An excerpt from Feminist Flicker — a fortnightly column that decodes sexism in film — written by Sarah Myles. The whole piece is available now, on https://channillo.com/ and Sarah Myles is on Twitter as @sjmyles Please note, this piece contains spoilers.
While Superman and Batman have enjoyed seven decades of adaptation across media – including radio, television, literature, video games, animation, and live-action cinema — Wonder Woman was conspicuously left behind. She was marginalised, despite being one third of the famed DC Trinity, and a founding member of the Justice League — with over 75 years of almost continuous publication to draw upon. Other than a brief period of glory in live-action television almost 40 years ago (with the magnificent Lynda Carter in the role), the Amazonian Warrior Princess has been almost exclusively confined to animation — despite the vocal demands of her devoted fan-base.
Many excuses were spun over the years — familiar lines about how audiences just aren’t interested in female action heroes; and complaints about how her origin story — based in Greek mythology — is “too tricky” to translate properly onto the big screen in a way that would “do justice” to the character. All of that is demonstrably absurd, of course. On the rare occasions that audiences are given the opportunity, well-executed female action hero movies have been repeatedly embraced. Also, how is an origin story based in Greek mythology “too tricky,” but a white dude finding a dying alien who bestows upon him a magic ring and lantern (as in 2011’s Green Lantern) is somehow ripe for cinematic adaptation? A greek mythology basis did not seem “too tricky” for 2011’s Immortals, or 2004’s Troy, or either of the two versions of Clash Of The Titans. There’s also the small matter of Zack Snyder’s wildly popular 2006 film 300, of course — but these cases seem to magically disappear from history when a justification for failing to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen is required.
The fact is, the only thing “too tricky” about Wonder Woman is the fact that she comes from the fictional island of Themyscira — home to the Amazons. This is “tricky,” because any Wonder Woman movie would necessarily involve Diana of Themyscira leaving her all-female homeland for Man’s World — and would instantly highlight the utterly ludicrous nature of the sexism and misogyny we endure in our daily lives. Thus, a well-executed, popular Wonder Woman movie poses a threat to the patriarchal status quo, in real terms. Just as the constant centering of white men in pop culture props up sexism in society, so the success of something different has the power to counteract that effect — even just a little.
And, by the power of Hippolyta, that is exactly what director Patty Jenkins has finally delivered – with a critically acclaimed live-action Wonder Woman origin story that has dominated the box office, and the media, around the world. To be clear, it earned $460 million worldwide in just 14 days. For context, that is half the amount that testosterone-soaked Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice earned worldwide in its entire theatrical run.
So, let’s look at this game-changer of a movie. The childhood of Princess Diana of Themyscira is vitally important to both the character, and her story — and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman does a great job of laying this foundation, before heading into the years of the superhero’s transformative experiences. As the film begins, we are immersed in the beauty and rhythm of life on Themyscira. Isolated, sun-soaked, and surrounded by clear, blue ocean waters — this place is a glorious, egalitarian paradise. As we meet the child Diana (Lilly Aspell), we come to understand that she is a wilful girl, determined to pursue her own interests, emulating the Amazon warriors as they go about their training – despite the objections of her mother, Queen Hippolyta.
There are sequences that sweep through the training ground — lingering on many Amazons as they perfect their battle stances and fighting techniques. This army is made up of a diverse collection of women — with all shapes, sizes, colours, and specialties represented — and they make a fearsome squad. Notably, they have a very distinctive fighting technique which is different from anything we’ve seen before. These warriors are individually capable, but operate together as a unit — each one a moving part of a larger whole. Diana — forbidden from following in their footsteps by her mother — regularly sneaks away and stands on the hill above the training ground, copying the moves of the Amazons.
Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) — a proven warrior in her own right — spends time explaining the war-torn history of the Amazons to Diana, in the hope that she will accept that her mother wishes for a different life for her daughter. She tells Diana of the suffering the Amazons once endured at the hands of man, and of their fight for the right to liberty. Diana, however, remains drawn to the warrior life — and her Aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) agrees to train her in secret. We see Diana as a teenager (Emily Carey) begin to develop her skills and, soon enough, she is a grown woman (Gal Gadot) beginning to understand that she is somehow different than those Amazons she has been so desperate to become.
After a particularly frustrating training session, Diana heads to the cliffs to gather her thoughts, and sees a WWI airplane appear in the sky, and crash into the ocean. Without hesitation, she dives into the water and swims to the wreckage – rescuing the pilot. He is revealed to be Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and he is pursued by Nazi forces, which soon arrive on the shores of Themyscira, too. These soldiers are then immediately greeted with the full force of the Amazon Army.
