A wondrous but not always wonderful female superhero
Hailed by critics and educators as a groundbreaking feminist superhero film, Wonder Woman has also captured the attention of millions of viewers around the globe, becoming by far the biggest blockbuster of the year. But behind the acclaim lie questions that few people are asking, questions that may come to haunt us as a society as the superhero genre continues to capture the imaginations of today’s younger generations.
For much of the film there is little evidence of Diana’s awareness of the fact that she is trying to achieve her noble antiwar ends through horrifically violent means.
This is not to suggest that Wonder Woman is an inferior film. I went to see it on opening day (I grew up on DC comics, after all) and found Wonder Woman to be a well-made, thoroughly enjoyable film from start to finish. And yet I left the theater with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, which only grew as I researched the film online.
But let’s start with the positive. In the superhero film genre, Wonder Woman is unique in two vital and exciting ways. First, the sole superhero in the film is a woman who is superior to the men around her in almost every way (i.e., not just in her strength and fighting ability but also in her compassion and intelligence). Indeed, in her emotional intelligence, Wonder Woman is superior to most of the superheroes in previous films of the genre. Second, Wonder Woman is the first Hollywood superhero film to be directed by a woman. Both of these are very encouraging developments, all the more so when you consider the results, as we will see below.
Gal Gadot stars as Diana, an Amazon who has grown up on an isolated island without ever seeing a man. As the only child on the island, she is given a lifetime of special treatment along with thorough training as a warrior (though she despises war). When a World War I plane breaks through the invisible barrier protecting the island and crashes into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine), who turns out to be an American spy who has just uncovered a German plot to extend the war by using a new deadly gas. German soldiers are hot on Steve’s tail and follow him to the island, where, to their short-lived surprise, they encounter an Amazonian army.
The Amazons don’t want to get involved in the war, but Diana insists on helping Steve get his vital information back to London. Her primary motive, however, is to find Ares, the Greek god of war, and kill him, thus putting an end to the “war to end all wars,” for which Diana believes Ares is responsible. So Diana and Steve get in a boat and head to London, where they will meet most of the film’s other key characters: Steve’s assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who provides a fair amount of comic relief; Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a speaker for peace in the Imperial War Cabinet; and a small band of companions who will accompany Diana and Steve to the front, where they hope to prevent the use of the deadly gas. The band, which will also supply some comic relief (Wonder Woman, like most superhero films, contains a fair amount of witty dialogue), includes Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).
The boat trip and subsequent visit to London are my favorite parts of Wonder Woman, and they are also central to the film’s chief positive attributes. One of these attributes is the surprisingly polished performance by well-cast newcomer Gadot as Diana, and another is the character Gadot and screenwriter Alan Heinberg have created. The role of Diana is a challenging one because she is both an intelligent, strong, confident, courageous, and independent woman and an innocent, compassionate naïve woman capable of childlike wonder. The fact that Diana is also supposed to be capable of horrific violence while being driven throughout by her love of humanity is a matter that I will return to later.
The early parts of the film also highlight the excellent performances of Pine and Davis. The rest of the acting is solid, with Thewlis standing out. The cinematography is also particularly strong in the first half of the film, though it suffers from the desaturated bluish hues typical of made-for-3D films. And the score, while occasionally overbearing, is quite enjoyable throughout.
Especially in the first half of Wonder Woman, I could see how the presence of a female director (Patty Jenkins) might have influenced my favorite scenes, because they all involve Diana’s unique perspectives on life and humanity (the conversations between Diana and Steve are a particular highlight). And the first half of the film uses accents in an acceptable and even way, unlike the second half, where the filmmakers decided to use German accents in place of people speaking German to each other. Such a cartoonish use of accents is unacceptable in a film as serious as Wonder Woman, especially since subtitles are used elsewhere in the film.
The accents are a minor flaw, however, when compared to my biggest complaint about Wonder Woman, which I alluded to earlier. The film’s primary message seems to be that war is bad and love is good. This is no great revelation, and would of course not draw any argument from me, if it were consistent. Unfortunately, the message is represented by a woman who is full of compassion for humanity while displaying no remorse at her killing of countless enemy soldiers. That doesn’t compute for me.
One scene exemplifies this complaint. When Diana arrives at the front (the trenches), she is immediately distracted by the suffering of those she encounters, something that would be unusual for a male superhero. This scene reveals the horrors and stupidity of trench warfare—only to have the message completely undone moments later when Diana shows how trench warfare can be effective and glorious if Wonder Woman is on your side. In this scene, Diana is complicit in the deaths of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of German soldiers, to whom she gives not the slightest thought. How is it possible that no one involved in the making of the film (or the critiquing of the film) identified the huge inconsistency here?
It’s true that films often treat soldiers on all sides as less than human, but how can you make attempts at humanizing while failing to recognize such blatant dehumanization? Diana is supposed to be antiwar, and her compassionate treatment of at least one of the villains is a good example of challenging the myth of redemptive violence, but for much of the film there is little evidence of Diana’s reflection on, or even awareness of, the fact that she is trying to achieve her noble antiwar ends through horrifically violent means.
The feminism in Wonder Woman is another inconsistency. The focus on Diana’s emotional intelligence and compassion is very welcome, making up for (while revealing one of the inconsistencies) the standard way female action protagonists are depicted as being able to fight as well as any man (which is always unwelcome). But there is evidence that Wonder Woman is not working very hard to challenge the misogynist, patriarchal Hollywood system. For one thing, Diana is played by a typically attractive woman, to ensure a strong male audience. For another, I have read that the primary motivation behind the hiring of a female director for a more feminine superhero film was to attract a female audience, which the film accomplished. In other words, it was all about money—no surprise there.
Some peace activists have called for a boycott of Wonder Woman because its lead actor, Gadot, is a former Miss Israel who worked in the Israel Defense Forces and promoted the normalization of anti-Palestinian violence. I agree that this is worth noting, but not that the film as a whole should be punished for the views of one actor. However, the film should be criticized for its confusing mixed messages and flawed moral compass. Even when it offers positive messages, it does so halfheartedly, as exemplified in its repeated question of whether people are innately evil. Diana refuses to believe it. Good for her. But this theme is explored all too briefly and resolved in a very simplistic manner, highlighting my disappointment with a film that has many good things to say and is otherwise hugely entertaining.
Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and some suggestive content.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.