rejects from a Shakespearean theater company—ancient Greece and Rome were apparently just crawling with people from modern London. But Gadot kept her Israeli accent, and the world of Themsycira changed to match. Admittedly, this has kinda mixed results: Connie Nielsen is sticking pretty close to her natural Danish accent, while Robin Wright sounds fairly Russian. But I think it’s the thought that counts. Don’t change Wonder Woman—change the world.
Pro number 3: Showing that it’s not just masculinity that equals strength
This kind of goes along with my counter to Cameron’s critique. When people hear “strong female character,” a lot of times that translates in their heads to “a female character who exhibits traditionally male qualities.” Case in point, Cameron’s poster girl for his own brand of “feminism,” Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in the Terminator series. Now don’t get me wrong—I love me some Sarah Connor. But to prove her strength, she bulks up, gets really good at using guns, loses a lot of her emotional range, and generally starts to display a lot of typically male-associated qualities. A lot of times, said strong female character has to behave with a lot of male characteristics while still being super duper sexy. Things that are traditionally associated with femininity, including empathy, joy, wonder, and compassion, are treated as unnecessary or weak. And this is a place that Wonder Woman breaks the mold. There is no arguing that she can kick All the Asses. But she’s still kind, still finds joy in small things, and still has compassion. I know some people took it as a traditionally sexist move when Wonder Woman is all curious over the couple holding hands and really excited about the baby when she first gets to London, but think about it—she’s never seen a male/female romantic couple before. She’s never seen a baby before. She was the only child on the entirety of her island. She’d never seen a man before Steve Trevor. So she’s got some pretty good reasons to coo over a damn kid. She’s also never had ice cream, and she sincerely tells the maker of it that he should be proud. I love that moment. She finds something new, she appreciates it, and she tells the person who probably has a really shitty job that he should be proud of his craft.
Her “fish out of water” scenes are played for laughs, and while it may seem like we’re supposed to be laughing at poor, naïve Diana, in a lot of cases it’s really Diana who is getting the laugh. Her blunt comparison of the life of a female secretary to slavery (though admittedly any time you’re comparing literally anything to slavery it can be hella problematic, especially when it involves other white ladies), her decision to enter the parliament room, her confrontation with the generals, her reluctance to be bogged down by changes of clothing, her inability to realize that not all people in the war zone can be helped—these are all moments where Diana in her “naivete” is actually the one asking the good questions or making pertinent points. It’s stupid that she can’t go into the room. It’s cowardly of the generals to hide behind their men. Being a secretary is an underpaid and underappreciated job (though again, we should probably not be making slavery comparisons willy-nilly).
Until the last third of the movie, where she goes kinda crazy and just forgets her compassion, her empathy remains one of her driving forces. She defeats a man in an alleyway and then kneels over him, earnestly explaining that once Ares’ influence wears off he will be good again. She believes, truly and purely, in the goodness of mankind, something that is sorely lacking. And she believes, truly and purely, that if you are in a position to help, you must help.
And that scene. That No Man’s Land Scene. Omfg you guys that scene. She wants to help, and then she does. I could watch that scene on repeat twenty times and not get tired of it. I may or may not have done exactly that.
She also obviously shows compassion to Dr. Poison (though that comes off a bit too much like pity, for the reasons stated above) but it’s also clear that this compassion is what sets her apart from Ares. As a demigod she has plenty of strength, as does Ares. But it is her compassion and empathy that dictates what type of demigod she will be: the kind that helps and protects people instead of setting them up for failure.
Pro number 4: how to have a proper love story
I really, really adore the relationship between Steve Trevor and Diana in this movie. There’s obviously physical attraction, but there’s also respect and admiration. Even more realistically, there’s frustration, annoyance, and conflict. But it’s civil, and it’s about making one another better people. (And not whatever the hell the chip on the shoulder of Joss Whedon’s version of Steve Trevor is about.) Also unlike Whedon’s version, Trevor is important to the plot in this, but it is still clearly Diana’s show, as we see, again, in the No Man’s Land scene. Diana is gonna do what Diana is gonna do. But that’s not to say that she entirely disregards Steve, or that Steve has no purpose in the film. They still rely on each other; for support, to do better, to be better. But their relationship is also treated in a restrained and fairly respectful manner. He does acknowledge her beauty but doesn’t spend a lot of time lusting after each other. Their love scene is non-explicit, and even Steve’s major declaration of love is within the context of his goodbye. Their relationship is important, but it isn’t their driving force. They both believe in things larger than themselves.