The Amazons — led by Hippolyta and Antiope — arrive on the clifftop, and take in the scene: Diana on the beach, with armed men advancing upon her and the island. A single warrior swings down across the cliff-face using her bow and arrow, and a Nazi soldier fires a bullet – which strikes the Amazon dead. Diana screams, Steve Trevor dives to protect her, and the mighty Amazonians are immediately pounding across the sand on horseback, with unrelenting ferocity.
The Amazons are armed with bows, arrows, spears and knives, and the Nazi forces slaughter a number of them from a distance with their rifles. But, once the warriors are upon them, the Nazis are gradually wiped from the beach, with Hippolyta and Antiope leading the charge. Hippolyta demonstrates her skills earned in battle, as she leaps from her horse and strikes down an aggressor with her sword. But it is Antiope who turns the tide. A pocket of three Nazi snipers hiding behind a boulder poses an ongoing threat, so Antiope yells to her fellow warriors, “Shield!”, and thunders toward the area on foot. The Amazons in front of her drop down and turn, as she leaps into the air and uses their raised shields as alaunchpad. Rising high above the boulder, she spins mid-air and fires three arrows simultaneously — with deadly accuracy — but takes a final bullet as she lands. She dies in Diana’s arms.
The Amazons interrogate Steve Trevor, using the lasso of truth, and learn about World War I — or, “the war to end all wars.” He has important information about the development of poison gas by the Nazis, and he is determined to get these plans to the Allied forces in an effort to prevent mass murder. Diana becomes convinced that the conflict is the work of Ares, God Of War — the arch-nemesis of the Amazon civilisation. She argues that it is the Amazon’s sacred duty to protect the world from Ares, and they should go and kill him. Hippolyta disagrees – her past experiences having led her to conclude that mankind is not deserving of help. Diana persists, however. She eventually defies her mother by stealing the ‘Godkiller’ sword and a warrior suit from display, and heads to a boat with Steve Trevor, with the intention of sailing to London. Hippolyta finds them before they depart and, after some quiet discussion, she accepts Diana’s decision to leave.
What follows is Diana’s journey to becoming Wonder Woman, within her quest to bring peace to a conflicted human race. With Steve Trevor, and his colleagues — Etta (Lucy Davis), Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) — she confronts the absurdity of the patriarchal approach to governance and mechanised warfare, and rises to become a leader of heroes. She achieves this with the use of emotional intelligence, and a determination to defend those that are unable to defend themselves. As a result, she embraces her destiny and that of the Amazon civilisation, by finding the intimidating Ares, and facing him down.
The reason that Wonder Woman succeeds so spectacularly as a narrative film is because it builds upon that solid foundation of Themyscira and the relationship between Hippolyta, Antiope, and Diana – and brings us to a point where we are seeing our own world through her eyes. Those are the eyes of a young woman who has faced relatable frustrations, despite hailing from a strange land. She has consistently been told ‘no,’ every time she has wanted to pursue something, because people have sought to protect her, and guide her to a destiny or purpose not of her own choosing. She has been eager to progress, and head out into the world — to leave the confines of what has previously been her ‘comfort zone’. She has found her sense of safety damaged by the uninvited actions of mankind, and seeks to figure out a way to respond to that, without derailing her whole sense of self.
From those relatable frustrations, she heads into her future — seeking to help others. She brings with her the knowledge and experience of being raised in an egalitarian society, entirely free of patriarchy. This is the most important point about Diana’s choice to go to Man’s World. Seeing our world through the eyes of a woman that has never experienced patriarchy makes our world seem nonsensical, and its violence pointless. Through countless moments, woven into the overarching character and plot arcs, Wonder Woman lays the fallacies of our society bare — and it is breathtaking to behold. By virtue of the nature of the lead character, and her excellent depiction by Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman neither preaches, nor scolds — nor does it present itself as some kind of feminist manifesto. Rather, it introduces us to a remarkable hero, and we are then compelled to join her on her adventure — and the things we observe along the way simply reveal the reality of our history and our lives. Wonder Woman acknowledges and validates the lived experience of every woman, without ever alienating men.
This is because men play an important role in the movie in both the action, and the pulling back of the metaphorical curtain on our sexist reality. The first thing Steve Trevor does with Diana upon their arrival in London is to take her shopping for clothes that are ‘socially acceptable’. He enlists the help of his secretary, Etta, and they spend time in a department store, trying on various era-specific outfits. It is an opportunity for some effective comedic moments, but it really serves as the first indication of what Man’s World actually is, and all the ways in which it is the antithesis of Themyscira.
On Themyscira, Steve and Diana spend a little time getting to know one another, and they share a hilarious moment as Steve recuperates in healing pools. Rising naked from the water (his is the only nudity in the film), he is alarmed to find Diana looking at him. She asks if he is an example of an “average man,” as he tries to hide his manhood from view – and he sheepishly replies that he is “above average.”
