Are All the Men Really Necessary? A Critical Look at Wonder Woman

By Michi Trota

Gail Simone famously said, “If you need to stop an asteroid, you call Superman. If you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But if you need to end a war, you call Wonder Woman.”

Wonder Woman was always going to have an uphill battle to fight, thanks to the dour, existential crisis-laden landscape the previous DC Extended Universe films had created, not to mention the absolutely skewed standards women-led action films are expected to achieve in order to be considered successful. Under the dynamic direction of Patty Jenkins and a considerably layered performance by Gal Gadot, Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Amazon warrior and princess, rose to the challenge and proved Simone right.

As of this review, Wonder Woman has grossed over $435 million worldwide after just over a week in theaters and is currently the most tweeted-about movie of 2017. Critical reviews have been overwhelmingly glowing, and fans are already clamoring for Wonder Woman 2. The film provides a desperately-needed shot in the arm for the DCEU with a story that finally recalls why so many DC superheroes became popular in the first place: hope, and the belief that superheroes can still inspire humankind to overcome our worst impulses. Unlike Superman or Batman, Wonder Woman embraces her power as both a gift and responsibility, rather than finding it an alienating burden. This is still an origin story where Diana struggles to comes to terms with her identity and where she belongs, but while she may be wracked by grief and anger, she never loses sight of what she fights for: justice, peace, love. Allan Heinberg’s script doesn’t run away from Diana’s existential crisis (this is a DCEU film after all), but it does refuse to be weighed down by it, infusing a humor, warmth, and humanity that was desperately lacking in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. The camaraderie among Diana, Steve Trevor, Sameer, Chief, and Charlie should be the blueprint for Diana’s future family among the Justice League. The compassionate, respectful relationship among the four men is refreshing, particularly in a genre that is often dismissive of men showing weakness and emotions other than anger. Diana may question their skills, tactics, or commitment, but she never once mocks her male companions’ displays of vulnerability.

Wonder Woman is the most alive the DCEU has felt since MoS’s drab and joyless introduction. The action sequences still bear Zack Snyder’s signature slow-mo stamp, but under Jenkins’s thoughtful eye, those moments are restrained rather than sprawling (at least until the final act). Themyscira is gorgeously rendered, full of vibrant color and sunlight; while the scenes revert to the expected cold-faded color of the DCEU once Diana leaves the island, they serve as a stark contrast with the aptly named Paradise Island. The entire film is blissfully free of the straight male gaze objectifying women–there isn’t a single moment where Diana is framed as anything less than a person or subjected to gratuitous T&A shots (the lone scene with a mostly-naked Chris Pine is overlaid with an awkwardness that underscores how deeply out of his element and powerless Steve is). Scenes of a world and people devastated by the horrors of war are balanced by small but meaningful moments of unapologetic joy and kindness: Chief’s gentle refusal of payment for goods from refugees; Diana’s laughter at her very first snowfall; villagers dancing amidst the ruins of their town. Diana is a fearsome warrior who in one breath charges headfirst into enemy fire and berates generals for their cavalier treatment of soldiers, and in another coos over babies and finds sheer delight in a simple ice cream cone. It seems that it’s still possible for heroes in the DCEU to find hope and happiness amidst loss. And because this is still the DCEU, even Wonder Woman apparently had to have a tragic love story.

The script had a very fine line to walk with Diana and Steve’s nascent relationship, having to balance Diana’s ignorance regarding the world outside Paradise Island without making her dependent on Steve, and without making Steve the center of her narrative. Heinberg’s script mostly succeeds in the former, presenting Diana’s naivete not as that of a helpless child, but that of a capable idealist who still believes the inherent goodness of humanity will win the day. Gadot’s Diana is the skilled and earnest but inexperienced soldier to Steve’s battle-weary (but notably not cynical) veteran. Pine skillfully plays Steve as both admiring of and frustrated by Diana’s idealism, because in his experience, the cause of war isn’t as simple as the machinations of one individual. But neither is Diana’s idealism played as a fool’s dream–instead, it’s a source of inspiration and strength for those around her (also the God of War is in fact real in her world). The entire No-Man’s Land sequence is a defiant refutation of the idea that a thing can’t be done just because men tell you it’s not possible. Not only can women tread (and stomp, and smash) where men say they cannot, they can inspire others to follow and fight for themselves.

(The fact that Jenkins had to fight for the inclusion of the No-Man’s Land sequence in the final film says a lot about whose perspective was largely shaping Diana’s debut.)

The film doesn’t fare so well with the latter, however, falling into the trap of feeling it necessary to insist on Steve’s relevance as a man in a story about a demigoddess. Steve is ostensibly supposed to be the butt of the joke with his awkward reactions to Diana’s suggestion they share a bed because he doesn’t want to be That Guy, but were those jokes (which obscure the fact that it’s not sex or sexual attraction that baffles Diana, it’s Steve’s specific cultural hang ups about them) really the best way to explore the cultural differences between them? (The less said about Steve’s painfully stilted and unnecessary “average” dialog the better.) The alley sequence in London is a delightful homage to the scene in Superman where Clark saves Lois from a thief’s gunshot, but why did Steve need to throw that one punch knocking out the last assailant after Diana had taken out the entire gang by herself? Despite the acts of kindness Diana has witnessed from her friends, and the many sacrifices that have made her mission possible, the film chooses to focus on Steve’s death and declaration of love as what goads Diana to denounce Ares and defeat him (this is especially jarring considering Diana is not shown mourning the death of Antiope, a woman who loved and trained her). This is Diana’s story after all, and Pine’s delightful performance aside, why does Steve need to have equal footing in a film that’s about Wonder Woman?

