Wonder Woman: The Hero We Need in a Film That Falls Short

After seeing Wonder Woman last Friday and having a chat on Facebook Live to share our immediate impressions, Anita and I exchanged emails this weekend to discuss the film in more detail once we’d had a little time to process their thoughts. Be aware that we talk about the ending in some detail, so…

Anita: There’s a moment about midway through Wonder Woman where Diana of Themyscira witnesses firsthand the suffering and strife happening in an area where German forces have held Allied soldiers in a stalemate for months on end. Unable to walk on and do nothing, she fearlessly rises up from the trenches onto a bleak French battlefield and strides toward the German encampment, a blaze of life in a place utterly drained of it. Witnessing the conviction and ferocity in Diana’s eyes, I felt something stir in me that has always been there but rarely comes to life; the yearning, so rarely fulfilled, for images of women being the larger-than-life heroes men so often get to be, rather than just the ones who need the aid of a hero.

Carolyn: I loved that moment, too. (I may be dating myself by saying this, but it’s the same thing that drew me to She-Ra in the era of He-Man.) And because I so rarely see such images, and so strongly feel the need for them, perhaps I’m inclined to go a little easy on Wonder Woman. Certainly the discourse in general has been much too hard on the film, even before its release, with articles on film sites inadvertently replicating the very sexism in Hollywood one hopes a film like Wonder Woman, if successful, might help to dissipate in some small way, by citing what a risk the studio was taking by trusting director Patty Jenkins, whose previous film, 2003’s Monster, was very successful for an indie and earned its star, Charlize Theron, an Oscar.

Anita: The weight that’s been placed on this film is definitely unfair on multiple levels; not only is it directed by a woman, but we’re talking about one of the most iconic characters in comic book history, created over 75 years ago, who only now got her own movie. Ant-Man got a movie before she did!

Carolyn: It’s true! This movie is fighting an uphill battle on multiple fronts, and because it’s so rare for a big-budget film to either be about a woman or to be directed by a woman, and this film is doing both, it feels like there’s so much riding on its success. And there shouldn’t be. For the record, I do think it’s a genuinely well-directed film, at times audacious and almost operatic, simmering just under the line of going over-the-top, all the while maintaining its sincerity and heart. But it’s also true that it shouldn’t matter so much.

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Male directors including Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards are constantly given massive franchise films to direct on the strength of an indie hit and rarely, if ever, are they subject to the kind of scrutiny or talk of “risk-taking” that loomed over Wonder Woman’s release with Patty Jenkins at the helm. As some have pointed out, we’ll know things are a little more equal in Hollywood when a bad movie about a female superhero, or a bad big-budget franchise film with a female director, comes out and nobody associates the failure of those involved with the gender of the character or director any more than they do when a male-centered, male-directed movie crashes and burns at the box office. But we’re not there yet, not by a longshot, and so, as someone who liked Wonder Woman, I’m not only glad that the word of mouth about it in my circles has been so positive; I’m also relieved.

Anita: I am, too, but I admit that my feelings about the film overall are less enthusiastic than yours and just about everyone’s, it seems. And while I understand the power and value of images like these, for me, on close interrogation, the film falls short. I was bothered by the way the film presented Diana as an icon of virtue and kindness who abhors suffering and cherishes human life above all while simultaneously depicting her mowing down tons of German soldiers. They’re just fodder, just “bad guys,” not really human and, as a result, not deserving of her compassion, or the film’s. It made the moment at the end in which she didn’t kill Dr. Poison feel really manipulative and hollow for me. The film wants to have its cake and eat it too, letting Diana revel in “badass” physical violence while still being this beacon of compassion.

Carolyn: I definitely share some of your feelings about the film’s handling of violence. That stirring scene you mentioned earlier, in which she strides across the battlefield without fear — she ends up drawing enemy fire, deflecting a thousand bullets, while Steve and his friends move in and do what they must: kill the enemy combatants. I would rather Diana had managed to get in close herself and use her strength, her prowess and that incredible lasso of hers to disarm them.

I did quite like much of the film’s politics, though. The bad guys are Germans (well, mostly Germans, and one Greek god), but I often felt that the true enemy in Diana’s eyes was war itself, and the suffering caused by it on all sides. I appreciated that the film didn’t let the United States off the hook; at one point dashing American hero Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) admits his own culpability in humankind’s history of war, and when Diana asks Steve’s Native American friend (played by Eugene Brave Rock) who took his people’s land, he looks over at Steve sleeping nearby and says, “His people.”

