A Heroic First Step: The Uphill Battle in Wonder Woman

June 11, 2017

 

Even beginning to critique Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman is like training with the Amazons on Themyscira, and sadly, this is a movie that will, and needs to, be critiqued harder than any other comic book adaptation that has come before it. Not only should it be intelligently reviewed because it’s the most recent, (these adaptations should be getting better, right?) but because it aims to take on the heftier issues our world faces today. Let it be known that in recent years I have fallen off the superhero bandwagon, not missing all of the DC or Marvel films, but certainly bypassing a good chunk of them. I’m not one to be wowed by the sis-boom-bah of these inconceivably high-octane projects unless there’s something much more engaging under the explosions, and I think a lot of these films have fallen flat in the most recent years. That being said, shelling out money for Wonder Woman is vastly important and about so much more than the cost of admission.

 

We’re at an important crossroads in cinematic history, and as much as I wish this had come earlier, and with a film other than Wonder Woman at its apex, the money Hollywood rakes in from this film will begin to affect the diversity of projects brought to the silver screen even more so than projects in the past. I’ve made my monetary contribution, like giving alms for the underappreciated and lacking roles represented on screen, and now all I have left are my words. Really digging into Wonder Woman is a difficult feat because this film is supposed to mean so much to so many different people, as it very well should. The film serves a multi-faceted purpose, and while it’s nearly impossible to tackle every single viewpoint, I think it’s best to critique it through three lenses: Is this film successful in the superhero genre? What does the film Wonder Woman bring to the conversation of feminism? Is Diana Prince the hero we want, or just the hero we need?

 

Even as far as superhero films go, Wonder Woman flips the script in multiple thought-provoking ways that complicate critique, but it still manages to check off most of the superhero trope boxes. Do we get an origin story? We get two! Does it highlight the struggle of coming to terms with what it means to be a hero? You bet!  Is there a Big Bad and do they get the fate they deserve? And how!

 

 

Within these questions, however, lie the greater complexities that make this a pretty good superhero flick but a problematic film as a whole. More often than not, when it comes to trilogies, the first installment is my favorite because I love me a good origin story. And with this film, we get to see Diana (a perfectly curious Gal Gadot) grow into a warrior in Themyscira, and then grow even further into a hero of the Mankind populated Earth. Through this journey, Diana learns that her role as a hero is to protect Mankind, because even while we’re flawed, we’re so much more than that. Wonder Woman astutely proves that to be human, is to have conflicting ideologies and desires; there’s no innate good or evil in any of us. And at the end of this very tumultuous and heart-breaking journey, she vanquishes her adversary, Ares, the God of War (and half brother). We even get a very charismatic romance with Steve Trevor (a dashing Chris Pine) thrown in the mix to boot.  

 

Although I take issue with certain pacing and logistics, (Oh, you mean this secret facility?  The one practically in this castle’s backyard? Oh and that woebegone village? You mean the one across the street? And remember that time we got to London likity-split? I digress.) Wonder Woman is a fairly entertaining superhero film. I just wish I wasn’t wearing my critical goggles while watching it. If I held it to the standards I did when watching, say, Iron Man, Captain America, or well, (I haven’t seen any in this current universe of DC films), I’d probably have enjoyed it and left it at that. And perhaps that says more about me than the film. But due to its importance in a feminist context and the feminism movement, it’s hard to just leave it be.

 

Wonder Woman knocks it out of the park with stressing that the Amazons of Themyscira detest the Mankind on Earth for their violence and deceit, not for the men that inhabit it. The story avoids what easily could have come across as a film that vilifies men and praises women, and I applaud them for it. The humans aren’t worthy of the Amazons’ help, no matter man or woman! But sadly, I fear, that’s the bulk of equality in the film. Diana’s training on Themyscira, which takes an unidentified length of time in Amazon hours but flies by on screen, is engaging and I wish we could have seen more of it. But that’s not where the training ends.

