Wonder Woman (2017) – votum separatum

wonder-woman

There’s been a lot of talk about Wonder Woman, very favorable reviews (one of them, by Piotrek, on this blog), fan hype and critical acclaim. The movie’s heyday is already past, with Justice League on screen and other superhero movies crowding the benches. So why do I come back to it now?

Well, probably partly because I’ve been recently reading Moses Finley’s seminal work, The World of Odysseus – very highly recommended to anyone interested in ancient Greece. And partly because the movie sits like a thorn in my side, its popularity and acclaim, when confronted with its painfully stereotypical message, truly baffling.

Wonder Woman has been hailed as the first superhero movie with a woman as a lead. This is surely something laudable? After all, thanks to this movie we’ve read about subversive feminism and whatnots, discussed chainmail bikinis as a source of empowerment or subjugation, depending on one’s stance, and so on. Even Gloria Steinem took a stand, saying the film was very good, although noting at the same time that she “may be desperate – […] just happy that the Amazons had wild hair”. It’s been called the best of DCU movies so far, and while it in itself is not a big feat, it definitely forces comparison to other movies. It all seems highly beneficial to a summer flick which on its own is rather mediocre. We’ve all probably heard the voice of reason, saying, “it’s not perfect, but better this than nothing”, “it’s a step in right direction”, “I’ve seen worse”.

Fair enough. Most of it bears up to scrutiny, I suppose. Still, my idealism seems incurable. I’m not satisfied with “steps in right direction”. If you make a high-grossing movie and label it as a female-centered, creating a female fanbase, you should not only strive to make it live up to the expectations, but to surpass them. You’re making new tracks in the snow – why not go bold and risk something? I’m actually all for Spidey’s motto (Voltaire authorship is still disputed, but you can go with Luke 12:48 :P), “With great power comes great responsibility”.

spidermanresponsibility

Wonder Woman had become a very popular blockbuster, with a sizeable impact on popular culture. So let’s take a closer look at the message it conveys.

The movie’s main protagonist is Diana, the princess of Themiscyra/Themyscira, the Utopian island of Amazons hidden by gods from the eyes of man. Diana is strong and willful, learned in languages and theoretical sex (one of the lamest jokes of the movie, btw), and, first and foremost, is beautiful. She wears makeup in every single scene, and her face is fresh and spotless even in the middle of the fiercest battle – just as her hair. She fights with her hair unbound, in a mail straight from cosplay garage sale, which protects almost nothing but nicely emphasizes her shapes. In contrast, Ares, after all a god from the same pantheon, wears a full body armor, with greaves, shin protection and a full-face helmet. What kind of subversive feminism is that? That you can flaunt your naked thighs in clear breach of any physical laws, just to show that you can be sexy and strong at the same time? Is it an evolutionary adaptation akin to peacock’s tail or antlers of a deer? If so, why not go naked?

WonderWoman

To be clear: she can, and she should be beautiful. She just needn’t be an eye-candy, pimped-out in every scene. In discussion centered around themes of graphic violence, strength and fighting, Trinity looks much more like the embodiment of female empowerment to me:

trinity

Diana’s not-so-formidable enemy, Ares, makes plans and long-term strategies, not barges into battle mindlessly, at the dictates of his heart. He is clever, deeply involved in modern politics and war. Diana is a newcomer, without knowledge, without skill, but with a heart as big as the world, prattling all movie long about the force of love as the saving power of universe. And here we come to the oldest stereotype of all, one I had shortly discussed in the review of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. The opposition between male and female as the metaphoric transformation of the opposition between culture and nature. Men are rational, whereas women are intuitive. Men think, women feel. Men create technology, women long for peaceful Arcadian life. It is this exact myth which Ares uses in his attempt to get Diana to his side. It is this exact myth which Diana is sorely tempted to follow. It’s in her nature, right? According to this stereotype, women, through their physiology, are bound to the natural order of things and unable to transcend it. They need men to enable them. Just look at the first half of the movie. Dumb Diana’s teacher and protector in the modern world is Steve Trevor, a worldly, charming man who can mold her like Galatea, like Fanny. And molded she is, falling in love with her creator. Yeah, I realize Thor in his first movie was dumb as well, another god learning on the go the ways of humans – but the difference is that he grew. He evolved. This is an origin story, after all. If the main protagonist doesn’t change, even a bit, than it’s simply a shitty origin story. And Diana ends the story not much different from when she began – more worldly, sure, and the only god of Greek pantheon to be alive, but that’s about it.