Anita: Yeah, I appreciated that moment, and hey, at least the film got people at Fox News to complain that it “isn’t patriotic enough!” But I also couldn’t forget about the politics of the film’s star, Gal Gadot. Of course, we shouldn’t hold the character of Wonder Woman accountable for the actor’s actions, but we also shouldn’t entirely separate our feelings about an actor as a person from our feelings about their work. Casey Affleck’s history of sexual harassment should impact how we think about him, and the legacy of a filmmaker like Woody Allen must ultimately be viewed through a lens which takes his horrifying transgressions into consideration. In Gal Gadot’s case, it was the awareness of racist comments she’s made about Palestinians that made me bristle when, as Diana, she declared that she was acting “in the name of all that is good in this world.” When she chastised a British military leader for acting as if some lives matter less than his own, I was pulled right out of the film’s fiction as my mind boggled, hearing this woman try to embody the principled ethos of Wonder Woman herself.

Carolyn: Absolutely, that troubled me, too. And it’s frustrating because I do think Gadot is well-cast in many ways; in her face resides all the righteous intensity the character calls for, and Jenkins makes the most of this asset, even as the film itself makes rather too much of Gadot’s body, turning her into a hero and an object simultaneously and giving us a world in which men everywhere are thunderstruck by Diana’s beauty. And sure, okay, I get that she’s literally a god, or something akin to one, anyway — she refers to Ares, the god of war, as “brother” at one point — but even Thor, which had no illusions about Chris Hemsworth’s attractiveness, doesn’t make it an intrinsic part of his character in the way that Wonder Woman makes Gadot’s attractiveness part of hers.

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Anita: The combination of the film’s fawning over her sexiness combined with the character’s complete and utter naivete about the workings of the world also didn’t sit right with me. I was grateful for Christina Cauterucci’s piece for Slate, “I Wish Wonder Woman Were as Feminist as It Thinks It Is,” for criticizing this, and other issues with the film. She mentions specifically how one character says “I’m both frightened and aroused” after Diana beats up some dudes, and I hated that. It’s as if the film is reminding us that, no matter how much respect we might have for Diana or how much we might be in awe of our powers, so many things about how she’s presented in this film, including that ridiculous outfit of hers, are designed to serve her up for the male gaze.

We live in a world in which women are constantly scrutinized and judged based on their appearance and being measured against unrealistic beauty standards, and I get that Wonder Woman is supposed to be beautiful but the film handled this in a way that reinforced ideas linking women’s beauty directly to their worth rather than challenging those ideas. And while some of the fish-out-of-water comedy was genuinely funny, I also felt that at times it was too much; sure, it “makes sense” in the context of the origin story this film is telling, but the film focused on it to a degree that undermined the character: she needs to learn about everything from a man: politics, war, the complexity of human nature, and, of course, sex.

Which brings me to the film’s ending. The climax was so generically Hollywood that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I don’t take issue with the film’s central love story; it felt sincere, and both Diana and Steve were well-developed characters. The film earned that. But the way everything hinges on the moment that Steve dies, the way that Diana is spent, on the brink of defeat, and then suddenly gets all of her power back as her heart overflows with love and grief, was so formulaic and predictable.

Carolyn: I totally agree that it was formulaic and predictable but what can I say? I’m a sucker for moments like that. Moments where love triumphs over all, because it’s not the way the world really is, but it’s the way I wish the world really was.

Anita: I know you are. And I do like that, in an era when so many of our superheroes are actually antiheroes, when so many of them are so “complicated” or “gritty,” Wonder Woman gives us a hero with a more sincere moral heroism, harkening back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films. I think we need that. And I love that the film begins with Diana as a young girl. That image is so powerful, so important; it gives young girls who see this film a way to see themselves in this character, too.

Carolyn: I agree. I take issue with almost any assertion that Wonder Woman is a “feminist” film, not because of what I think it says about our feelings about the film but because of what it says about our ideas about feminism. But for all its flaws, I think it’s still important; I think girls and women need and deserve images and stories like this. I think that in this day and age, we need more mythmaking about heroes who are brave, who have a strong moral compass, and who use their powers far more often for protection than violence. Maybe the way that people haven’t really responded positively to the gritty, grimdark DC Universe films up to this point, but are responding positively to Wonder Woman, says that there’s an appetite now for real heroes. Given the state of the world right now, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Wonder Woman’s Diana may be every bit as earnest and virtuous as Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and I appreciated a quote by Patty Jenkins that’s made the rounds on Twitter quite a bit these past few days: “Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing.” By the end of the film, I think Diana’s learned that she can let go of the moral idealism she brought with her from Themyscira without sacrificing her conviction or losing her sincerity. And whatever the future DC Universe films do with this character, god, I really hope they let her keep that.

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