I was honestly pretty shocked that they took the step to kill Steve Trevor off. In a medium where characters die and come back to life all the time, it’s still fairly rare to see it done in a way that seems permanent. At the end of the movie Diana thanks Bruce for “bringing him back to me,” implying that Trevor really has been gone all this time. I was also really surprised because while female love interests seem to die or get harmed at a rapid pace, it is very rare for it to happen to a male love interest. And even more rare is for a love interest to die in a way that seems fair to their own storyline, and not just as a way to motivate the main character.
In the traditional Women in Refrigerators trope, female characters are maimed, de-powered, and killed as a way to motivate male heroes. Their deaths or injuries rarely get to be the result of self-sacrifice; instead, they are usually victims of some other individual or power, and their misfortunes basically become a footnote in the male hero’s revenge plot. Often they are also hurt or killed simply because they have some sort of relationship to the male hero, and not necessarily because they are heroes in their own right. (Such as in my discussion of The Killing Joke.)
On the surface, Steve Trevor’s death seems to fit the idea of a “man in the refrigerator.” He’s a love interest, and his death compels Wonder Woman to finally break free of Ares’ hold and defeat him. But it is how he dies that is very important. He makes a choice. He sees the plane, understands the various consequences of the many ways to destroy its contents, and makes the choice to sacrifice himself. Not merely for Diana, even though she is probably part of it, but for all of the innocent people that could be killed if he doesn’t. He understands that this is the role he can perform—he can’t fight Ares, but he can save these people. It is ultimately about his own heroic journey, not Diana’s, even though Diana’s story is still primary. And he is given agency in his death. This is the way you can kill off a love interest and not have it be an empty gesture or deprive the deceased of agency.
Pro number 5: Believe vs. deserve
I’m obviously not the first one to make the observation that, overall, superhero movies have gotten pretty freaking dark. Grimdark. GrittyGrimDark, even. It seems everywhere you look there is a superhero film where the superheroes ask if the work they are doing matters, if they are even making a difference, or if they are making things worse. Batman shoots guns now. Superman gets told by Pa Kent not to save a bus full of kids because doing so will expose him and the world will be shitty to him. The Avengers turn on one another over UN sanctions. The guiding superhero defense agency has been secretly Nazis this whole time, effectively shitting on the legacy of one fantastic Ms. Peggy Carter. One of the best superhero movies of the past ten years involved Professor X slipping into dementia (with the implication that he had killed all of the other X-Men), child experimentation, and Logan dying a slow death via metal poisoning. Hell, two of the cheeriest superhero movies of the past decade still involved either a frank discussion of how childhood failures led to non-consensual body modification or ever-present, constantly regenerating cancer. In addition to my intrigue about Wonder Woman being set in WWI I have to admit that a secondary thought was, “Great, because setting it during WWII wouldn’t have been depressing enough.” Which is why I was so, so glad, and honestly surprised, that despite all the dark moments and gloom in the movie, it remained ultimately hopeful, and on multiple counts.
Diana is initially framed as the hopeful one, and even naively so. The origin story that she is told by her mother and by Antiope (which includes one of the rosiest depictions of Zeus, aka “I’mma rape that,” ever seen) goes basically as follows:
…Zeus created beings over which the gods would rule. Beings born in his image. Fair and good. Strong and passionate. He called his creation man. And mankind was good. But Zeus’ son grew envious of mankind, and sought to corrupt his father’s creation. This was Ares, the god of war. Ares poisoned men’s hearts with jealousy and suspicion. He turned them against one another. And war ravaged the earth. So, the gods created us. The Amazons, to influence men’s hearts with love and restore peace to the earth. And for a brief time there was peace.”
“But it did not last. Your mother, the Amazon queen, led a revolt that freed us all from enslavement.”
So in her worldview, men were made by Zeus to be inherently good, and it wasn’t until the meddling of Lucifer Ares that mankind became warlike. The purpose of her people, the Amazons, is to return mankind to its proper state. Even her mother, the one who told her this story, seems to understand that things probably aren’t going to be so simple. When Diana is parting, she tells her daughter, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.” Not exactly the kind of talk you’d expect from someone who thinks that mankind’s base state is goodness.