 

Wonder Woman is the first superhero film, in my knowledge, that has the hero essentially training for the entire film. During the final battle, after Diana witnesses Steve, a human, sacrifice himself for the greater good, she harnesses her true powers and gains the strength needed to defeat Ares. Not to say that she isn’t subconsciously tapping into her strength throughout the rest of the film: she totally is. But not realizing her full potential until the end is like Spider-Man not realizing he can web-sling himself across NYC until the last ten minutes of any Spider-Man origin film (hello Spider-Man number three) or Bruce Wayne just getting the hang of his gadgets in the nick of time to put them to use (like that pesky cowl that keeps having to be resized because of all the different men who’ve portrayed the Dark Knight). And while these heroes trained in their films, they trained alone and unassisted for the vast majority of the time. Diana needs companions and guides during her mission on Earth because she is new to Earth. I appreciate and understand the companionship and camaraderie, but I wish it didn’t come at such a cost.

 

 

When any new superhero hits the front page of any publication, whether it is The Daily Planet, The Gotham Free Press, or The Daily Bugle, there’s always a decent amount of conversation among the public of whether or not that hero is doing good or bad work. It’s understandable to have doubts about a being that looks human, but that actually has powers that far exceed the realm of possibility.

But Steve’s first introduction to Diana already exists in the realm of the impossible, on the shores of Themyscira. Steve has a lot of great qualities: he’s well educated, he’s ambitious and kind-hearted, and he is extremely charming. I don’t hate him. It is hard, however, to ignore his continuous doubts about Diana, when he is her closest friend on Earth.  

 

Understandably, Diana is clueless to the world’s etiquette and her place in it. A playful, flirty scene involves Diana explaining that she has read about the pleasures of the flesh, no doubt in an attempt to placate a conversation about consent that exists outside of the film. But when they arrive in London and Diana doesn’t even know that holding hands is a sign of affection, it seems that perhaps book smarts aren’t the same as street smarts. Diana is thrust into a world that is very different from the Amazonian Themyscira, and is taught that while women are fighting for the right to vote, men lead the battles in every other capacity. She adapts surprisingly well, most likely because she wasn’t the freest on Themyscira either, being the daughter of the queen. Eager to help, though, Diana instantly voices her opinion amid the clamor of male voices in a scene where the British Parliament is discussing their next move in the war. “There’s a woman in here,” one exclaims, keenly nodding to the understanding of progression, not only in the film, but also in this genre and industry. Hell yeah, there’s a women in here! But then the film takes one step back again.

 

Steve, knowing he needs to get Diana out of the room as the men make the decisions, pulls and grabs on her waist and wrists repeatedly, until they’re both out in the hallway and down the steps, away from the heavy lifting. And Diana doesn’t mention a word about the manhandling, possibly because she doesn’t know to, or maybe because she’s fixated and overwhelmed by the lack of compassion displayed by the powers that be. Either way, my heart begins to sink. As an adult having the capacity to understand that I am not to tolerate being treated that way, I suppose I can look past this VERY small part of the film. But imagine watching this through the eyes of a child and it is extremely disconcerting. Knowing that some child is watching this hero and representation of strength being physically removed in such a manner, by the romantic interest no less, gives me pause. As a superhero film, this scene only marks the instant where the villain and hero lock eyes for the first time, but as a film that has so much more on its shoulders, my posture begins to sag.

 

 

Wonder Woman is seemingly confused as to how it wants to tackle Diana’s introduction to Earth. As an audience we already know the power Diana wields, but she has to constantly prove herself to her human, male, combatants. When first meeting Steve’s go-to guys (master-of-disguise Sameer and sniper Charlie), Diana gets to give them a little taste of her strength when a bar fight breaks out. They accept her into the fold. Historically this is a time when women were not known for physical strength or hand-to-hand combat, so Diana’s fighting capabilities come as quite a shock to the group. As their mission progresses, and their guide Chief is introduced, they are presented an opportunity to save a war-torn village. Diana immediately jumps into action, much to the group’s chagrin and chastising. But as the fight to save the village mounts, the team realizes their fighting skills, when used together, are a beautifully choreographed dance and the village is saved. Diana, growing in her powers, displays humanly impossible feats, such as slamming through brick walls and jumping the height of a church bell tower. Yet even still, the group (charming Steve Trevor included) doubts Diana’s intelligence and motives.