Looking down, she asks, “What is that?” and, knowing that she comes from an all-female race, Steve begins to attempt explaining male genitalia — before realising that she is actually referring to his watch. When he explains the function of that item, she asks, “You let that little thing tell you what to do?” It is the perfect skewering of Steve’s male hubris, while also being the first comment from Diana on the absurdity of man’s ways.
When Steve and Diana are between Themyscira and London, sailing in their boat, they begin to bed down for the night, and have an important discussion about social expectations and perceptions. Steve tries to explain why he feels compelled to sleep in an uncomfortable spot on the boat to avoid sleeping next to Diana – because that should be reserved for married couples. Diana is unaware of the concept of marriage because, again, it is a man-made social construct. Diana tries to read between the lines of Steve’s coy musings on what is permissible outside of wedlock, and she refers to the “pleasures of the flesh” — of which she is aware. She then states that she read a number of literary volumes which concluded that men are essential for biological procreation, but are not necessary at all for pleasure. To this, Steve has no counter-argument.
This is an important moment to have at this point in their journey. Firstly, as a general note, it gives a sizeable and welcome nod to the bisexuality of the character of Wonder Woman, within a snippet of dialogue that is clear, concise, and to-the-point in such a way that it almost cuts right to the heart of male insecurity. Secondly, and specifically, this takes place as Diana is striking out — literally — into uncharted waters. She is about to encounter an entirely different culture for the first time, and this conversation serves to ground her in her own reality, before she faces the onslaught of blatant misogyny that awaits her in Man’s World.
In London, Diana is forced to change her appearance, in order to ‘blend in’. But, the world into which she is required to ‘blend’ is a patriarchal one, so it seems strange and unnatural to see her as a civilian woman in the fashions of the early 1900s. She is forced to relinquish her sword and shield, because these do not ‘blend’ in, either. She is forced to take a back seat as Steve Trevor tries to reason with the Allied Generals in Whitehall, having provided them with documented evidence stolen from the Nazi scientist Dr Maru (Elena Anaya), indicating an imminent poison gas attack. Each of these points is contrary to her natural instinct.
But, when Steve, Diana, and their team finally arrive at the front in Belgium, Diana plants her feet and refuses to be forced into any more of these contrary actions. She sees the terrible suffering of the Allied forces in the trench. She speaks to a starving young woman and her child, who tell her that the people of the nearby village have been enslaved and tortured, and Diana refuses to go any further. Steve Trevor tells her that, in war, it is impossible to save everybody, and that they must reach the location of the poison gas and leave these troops and villagers behind.
“That’s No Man’s Land!” he yells — explaining that Nazi snipers have prevented anyone from moving out of the trench.
At that, she removes her cloak to reveal to all present her full battle armour, and begins to climb the ladder. Steve yells at her to stop, but Diana keeps going — finally feeling an unshakeable faith in herself, and her instincts. Bullets begin to fly toward her, and she deflects them easily with her bracelets. The Nazi forces fire more rapidly, and Diana picks up speed — drawing her sword and shield, and using them to battle across the wasteland. Suddenly, Steve Trevor turns to the troops and, inspired by her actions, exclaims, “She’s drawing their fire! Let’s go!” And they charge across the field in her wake — eventually taking the Nazi position, and entering the local occupied village.
This is the point at which the perception of Diana has changed for those around her. She has become Wonder Woman, and her colleagues are now in no doubt about her abilities. As they reach the outer wall of the village, they spot snipers in the upper floors of the buildings.
“Wait here — I’ll go ahead,” she says, and the men she is with suddenly obey her instructions without question. This stands in contrast with the earlier scene, in which Steve tells Diana to wait outside the board room, and she instantly ignores him.
But this is also where Wonder Woman diverges from the countless male-led superhero movies we’ve been subjected to over the years. Where Iron Man, Batman, Captain America, Superman, Thor, and even Ant-Man tend to steam ahead into the action as the sole capable person in the story, Wonder Woman specifically makes room for others. She is under no illusion about her capabilities, nor those of others, and she demonstrates exceptional leadership by not only inspiring those around her to action, but also by allowing them the space to do their thing.
She learns this when she metaphorically steps on the toes of Steve Trevor, as he tries to infiltrate a Nazi ball and get close to the evil Dr Maru. Diana, who was again ‘supposed’ to wait outside, enters the room in a stolen ball gown, with her ‘Godkiller’ sword tucked in the back. She thinks she is going to confront Ares, whom she has identified as being disguised as the Nazi commander Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who works with Dr Maru. In interacting with him, though, she distracts Steve Trevor, and foils his hitherto effective plan. This is a vital lesson for the fledgling superhero, as her own plan also fails, and Ludendorff and Maru escape to enact their nefarious poisoning plot.