Diana’s life with her Amazon family is surprisingly devoid of any meaningful relationships with other women, and little is seen of her life outside of her training as a warrior (the Amazons aren’t just fearsome warriors, they also boast proud traditions of logic, philosophy, scientific innovation, art, literature, politics, and Diana is supposed to embody the pinnacle of all their society offers). Once off Paradise Island, Diana’s interactions are primarily limited to men; it’s men, including Steve (and a severely-underused Etta Candy), who provide her with context and information of the world around her. It’s frustrating to imagine all the lost chances for Etta to share her experience as a woman who wants to do something in the war effort and is limited by her role as “secretary” (all the more frustrating to imagine how much more those conversations could have resonated if Etta were a WOC). Even her creation is now owed to Zeus, erasing Hera as the Amazon’s patron goddess (Hera was both Zeus’s wife and Ares’s mother, and her hand in Diana’s creation could easily have provided Diana with the necessary power to match Ares).

It’s also a man (or god to be exact) who is Diana’s ultimate nemesis–yes, Ares is a often a major antagonist of Diana’s in the comics, but it’s still not a good look in a film that seems determined to isolate Diana as a Smurfette. Not even the nefarious Isabel Maru/Dr. Poison, whose name strikes dread into the Allies, has the chance for any significant interaction with Diana. Like Etta, Maru is frustratingly limited to being a plot device, devoted to a man she’s clearly more capable and arguably more dangerous than. What if it had been Maru, not Ares, who delivered the film’s penultimate argument to Diana about the inherently corrupt nature of humanity, where it’s clear that rather than being ignorant of Ares’s machinations, Maru embraced him and his mission by her own choice? A film that claims to celebrate the power of women to make their own choices only does so in the barest sense when its heroine is isolated from other women (unless she’s on a magical island of mythical women warriors, apparently).

It’s as if a world where the actions of women also matter can no longer be realistic once Diana leaves Themyscira. The film manages to acknowledge that Diana is a complex woman capable of great feats and terrible mistakes, and that she doesn’t need men to validate her existence or choices, but that should be the minimum bar to clear, not an accomplishment. And Wonder Woman would be the first to say that she is not the only woman deserving of such acknowledgement.

This is the conundrum of Wonder Woman: a superhero film that at last gives one of comics’ greatest female characters her due in a well-produced, record-breaking profitable action blockbuster, and yet still hesitates to fully embrace much of the feminist ideals that make up the core of her story. Is it a fun action-packed romp of a movie with a kickass heroine? Absolutely. Is it an in in-your-face feminist story? Not quite, especially for a movie that goes out of its way to reassure audiences that there’s still room for men in a powerful woman’s story. Is it intersectional? Only in the barest possible sense. Wonder Woman jokes about men not being necessary for women’s sexual pleasure but shies away from embracing the bisexuality of its heroine (living on an island of women does not mean Diana’s ignorant of sex). It celebrates Diana’s heroism and complexity but shows us little of the complexity and heroism of the women affected by the war Diana has come to fight. At least on Paradise Island, WOC are somewhat visible but still relegated to the background and in roles that replicate racist dynamics, particularly regarding Black women, and while Sameer and Chief are engaging characters whose experiences with oppression as MOC are openly acknowledged, they’re still given scenes repeating racist stereotypes (the “smoke signals” scene is particularly baffling in light of the thoughtfulness with which Chief’s character was otherwise approached).  

It’s also a movie that has moved women to tears, shattered box office expectations, and single-handedly injected hope back into the DCEU franchise. Since the premiere, social media has been covered in images of fans of all ages celebrating Wonder Woman, of little girls posing as warriors and princesses alike. Despite audience fears and critical skepticism (not to mention an often baffling lack of media tie-ins and merchandising), Wonder Woman succeeded in an industry where predecessors like Elektra, Catwoman, Supergirl, Barb Wire, and Vampirella were left to fail under half-hearted marketing, poor production, and sexism-riddled stories. Overcoming the assumptions and inertia in Hollywood when it comes to the viability of women-led superhero stories is, by itself, still a considerable achievement. Wonder Woman is flawed, particularly in its presentation of feminism, but it’s still managed to shove open the door for superheroines in Hollywood a bit wider, and hopefully audiences will continue to clamor for more in her wake (Captain Marvel is slated for 2018, but frustratingly neither DC nor Marvel have committed to any films about WOC in their respective universes).

Wonder Woman was always going to carry an entire world of expectations on her shoulders for her on-screen debut, and if joyous fan celebration over the film is inexorably interwoven with disappointment in its shallow feminism and lack of intersectionality, it’s a testament to the power and influence Wonder Woman commands as a cultural icon. She and her fans deserve a story that truly lives up to the ideals Diana herself is supposed to personify: the willingness to fight against all odds for a just world in which we are all represented and valued for our whole selves. Hopefully Wonder Woman’s success at the box office means Diana and her fans might yet get that story.

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Comments (2)

I had been really hoping that Dr. Poison would be revealed to be Ares, as well! While the story idea that Ares created destruction from the forgettable position of administration was powerful in and of itself, imagine if Ares had taken the form of this brilliant woman?

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