Everybody quiet down! Women are talking!
by Thom Yee
“I respect women incredibly. I have just amazing admiration and respect for women. I have more respect for women than anybody would understand. I cherish women. And I treat women with respect. I have tremendous respect for women and the many roles they serve that are vital to the fabric of our society and our economy. I respect women more than I respect men. We know they believe in certain things that we don’t want to believe in. I want to help women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do — that I can tell you. Nobody. I have tremendous respect for women. And women have respect for me.” ~ Donald J. Trump, current POTUS
The release of the very first feature-length Wonder Woman movie would likely have been a big deal no matter which generation it was released into, but, unfortunately… it’s this one. 2017. And it’s very hard not to dwell on how much all of the hope and love and understanding that Wonder Woman embodies directly clashes with the strange, often depraved, seeming alternate reality we now find ourselves living in, where income inequality only seems to grow, where a terror attack in the heart of London on the weekend of Wonder Woman’s release is still tragic but, as one of three similar incidents in as many months, isn’t much of a surprise, and where the current President of the United States’s words both can’t be trusted and can easily be recognized as the empty, self-serving, sycophantic, not-even-conscious-of-how-they’re-coming-across ravings of a tiny-handed maniac.
Oh, and all of the earlier female superhero movies have sucked too.
But let’s put all of that aside for the moment and focus on what makes Wonder Woman different. When I, as a lifelong comicbook fan (and a man), think of what sets Wonder Woman apart, it’s that her first instinct is to try to understand her opponent and gain their trust. But that doesn’t mean she won’t kick their ass. Alongside Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman forms the trinity of DC’s heroes, the first, finest, and most archetypal examples of what we know as a superhero, and of the three, she’s probably the most compassionate, but she’s also the only one willing to kill if the situation calls for it. She’s led by her ideals but she’s not a slave to them because, of the three, she’s also the one who most knows who she is rather than being the one most obsessed with who she thinks we need her to be.
Looking at all of that, maybe it’s not that big of a surprise it’s taken so long for Wonder Woman to get her own movie. She’s just that bit more complex, that much harder to get right, and any movie about her needs to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Plus, there’s the whole woman thing.
What’s it about?
The Amazons, an ancient race of warrior women, have lived in seclusion for thousands of years, hidden by a mystic barrier on the island of Themyscira, but when pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira, the Amazons for the first time learn of the Great War of man. Unable to continue allowing innocent people to suffer and convinced this Great War must be the work of Ares, the God of War, Diana (Gal Gadot), Princess of Themyscira and the Amazons’ greatest warrior, becomes the first of her kind to leave the island, joining the Allied war effort in an attempt to find Ares and end the war to end all wars. And mentioning Steve Trevor first, before Wonder Woman in that synopsis just now? I swear to God it just came out that way and I didn’t mean anything by it.
First appearing in 1941 in All-Star Comics #8, Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist also known for creating the polygraph (or lie detector). But actually, neither of those is quite true; Marston created the systolic blood pressure test that was a key component of the polygraph, and, though Marston came to believe that women were more honest, efficient, and better leaders through his experience with the polygraph, it was his wife Elizabeth who suggested that the superhero he’d been developing should be a woman. Nevertheless, Marston intended Wonder Woman to be an allegory for the ideal love leader and “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should… rule the world,” arguing that “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power,” and that the obvious solution would be “to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston also had a polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman, believed that bondage and submission was a good and respectable practice, and wrote that Wonder Woman would lose her strength if a man chained her “Bracelets of Submission” together, and even if that last point has been largely ignored in later interpretations of the character, it’s all the type of stuff that’s inexorably linked Wonder Woman with her own sexuality more than any other superhero (well, except maybe Lady Rawhide).
Speaking of interpretations, as one of our first superheroes, Wonder Woman has taken on a number of different looks, powers, and modus operandi over her decades of existence, at times a World-War-II-era superhero, at other times a secretary for and only an unofficial member of the Justice Society of America (a superhero group otherwise made up almost entirely of men), and at others a superspy dressed in a really quite striking ‘60s mod outfit. She’s been a superstrong Amazon warrior princess, a de-powered master of martial arts, formed from clay and received powers from the Greek gods of myth, and even been revealed as a god herself (sometimes of truth, sometimes of love, and sometimes of war), and I think it’s all of these different takes, twists, revisions, and senses-shattering, universal resets that have always made me like Wonder Woman and most of the other heroes of the DC Universe just a little bit more than Marvel’s. Where Marvel has operated with the largely same continuity since the ‘60s, snipping away at logical inconsistencies and outright ignoring poorly received stories as necessary, DC’s more heavy-handed approach has instead frequently led to infinite-earth-traversing crises that have regularly shaken up and changed everything we thought we knew about our beloved heroes. Considering the time of Wonder Woman’s release now, both in real life and at a pretty low ebb in the DC Extended Universe series of movies, it’s kind of fitting that it’s all up to this version of Wonder Woman and not Superman to show us the way out of our present turmoils.