The confirmation of this stereotype comes unexpectedly in the form of the second woman in the movie – the evil Isabel Maru. She is far removed from her natural roots, dabbing in the man’s domain: science. Her beauty is marred, and her evil becomes unmasked for all to see in a scene where her real porcelain mask is lifted and an ugly, scarred face half-leers at the audience. A good woman versus and evil one. A force of nature and good heart versus horrors of science and cynical, logical brain.

Isabel Maru

I could go on, discussing the idea of putting the whole movie during WWI and the logical conundrum of WWII in this case, or about anachronisms in a time-set piece, from zippers to motorcycles… A nice list can be found here. I could take my time and pull apart the flimsy logic holding the plot together – for the plot is really thin. However, all of these are, ironically enough, details I really don’t mind so much. It is a superhero movie, after all, based on a series of comic books where the empowerment of the main protagonist was mostly sexual (the lasso and bondage fetishes, to name a few). Considering the background, and the other DCU entries to date, and the WB desperation to score a safe hit, the end result seems like a lesser evil. It is a professional production, with solid CGI and heartfelt performances, especially from the main lead. And yet, I was really disappointed. My disenchantment here, just as with Thor: Ragnarok, stems partly from what the movie is, but also from what it could have been. I see it as a lost chance to create something ambitious, something that can really impact the popular culture in new, unique, thoughtful ways. Is Diana really the best female superhero role-model we have? Then I guess it’s time to create a new one. Wonder Woman reminded me of a very passionate and disheartening quote from Adorno’s Minima Moralia:

Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before

Score: 2/10

14 thoughts on “Wonder Woman (2017) – votum separatum

  1. I don’t wanna repeat my review here, and I feel it features my opinion on many points raised. You demand too much from a superheroine blockbuster, and the movie you want probably couldn’t be about Wonder Woman.
    They escaped many of the traps, and did something digestible for the mass audience, and, I’d argue (I did argue, actually), a good movie about a strong female character. She does grow here, and the results of that growth had been already seen even before that movie, in her short role in BvS. In Justice League she’s reportedly a leader (and the only reson I’ll see this movie, sooner or later).
    I’d happily see live action adaptations of Rat Queens or Squirell Girl, but I’m afraid you just have to hope Captain Marvel won’t disappoint you…

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    • That is true – WW was never my favorite character, despite the fact that she had been a feminist icon for a while, and a role model for many women, at least in the U.S. As I said: it’s a review of an idealist about a lesser evil 🙂 But even from the cinematic perspective it was only very average for me.
      I have some hopes for Captain Marvel, especially after GotG, where Gamorra and Nebula both have really strong roles 🙂

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  2. One thing is to have fun and entertainment watching the movie – that is delivered by almost all super heroes movies/series (…well mostly from Marvel). Another is the viewers impact. It’s like with Star Trek which has always been challenging taboos. When someone does the remake I do expect the same no matter how the CGI looks like. You may expect less but with such budget why not more? 😉

    WW suppose to be the long-waited-strong-women-appreciation (so not just another superhero) movie. It was being sold that way and was received and reviewed as such as well! The fact that so little is enough for viewers shout: “Finally superhero women rocks!” makes me sad…

    IMO 2/10 is too low for the entire movie but to send the “stop loosing chances and think bigger” message to the world – why not! 🙂

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  3. “Wonder Woman has been hailed as the first superhero movie with a woman as a lead.”

    I don’t know why it’s hailed as such. People have apparently forgotten about “Catwoman” and “Electra” – which is understandable, since the reviews didn’t treat those movies kindly.

    It sounds like you wanted the movie-makers to reinvent the character to fit your ideals. Yes, Wonder Woman has a ridiculous costume, but she’s had it for decades – making major changes to it would likely be disastrous. Yes, she’s a naive Amazon and needs help from men – that’s her origin story. Yes, she’s too beautiful, but most super-heroines (and super-heroes!) are.

    It’s like someone saying, “My ideal for a superhero is someone just and honorable, and that’s why that Deadpool movie pissed me off! He’s so mean, snarky, and violent!” Well, Deadpool is Deadpool. If someone doesn’t like the Merc with a Mouth, that’s fine – there are more wholesome heroes out there. But to ask for the creators to change him to fit a whim is fallacy.

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    • Well, it should be “the first decent superhero movie with female lead”, but that would be too long 😉
      Personally I think this one goes as far into the right direction as it is possible with WW, she is not the character to lead a truly feminist movie. It also is a generally good movie for many different reasons. So, I mostly agree with you.
      Of course, that doesn’t change the fact one can criticize Wonder Woman, even when she’s done in a way that’s true to her origins. These are quite controversial origins…
      Finally, aren’t superheroes constantly reinvented?

