Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter
In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.
When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?
Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?
Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance) while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.
The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.
The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.
Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.
This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.
By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).
Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.