Steve Trevor spends a lot of the movie trying to give Diana the same warning, to little effect, including in the following exchange:
“Look, I uh, I appreciate your spirit… but this war is… it’s a great big mess. And there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. We can get back to London and find the man who can.”
“I’m the man who can, and once I finally destroy Ares, the German armies will finally be free of his influence and be good men again, and the world will be better.”
The thing that gets Diana by is the belief that Ares is the root cause of all of these ills. Steve is played as the cynical straightman to her sunny optimism.
All of this gets flipped when Diana kills Ludendorff, thinking he is Ares, and the war continues. Her world is rocked, as is her faith in mankind. Steve desperately tries to get her to keep helping, and the conversation again returns to the idea of “deserving.” Diana, trying to make sense of it all, asks Steve, “Why are they doing this?” To which he can only helplessly reply, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Tentatively he suggests again what he has been trying to show all along: “Maybe it’s them. Maybe people aren’t always good. Ares or no Ares. Maybe it’s just who they are.”
Diana then echoes her mother:
D: “They don’t deserve our help Steve.”
S:“It’s not about deserve…. Maybe we don’t! It’s not about that, It’s about what you believe. You don’t think I get it after what I’ve seen out there? You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it’s one bad guy to blame? It’s not. We’re all to blame.”
D: “I’m not.”
S: “But maybe I am… If you believe that this war should stop, if you want to stop it, help me..”
Diana refuses again, and Steve runs off. Here, Steve actually becomes the optimistic one, albeit a sort of grim optimism. No, mankind’s evil is not caused by one god. No, men may not inherently be good. Humanity always has within it the capacity for evil. But that does not preclude them from being worthy of help, of assistance, or saving. Steve’s optimism is a pragmatic one: people are shitty, but they are still people. Diana doesn’t come around to his line of thinking immediately—for a time she is swayed by Ares’ argument that people are the problem, and that they have never been good. He explains to her, “They always have been and always will be weak, cruel, selfish, and capable of the greatest horrors.” He continues the language of deserving when he tries to get Diana to kill Dr. Poison, telling her, “You know that she deserves it, they all do.” Of course, Diana is the hero of this picture, so after Steve’s sacrifice she finally comes around. Rather desperately, Ares still insists, “They do not deserve your protection.” To which she replies, “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
Triteness of the last part of that line aside, this is honestly a fairly world-rocking revelation in the world of grimdark superhero movies. It takes the premise from the grimdark films—that all people, and even all heroes, are flawed, messed up, and capable of terrible things, and then poses the question, “So what?” So what if people are messed up? So what if people are responsible for atrocities? Does that mean we refuse to help? That we refuse to get out of bed in the morning? That we refuse to do all that we can to make the world a better place?
This message really couldn’t be more timely, when we seem to be faced every day with how absolutely despicable people can be. Nazis are a thing again. The GOP has essentially declared a war on every oppressed group. We can’t even count on greed like we used to, as people don’t even care about money as much as they care about screwing over people they don’t like. We stare at solvable problems and refuse to fix them. Tragedies are happening one after another, and few people seem to care. Hundreds and thousands of people are dying every day of senseless violence. There have been few other times in my recent memory where I have felt more like looking at the world and deciding, “People don’t deserve my help.” But it is also more important than ever to look at that same world and ask myself, “So what? Do you believe the world can be better? Then fucking do something about it.”
I’m going to need that question to myself fairly often for the next few years. Luckily I now own a copy of this movie, so I can keep reminding myself.
So that, in a very large nutshell, is my take on Wonder Woman.
Wow. Okay. Thanks for sticking with me for almost… lord, 8,000 words. (I might be slightly insane.) The great and terrible thing is that I probably still didn’t say everything that could be said about this movie. But I’ve said my piece. Now go off and make the world a better place, if you believe it can. (And if Justice League undoes all the good will Wonder Woman gained the DC universe I swear I’m going to do creative things to Zack Snyder’s liver with a spork. And probably Joss Whedon’s too, for good measure.)
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not writing long literary analyses of pop culture media for this blog, well, she still studies gender in popular culture.
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