Is it any good?
Thom’s Wonder Woman final score
But seriously, the simple answer to “Is Wonder Woman any good?” is an easy one — yes, it’s pretty good — but, because it’s Wonder Woman, because it’s her first movie and one of the first and only female-led superhero movies, and because we are who we are and we are when we are, it’s a much more loaded question than it would be for most movies, superhero or not.
As a superhero movie, it’s good, among the better ones (say the first Iron Man), but I don’t think it’s as close to the best as you may have been led to believe, which, for me, to be honest, would be a movie like Man of Steel. At least for those of us that Man of Steel worked for, it was an incredibly careful, thoughtful take on what Superman would be in a more modern and realistic world, and that’s a reality Wonder Woman isn’t nearly as interested in exploring. On an action level, as an origin story, through its comedic beats, and in checking off the boxes most of us have for superhero movies though, Wonder Woman is very strong, with action scenes specifically framed to evoke classic superhero imagery, with an origin story that doesn’t feel tired, and with a convincingly funny interplay between Wonder Woman and the people she meets on her journey, but where my personal favourite superhero movies (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Man of Steel) are more deliberately introspective, Wonder Woman is a little simpler and not so interested in transcending the genre. Frankly, I think that was the right move for the character’s first major feature, it was definitely the right way to go for what was needed of the movie at this point in the development of the DCEU, and it’s a better match for what people want to see in their superhero movies (because most people think Man of Steel sucks), but it’s a straightforward simplicity that keeps Wonder Woman a superhero movie and not a whole lot more if we’re being completely objective.
But I don’t think most of us are all that interested in being entirely objective, and there’s also an explosive, exclamatory, and celebratory element to the movie that, at least with how successful the movie is at being a good time and the character able to display a uniquely forceful but somehow agreeable intractability, makes it much more than just a superhero movie. It works as a celebration of a much purer type of superhero, one who always finds a way and never backs down, whose occasional naiveté only serves to highlight the weakness of our own compromises, and whose opportunities for growth only further reinforce what she knows to be true. There are important subversions of expectation all throughout Wonder Woman, particularly with the alleyway scene, so clearly inspired by the Christopher Reeve Superman, where Diana saves the day without emasculating Steve Trevor the way Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was frequently robbed of any agency. It’s Diana’s relationship with Steve Trevor that really defines the movie and gives it its shape, and it’s the level of delicacy and precision and genuine love in that relationship that makes the movie special. The journey Diana goes through in proudly but naively declaring herself Princess of Themyscira to becoming Wonder Woman and really understanding how she can save the world, a journey that Steve Trevor is instrumental in, is one of constant affirmation, even through all of the cruelty and torture and darkness of the great war, something the movie doesn’t shy away from. That’s probably the best part of Wonder Woman, that it’s able to successfully maintain its hero as an undeniable force of good but still face the sobering realities of humanity — that none of us, the “good guys” or the “bad guys” is totally one way or another, innocent or guilty. That’s a tricky thing to do in a movie as straightforward as Wonder Woman truly is, but it gets that point across remarkably well.
