Why We Need Wonder Woman
It took Hollywood 76 years to make a big screen version of Wonder Woman. Multiple directors tried and failed, partly because Wonder Woman is a difficult character to bring to life and partly because of fear of something new. “The [superhero] genre became synonymous with young men, and so I think there was a concern that they wouldn't be as interested in a female lead, and it's taken years for that to sort itself out,” director Patty Jenkins told Cinemablend.
Now, she’s finally here—and in theaters today.
Although the film’s release is groundbreaking, the story itself is still informed by a male-led genre. Wonder Woman is for fans of Captain America, because that’s what this film is, essentially: Captain America in female form. The story is light and idealistic and takes place in the past—World War I, in this case. The good guys are rewarded and the bad guys have simple motives. Like Captain America’s alter ego Steve Rogers, Wonder Woman’s Diana—played by Gal Gadot—is a hero who believes in black and white but is thrust into a world of grey. She defines herself more by her ideals than her invulnerable powers. And she meets another true believer (Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor) who, though a mere mortal, fights the same fight for similar reasons.
The simple plot is made more interesting by “pretty” fight scenes (Diana looks like an Herbal Essences ad in the middle of a battlefield), by the funny moments of Diana’s confusion about the “real world,” and by Diana Prince herself (never actually referred to as Wonder Woman), who manages to be both stately and emotive, powerful and innocent.
Although the film follows a somewhat traditional script, it also deviates—because superheroing while female is a radical act.
Unlike most female superheroes, who for commercial reasons were invented as derivative versions of various superheroes (Supergirl, Batgirl, et al.), Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by a man immersed in the women’s rights movement.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” said William Moulton Marston, as part of his pitch for Wonder Woman. “Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”
In her making of the film, Jenkins—the first female director of a superhero movie—nods toward Wonder Woman’s controversial origins but steers clear of any overt feminist statements. There are no identity politics on display, perhaps because the movie itself is enough to spark a fire. (Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, provided some kindling by offering women-only screenings of the movie, launching protests online.)
Although Wonder Woman is not at all submissive, nonetheless she shows a wide range of emotions not always on display in more macho superheroes. She is tender and compassionate toward the vulnerable and besieged. She tells an attacker “I’m sorry” for subduing him. She sees suffering and responds. And she is motivated by empathy as much as by her “sacred duty to defend the world.”
“Who will I be if I stay?” Diana says to her mother before leaving home to fight in the war. Her urge to act is as much a part of her identity as her hard-won battle skills. She is an Amazon warrior who can outfight any man, whether Superman or human. But she is also completely, unforgettably female. Her costume plays up her female attributes, yes, but Jenkins—alongside scriptwriter Allan Heinberg—found other ways to ensure that she is more than just the girl version of a “real” (male) hero.
While Marston’s Wonder Woman was gendered but basically sexless, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is not. In the film, Trevor wonders whether Wonder Woman knows about “the pleasures of the flesh” and feels disarmed standing before her naked, but then she spends the night with him. It’s a moment of truth that seems to underline the “woman” part of Wonder Woman’s name. However, it also splits the story off from what is arguably a more ideal narrative—the virtuous hero. Captain America, for example, did not spend the night with Peggy.
What Jenkins has not created, however, is a relatable female superhero, and plot holes aside, that might be the biggest flaw in the movie.
I could relate to Diana’s drive and ambition as a child, but the adult Diana is icy and stately—one of those women that seems too perfect to be friends with. In other words, she has a lot of guy friends, most of them super-powered. Although the movie nods toward female friendship with a character named Etta (Lucy Davis), Diana otherwise towers above—both physically and metaphorically—the other women in the story. She sets her own moral code and doesn’t need anyone—not Trevor, not even the women who raised her in the mythical world of Themyscira. She loves, apparently, but without any of the mess we mortals endure in our relationships. She even has impeccable taste in non-Amazonian clothes.
As an aspirational figure, Wonder Woman falls short by far. But as a model of moral courage, she’s more interesting. In the story, Diana experiences the limits of her own understanding of justice—a simple desire to set things “right” in the world—and discovers that the “good guys” are not always good and that darkness and light sometimes co-exist in mankind. “Men are easily corrupted,” one character says.
Although Diana sees that corruption, she still believes that humanity deserves a chance to be saved. It’s an interesting concept that will resound with those of us who believe in the total depravity of man apart from God. However, in Wonder Woman’s world, where she was “created” by the Greek god Zeus, it is the demigods and heroes who fight on behalf of corrupt mankind. As theology, it’s alarming. Diana—who briefly flirts with the idea of aligning herself with Ares, the god of war—never comes to the realization that she has no divine right to set herself up as the righteous judge of humanity. (This attitude might sound familiar to those who hated Man of Steel.)
The subplot about whether mankind “deserves” the help of demigods like Diana is ultimately resolved by Trevor delivering his own version of Shakespeare’s Henry V motivational speech. He is the one who convinces Diana to keep fighting for humanity. Ultimately, Diana declares, “It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. … Only love will truly save the world.”
I like superhero movies precisely because their heroes get to make grand pronouncements like this one. Setting aside the questionable set-up involving gods, immortality, and supernatural powers, Wonder Woman, like other superheroes, still exemplifies a higher value system.
That’s why summer after summer, I contribute to the box office count for superhero films—and this year, I’m happy to see a woman play the hero, even a flawed one.
Alicia Cohn is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Christianity Today. She works as an editor at The Hill newspaper in Washington, DC, and also writes for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, 5280 Magazine and Thrillist.