It is in the final act that Diana truly fulfils her Wonder Woman destiny, as she realises the nature of her true identity, and finds herself facing down the real Ares in the same location as the stock of poison gas bombs. She is without her sword and shield, and is matched, blow for blow by the God Of War. Sameer, The Chief, and Charlie are pinned down by enemy fire, and Diana is momentarily incapacitated by a massive explosion. Steve Trevor appears, and brings her back to her feet. He tries to tell her something, but she cannot hear him, and he races off after the plane carrying the gas.
Diana then searches for meaning. It feels as though all is lost, and our heroes are outmatched. Diana sees mankind slaughtering itself all around her, and remembers the words of Hippolyta – that “they do not deserve you.” But then, she sees Sameer, The Chief and Charlie embrace each other in genuine friendship, as they face certain death. She finally understands what it was that Steve Trevor was trying to say – “I’ll save today, you can save the world.” She looks up, and watches as Steve Trevor takes the controls of the poison-laden plane, and sacrifices himself by blowing it up.
Inspired and incensed in equal measure, Diana digs deep and finds the Amazon power within herself. With a ferocious roar, she rises into the air, brings her bracelets together, and blasts Ares with an unprecedented energy pulse. She relentlessly attacks him until he is destroyed — which gives the Allied soldiers on the ground the upper hand in their battle with the Nazis. But, this fight in particular has clarified the reality of mankind for Diana. She arrived in London naively believing that mankind is inherently ‘good,’ and that any conflict is caused entirely by the influence of the God Of War. She is convinced that, as soon as she kills Ares, mankind will suddenly become peaceful.
She comes to realise that this is not the case, though. She comes to realise that the violence of mankind is not caused by Ares, but is instead caused by the pursuit and desire for power over others — and that the inevitable by-product of such plans is oppression and violent destruction. In this way, Wonder Woman is a film that appeals to all. She is not just fighting patriarchy as a singular concept — she is fighting oppression, and injustice, across the board. When viewed through this lens, we see that Wonder Woman is an origin story in a variety of different ways. It is the origin story of the Amazonian Warrior Princess, yes, but it is also the origin story of both equality, and inequality.
The young Diana is all of us, when we take our first breath. We do not arrive in this world with an awareness of inequality and oppression — we arrive filled with unlimited potential. It is social conditioning and circumstance that informs us of the ugliness of mankind, and forces us to internalise misogyny just as Diana is forced to conform to patriarchal norms when she first arrives in London. We are programmed — by way of familial circumstance, national economy, exposure to the media, educational opportunities (or lack thereof), and interactions with others — to become participants in our own oppression, in service of perpetuating a status quo that exists for the purpose of breeding inequality.
It is this programming that is reflected in the second act of the film, when Diana arrives in London and is forced into behaviours that are contrary to her natural, egalitarian instinct. This is why the No Man’s Land sequence — when Diana defies those around her and strides across the battlefield — is such an emotional moment to watch. We are seeing the power that lies in the rejection of that social programming; the strength that can be borne of rejecting the status quo that declares one human-defined category of person to be more valuable than another; the hypocrisy that lies within the fallacy of ‘the greater good’, which is always code for that which benefits those already in a power position. And, it is a female character that is showing it all to us.
It is not a perfect film, and there is criticism to be rightly made of the way in which women of colour are included. While crowd shots of the Amazons indicate that a notable number of black, Asian, and Latina women are ably filling the roles of both warriors and Senators, this representation is still lacking when compared to the way in which characters of colour appear in the comic book source material. For example, the characters of Philippus and Artemis are present in the movie (played by Ann Ogbomo and Ann Wolfe, respectively) but their level of visibility does not reflect the vital role they have played in the actual origin of Wonder Woman. This marginalisation of women of colour is therefore reflective — albeit to a lesser extent than most cases — of the tendency to centre white women in big budget, women-led films, as opposed to all women.
While acknowledging these important flaws, we also celebrate the fact that this movie sees the character of Wonder Woman finally fulfil the purpose on the big screen that she has been fulfilling for over 75 years in comic books — to show us that there is a different, better way. It is an idea that is rarely seen in narrative film — even in the fantastical worlds of science fiction and futuristic stories — and the reason for that is patriarchy, plain and simple. What Patty Jenkins (and writers Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder) has achieved here cannot be overstated — delivering a new instalment into a saturated genre that, not only brings a fresh perspective, but also challenges the status quo directly.
Wonder Woman has arrived — and not a moment too soon.
Be sure to check out Sarah’s piece on Women and Comic Book Movies and her discussion of Women in Horror. (And thank you again Sarah for your contributions)