It is, then, with a bit of a heavy heart, that I have to admit that Wonder Woman isn’t perfect and it still falls into many of the traps of superhero movies. As an origin story, it introduces us to the paradise of the Amazonian island of Themyscira, but for all of its beauty and splendor, for how well-rendered that world is and its women convincingly tough and unquestionably superior, it’s a world that’s a bit shallow and under-realized. The backstory is set well, but I don’t feel like I ever got to know the Amazons beyond the idea of who they are and I never got the feeling of heartache, when Diana leaves the island, that would’ve made Diana’s relationship with her people and especially her mother something that stuck with me (though they do a little better with her aunt, Antiope, played by Robin Wright). That seems especially a problem when you realize that literally half the movie takes place there. The bad guys in Wonder Woman are similarly hard to feel anything towards, particularly Danny Huston’s General Ludendorff, who ends up being little more than a hateful man hopped up on strength-inducing drugs. In contrast, I actually really liked Elena Anaya’s Dr. Poison, especially for the visual of her porcelain mask and how comicbook-y she often was, but she never really gets her moment nor is she able to haunt the movie’s edges the way I would have liked to see a mistress of poison gases representing a sort of creeping, unstoppable terror. I feel like there was a lot more potential in her, especially the scene where she’s confronted by Diana that I feel could’ve opened up the movie’s themes just a little bit wider and made them even more convincing. Like Dr. Poison, I also liked Diana’s allies in the film, but I’m not sure any of them got quite enough screen time for us to latch onto, particularly Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy who was amazing and a clear standout in every scene she was in. And by the time we reach the movie’s final battle, it all starts to become the type of sound and fury signifying superhero movie in their worst and most forgettable forms, and it’s done in a way that actually kind of confuses or at least obfuscates the movie’s main points. Wonder Woman is far from the worst of the superhero movies in this way, but, at these later climactic points, it is another example of why we tend to tune this sound and these furies out.
So should I see it?
Like most of you (I hope), I was taught at a young age that lying is wrong, and yet we live in a world where lying is not only common, but lying that you understand people who need help, lying that you want to and know how to help those people, and lying about why you fired someone because you feel threatened by his investigations is cause for you to be elected into the highest office in the land. Lying is something that’s truly hard not to do when it benefits you, and yet I still believe strongly that it’s something I should never do. But here’s the thing. I didn’t learn that from the world I grew up in. I learned that from superheroes. I honestly often get a bit weepy (but in a tough, masculine way I assure you) when I go to a superhero movie and find people entertained by them and sometimes even inspired by them. They’re the furthest things from the reality that we live in but the best of them deal directly with the issues we face every day as people, and to feel that strange sense of community wash over me as I watch a superhero movie alongside other people, that sense that some of the most important parts of my childhood and the lessons from them that have endured through to my adulthood have somehow, almost magically, become something that now matters to a lot of other people too? That’s the type of feeling we all hope we can find in our lives: Connection. And that, at its highest level, is what Wonder Woman manages to be, moreso than most other superhero movies.
Plus there’s the whole woman thing. Wonder Woman is not only the biggest female-led superhero movie of its kind, but it’s the first superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, the first movie directed by a woman with a $150 million budget, and, by now, it’s the first female-directed movie to open at more than $100 million at the weekend box office. There’s a world in which the greatest compliment you could then give the movie is that, having seen the end result, it didn’t matter that it was directed by a woman, but that’s not the world we live in, and as odd as it might seem to make a connection between a summer blockbuster Hollywood superhero movie and social progress, Wonder Woman is the kind of work that will change things, that will open minds and, therefore, doors. And there’s at least a small part of me that recognizes that some of the movie’s smaller-in-scope but massive-in-import scenes may not have been there if this movie were directed by a man. As far away as that sort of influence might seem from our day-to-day lives, it is a step in the right direction.
But let’s not go nuts. It’s still a superhero movie that’s not trying to break the mould and, in and of itself, it doesn’t always reach that much higher. It handles its messages and themes with often surprising poignancy, it’s energetic, exciting, and fierce, but a lot of what you’ll get out of it is what you were already bringing into it. If you want to be inspired by it or you want to find more in it, you can and probably will, but if you weren’t already that invested in what it represents and what it’s supposed to represent, I don’t think it’ll move your personal needle as much as people would have you believe.
Thom’s Wonder Woman final score
On the Edge
- That scene of the Amazonians jumping down, on tethers, with arrows firing really makes me wish Joss Whedon had taken Hawkeye more seriously.
- The Kitchen is the Key to Victory. Eat less bread.
- Man, it took me forever to figure out where I had seen that “you should be very proud” ice cream scene before.
- I’m still not very clear on whether or not this version of Wonder Woman can fly.
- Cool, she’s a Europe-based hero? Is that where she was about to fly off to before deciding to fight Doomsday in Batman v Superman?
- I’m actually a little bit more sad about not being able to have Etta Candy in the modern day rather than Steve Trevor (no death spoilers or anything, there’s just no reasonable way for either to be alive or active in our present day, almost a hundred years after this movie takes place).