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      • “Personally I think this one goes as far into the right direction as it is possible with WW, she is not the character to lead a truly feminist movie.”

        Agree with the first part. The second part…what is “truly feminist”? Wonder Woman has a gorgeous kick-ass character, and it’s still not good enough, because (going by OlaG’s post) she wears too much makeup, shows off her thighs, and is too emotional.

        “Finally, aren’t superheroes constantly reinvented?”

        That they are, but reinvention usually takes place in the comics, not on the silver screen. In the comics, you can take an established character(s) and revamp their regular monthly series, and if it doesn’t work, you adjust. You can even launch a new series and experiment – or even a new universe, such as Marvel’s Ultimate Universe.

        A movie, by contrast, is a one-shot deal. You can’t hit the redo button if it flops. Well, you can, technically, but you do it by making another movie, which usually takes years and costs millions of dollars. Therefore, it’s understandable that the studios want a safe blockbuster, not a reinvention. These are businesspeople, not revolutionaries.

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        • As you rightly noticed, a gorgeous kick-ass character is not enough for me, exactly because it’s main characteristic is being beautiful. Beautiful does not equal “all the time in make-up” or “showing off thighs”. It doesn’t necessarily translate into an eye-candy. It doesn’t need to be emphasized time and again, verbally or with the use of said make-up. But if this argument is the only thing you took from my review, I wasn’t communicating clearly. So, shortly: the new adaptation of WW still uses gender-based stereotypes which clearly oppose the all-feminist idea of “political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes” (to quote Wikipedia).

          Yes, I wanted the WW to be reinvented. This is – and I agree with Piotrek – what happens to most of the superheroes, all the time. At least in Marvel. And not only in comics. We don’t have to go to the Ultimates versions to see the constant changes many of the main characters go through. Wolverine was first conceived as a villain. It didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most popular heroes/antiheroes of Marvel universe. What about Loki? Or even Hulk, with several origin stories up to date. Hell, even WW has at least 2 origin stories. I will even go as far as saying that it is exactly this willingness to risk and change that differentiates MCU from DCU – and their successes – accordingly.

          Wonder Woman was a revolutionary feminist symbol back in the 50’s and 60’s – Gloria Steinem even put her on the cover of her magazine. But we don’t live in those times anymore – and faithfulness to a character doesn’t mean we need to go through all the SM kinks, blatant racism and other woes of the early WW comic books. Marston’s idea “that seeing women in a dominant way, sexual or otherwise, would teach boys and men to respect powerful women” might have been correct then and still is now – but I can see many ways in which it can be improved upon today.

          Finally, you’re right saying that the movie studios want safe choices that make money and not revolutionize the popular culture.
          However, I believe that those two things are not mutually exclusive. Making the first Iron Man (seriously reinvented, btw) was a risk. It paid off in more than one way, reviving the stagnating Marvel world and paving way for many more comic book adaptations to come. I believe that blockbusters still can say something important about us and the world. When they don’t, I see them as an escapist entertainment and a lost chance.

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          • “WW still uses gender-based stereotypes”

            The things you see as stereotypical I see as standard superhero storytelling, regardless of gender.

            But since we’re talking about it, I’ll just toss something out. What about the scene where Trevor is bathing in the cave? Is that objectification and humiliation?

            “Dumb Diana” – seriously? She’s been tossed from a small, peaceful world without complications to a massive world in the middle of a destructive war. Of course she’s going to be ignorant.

            Steve Trevor “molds” her? Well, yeah – she’s an immensely powerful being who may be able to bring about peace. Is he not supposed to persuade her or argue with her? Is just supposed to say, “Please help us, but only if you want to”?

            Yes, they fall in love, because they’re two brave, strong people caught in passionate events. Who should Diana have fallen for, if not Trevor? Or would you rather have had no romance at all?

            Regarding reinventing characters: I already agreed that it happens all the time – in the comics. My point was if your aim is to create a movie blockbuster, trying something that’s completely different from the comics is a major risk. Comics are an ideal testing ground: relatively cheap to produce, easy to change course. Movies are not.

            If you want WW (or any other character) reinvented, I suggest you focus on the comic books, rather than expecting a big budget, high risk movie production to follow your guidelines.

            “Making the first Iron Man (seriously reinvented, btw) was a risk.”

            It was reinvented? How?

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          • I think this particular discussion just reached a point where clearly defined positions aren’t going to get any closer… but it’s been quite a lively and interesting one 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

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