Wonder Woman – the superhero(ine) film that launched a thousand “is it feminist?” thinkpieces. As Michelle Wolf of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah recently noted: “Everyone is putting way too much pressure on Wonder Woman, like everything for women hinges on its success or failure… No one left crappy Batman vs Superman saying ‘Well, I guess we’re done making man movies.’” How true. However, we’re not yet at a point in society where semi-feminist forays into the male-dominated world of comic books can go un-thinkpieced, so here we are. And here I am – a complete ignorant to the genre – adding another one to the general din.
Following a confusing opening sequence (“we’ll get back to this!!!” The film promises), Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins) situates us knee-deep in a warrior-model fever dream. The lush island of Themyscira is inhabited by our heroine, Diana, and an army of Amazons (i.e. a group of conventionally beautiful, tall women – including the last people of color we will see for the rest of the film). The Amazons spend their days preparing for the inevitable and violent return of Ares, the god of war, by training one another for battle.
Despite the fact that Themyscira is protected by a magic bubble that stops humans from finding it, a man named Steve manages to puncture it and crash into the ocean. With that he also punctures all our warrior-model lesbian separatist dreams. Sigh. Diana saves Steve from a watery death, followed by a battle between Steve and the Amazons and the “bad guys” AKA the Germans (is this Indiana fucking Jones? How are the Germans still the bad guy scapegoats in 2017? I get that this is how the original comic was written, but really?). Turns out, outside the bubble World War One is raging, and Diana and Steve embark on a poorly-planned mission to save the world. Before they leave, Diana’s mother says “Be careful in the world of men… for they do not deserve you.” All the women in the movie theatre nodded solemnly (or at least I did).
Here’s the thing about Diana. She is this incredible warrior force – practicing her sword-wielding in secret from a young age, able to smite “bad guys” with the flick of the wrist (as superheroes do) – and yet she is bizarrely naive about violence. She is a deeply empathic figure, squealing excitedly about babies (has anyone ever seen a male superhero do that? Just saying) and fighting passionately for a “good cause” (which, by the way, she knows absolutely nothing about, but ol’ Steve told her the Germans are pure evil, so he must be right!). She wants “peace” and is utterly flabbergasted at the sight of violence done by anyone but her. She literally talks about saving the “women and children”, but she has no idea what war entails, and no reservations about killing anyone Stevie boy declares “bad.” I guess superhero movies thrive on moral legibility.
Apart from the fact that this movie feels like a Reagan-era cinema throwback (the native American character named “Chief” who claims he feels “free” living amongst and fighting for his colonizers? Are you kidding me?), there are a few good bits. Yes, it’s good to see a ruthless warrior femme – an island of them! Diana tells Steve she read 12 volumes of a book about sex and that it’s thesis was that men are unnecessary for female pleasure (duh, but it’s a comic book blockbuster, folks, the standards are lower).
However, the problematics far outweigh the positives. The running “joke” of the film is how all of the many, many, many men (could there be more men in this film?) that encounter Diana throughout the film wildly underestimate her. And while I’m all for proving idiots wrong, the relentless dismissal of her abilities paired with the incessant comments about her appearance (all under the guise of early 20th Century everyday sexism) felt exhausting in an all-too-real way. Nothing really changes for Diana as the film progresses, except that the men in her life start saying the equivalent of “oh, okay cool” when she saves them from imminent peril, as opposed to a variation on “holy shit, you’re strong and can do things?” Nary a supporting character encounters Diana without commenting on how she looks. Men are constantly leering. Steve tells her her appearance is “distracting” exactly twice.
It’s realistic, certainly, but the fact that the film is set in the 1910s undermines its modern-day relevance. Everyone knows sexism was rampant (and structural) in the 1910s. Not everyone knows (admits) that it still is, and that it takes similar forms today. By relegating these still-relevant iterations of sexism to a bygone era and presenting them without much subversion, WW 2017 is doing itself a disservice. Is the average white male comic-bro going to see this and go “oh, sexism like this is still pervasive! Golly, I’m gonna implement some change, be a better ally”? More likely, it’ll reinforce the idea that basic early 20th Century misogyny has long since passed us by, and now we can all laugh at it together. But do we care what the average comic-bro does with this film? After all, some of them are currently having actual internet troll fights about the size of Gal Gadot’s breasts.
The crux of the issue is that Diana is so smitten with what is repeatedly called “mankind” despite its depraved representatives that she ends up making all of her decisions based on what men tell her to do. Steve says: those people are evil, kill them. She does. Diana’s final push to “save the world” following a period of disillusionment-lite is because of her love for Steve. “STEEEEEEEEEEEEVE” she yells as she breaks through concrete. Despite appearances, “Steve” is not a feminist Amazon warrior-cry. Wonder Woman makes Diana’s raison d’être – her actual will to live – men. Specifically, one fairly plain man (Steve!), and the “belief” in so-called mankind’s inherent goodness.