 

I’d be remiss to not dwell on the mixed messages, the film and the characters, present to Diana and the audience. I understand that most films do indeed contain some form of romantic subplot, and most typically, a scene that either shows or implies the two romantic leads engaging in intercourse. I worry that to not include the romantic evening scene between Diana and Steve would have sent an equally distressing message, as if to say, “Men deserve sex, pleasure, and love; women don’t.” But do I wish Diana didn’t sleep with, literally, the first man she has ever seen? Of course. Again, being an adult lends me the ability to discern that this is a rushed connection for the sake of, roughly, a two hour film. But I hate the message it sends children looking for a hero with whom they can identify.  

 

While their relationship is definitely flirty, fun, and dripping with chemistry, Steve’s lack of trust and respect for Diana doesn’t sit well with me. In his eyes she doesn’t understand the world and its rules, seemingly, unless he can benefit from the situation. Thank goodness they had a conversation earlier in the film to assuage any feelings of guilt for sharing an evening with an otherwise clueless Amazon who he thinks is a little nutso. Even after the evening in the village, the group jokes with Steve that he surely cannot be buying into the, “kill Ares, stop the violence,” theory, though they slyly acknowledge the amazing feats she pulled off just the day before. It’s not until the final battle that Diana’s “theory” is realized and understood to be true. Steve and Diana do share a love both romantic and compassionate, and Diana does look back on it fondly.  He did work and grow to “deserve” her, but later than I would have liked. There’s nothing sexier in the bedroom than mutual respect.

 

 

Ultimately, Wonder Woman seems to be a lesson for audiences in coming to terms with championing a female superhero lead. Diana spends the duration of the film proving to herself, her allies, the opposition, and Ares that she has what it takes to save the day and protect Mankind from themselves and others. But she didn’t have to prove it to me. Diana comes into the world ready to fight, but her herodom is constantly policed, not unlike Diana’s journey to 2017’s Wonder Woman. I want to believe that this film is more than Warner Bros. checking off their Wonder Woman box before eventually getting to November’s Justice League, but I’m not entirely convinced it was. Millions of people have been waiting to hear this story, but we had to first wait until Bruce Wayne wanted to hear it. Framing Wonder Woman’s origin story in the context of her involvement with the impending Justice League takes away the strength, power, and beauty Wonder Woman possesses on her own.

 

Wonder Woman the superhero film does, however, succeed on so many levels. The film gracefully explores themes of empathy, the morally gray area within the soul, and self-discovery. Aside from some lackluster, (albeit fun) villains, the true villains of this story are societal norms. Sameer even makes mention that we don’t always get to be what we want to be and that we all have our own battles to fight. And while Sameer means psychological and sociological battles, the physical battle scenes are exquisite as well (excluding the final, typical blockbuster Ares sequence). Not only are the battles well fought, but everyone looks so damn good fighting them. The production of this film really nails the Themyscira and WWI-era Earth aesthetic, and Wonder Woman herself has never looked better. I also appreciate that she has the most badass theme in recent history, which is adrenaline inducing, and more importantly, memorable. I haven’t been able to shake it since I heard it, nor would I want to.

 

Wonder Woman is the hero we need, without a doubt. Diana Prince has been finally and intelligently realized. It’s beyond time we’ve witnessed a strong, independent, female superhero that is driven by love and compassion. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, wasn’t quite the hero I wanted. With a little more attention to detail, and perhaps some female hands in the story and screenplay kitchen, this film could have jumped just a little higher over a few of those equality hurdles.  I enjoyed the time spent watching the film, but I enjoyed the money I spent even more. We’re screaming for more Ripleys, Leias, and Imperator Furiosas. I think they’re starting to hear us.

 

 

Bernadette Gorman 

 

Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using.  She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full.  She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.

 

 

 

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