I am a lifelong superhero comics reader who has held on to memories of the Wonder Woman TV show from the ’70s and I was definitely eager to see the new Wonder Woman film after it was so well-reviewed and seemingly well-received by an audience eager to see a female superhero on the screen. I am all for women superheroes. (As a child I dreamed I was taken in by a powerful group of women superheroes. I was their little sidekick.) I am all for more women-centered movies, and more movies conceived, produced, written and directed by women, (Wonder Woman may have been directed by a woman, but it was written by four men.) However, the film just didn’t work for me at all, because of how it betrayed the character and meaning of Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter, debuting in October of 1941. We can also wonder about how much Marston’s wife Elizabeth and lover Olive Byrne (they lived in a polyamorous relationship) contributed to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was specifically created as an antidote to the “blood-curdling masculinity” of the male superheroes. She was intended to be the powerful, independent woman hero raised by the sisterhood who chose peace over violence and love over hate. As I outline my problems with the film, note that I am not critiquing things simply because they differ from the comics. (In fact, in 70-plus years of Wonder Woman comics a lot of things that I disagree with in the film have been tried in the comics as well.) I don’t care if changes are made if they are true to the character, but I have a real problem when they undermine the character and the character’s core concepts. Note that I saw this movie when I was very tired after several nights of little sleep (I am a DJ after all.) and I was fading in and out towards the very end. I have only seen the film once and I am going on fatigued memory, so who knows how many mistakes are contained in this essay. This is by no means a list of everything I didn’t like about the film. These were just the most jarring things that I felt totally flipped what Wonder Woman is supposed to be about upside down.
The movie starts off wrong right at the beginning. In her original origin Wonder Woman was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta and given life by Aphrodite. This is an all-women birth! A female superhero and no men were involved in her creation! What a radical concept. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, but the film gives her the boot and instead elevates Zeus as the god involved in her creation. I realize that this follows recent changes made to the comic book character of Wonder Woman, but it is all wrong. If you have a character who is about female empowerment and the triumph of love over violence, Aphrodite is the right choice, not Zeus. The movie then moves on to talking about Zeus and Ares. Wow, so we get the God of War in her origin story, but all female goddesses are kicked to the curb? No goddesses in Wonder Woman’s mythology as present on screen? Male gods being centered at the beginning of the story about Wonder Woman? GTFOH.
Paradise Island (as originally concevied, now known as Themyscira) is supposed to be the result of women isolating themselves from the world of men. Originally that meant that Paradise Island had developed powerful technology including super advanced healing technologies. Was there any sign of advanced technology on the Themyscira presented in the movie? It looked to me like they were stuck in ancient Greek times, as if their society remained stuck technologically from the time they separated from men. Really? This is a feminist vision? That men are responsible for all technological development and left to their own devices women would spend all their time sparring and stuck in the bronze age? The fuck? Marston admitted that, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Do these Amazons seem like people that should rule the world due to their vast superiority? I get the sense of a culture stuck in time, and a violent, militaristic one at that. How can a feminist vision of a group of isolated women leave out the powerful inventive force of women as chronicled in a film like Hidden Figures?
In the original comics Princess Diana was so smart she designed her own Invisible Plane as a young woman. In fact her plane design was an improvement on the planes her mother Hippolyta created. There is no sign of this creativity and advanced technology on Paradise Island in the film. In fact, Diana has to take an ancient sailboat to Man’s World. What we do see on the island is a group of women who just like to spend all their time training with ancient weapons. Diana is only shown interested in violence, fighting, combat and the “god-killer” sword. Give me a break. Wonder Woman traditionally had no weapons; she had magic bracelets that deflect bullets and she had a magic lasso that forces people to tell the truth. The sword was added many decades later in the comics in an attempt to rebrand her as a martial warrior woman, a vision I see as being antithetical to what Marston conceived.
The movie has weaponized even her lasso. Now the lasso burns, as we see from Steve Trevor’s reactions in the movie, and it is only through inflicting pain that people are compelled to tell the truth. Way to add violence to Wonder Woman’s non-violent lasso! The lasso was intended by Marston as an allegory for feminine charm and a woman’s ability to discern the truth; now it inflicts pain until the truth comes out. The lasso has gone from an instrument of peace to a weapon of torture. The lasso was originally called Aphrodite’s lasso; it was a lasso of the Goddess of Love, not an enhanced interrogation technique.
In the original comics the Amazons decide to send someone to accompany Steve Trevor back to Man’s World and they host a contest to decide their greatest champion who should carry out this mission. Not only do the Amazons think accompanying Steve back to Man’s World is an important mission, they only want to send their best. Diana is not allowed to enter by her mother, but she disguises herself and wins the contest. In the film the Amazons don’t want anyone helping Steve Trevor and Diana has to sneak out with him against the wishes of her society. What a difference this makes! In the original story an advanced society decides to send their best to heal a violent and patriarchal Man’s World, and in the movie an isolationist society wants to stay out of it and let all the violence and evil of Man’s World continue unabated.
Steve Trevor is the obvious love interest in the film, but we are given no background on Diana’s love life before encountering her first man. We learn that she has read 12 volumes of a pleasure treatise, but we get no sense that she ever had a lover before. She just hops into bed with Steve, apparently overwhelmed by cock magnetism. Clearly in a society of women lesbianism is the rule, but this is largely glossed over. I know some people are celebrating how “queer” this movie is, but I think it falls far short, and shows a woman raised on an island of women all too happy to hop on the first cock she sees. In fact, from the moment he appears on the beach Diana starts following what Steve says and taking orders from him, as if she’s been waiting her whole life for a man to tell her what to do.
I didn’t appreciate how male-centric the film was. Often I felt like I was watching “Steve Trevor and His Merry Men” for much of the movie, with Wonder Woman hanging at the sidelines. She is often the only woman on screen, and I feel like there should have been much more done to center her and other women, and show her bonds with women, even after she leaves the island.
There is a mention given to the fact that women don’t have the vote in the time period of the film, and Diana gets some looks for being a woman in male spaces, but I feel like much more could have been done to emphasize just how much women are second-class citizens in Man’s World, and how appalled Diana would be by their treatment and the rigid gender roles in patriarchal society. She seems like a largely passive and uncritical observer walking around Man’s World, except that since the film has her obsessed with violence, she notes that dresses make it hard to fight.
If women want a power fantasy female superhero who goes around and kicks ass, great, but Wonder Woman should not be the character to realize this fantasy. The whole point of Wonder Woman from the beginning is that she sought non-violent solutions to conflicts. She was showing the way of love and compassion, not the way of hacking through people with a “god-killer” sword. There are hundreds of female super heroes that can be made into films about ass-kicking women, but Wonder Woman is the best superhero to represent a better, more compassionate, non-violent way of overcoming our conflicts. As Gloria Steinem wrote many decades ago, “Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.” Or, as one of my all time favorite comic book writers Grant Morrison says about writing the character, “I sat down and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this warrior woman thing.’ I can understand why they’re doing it, I get all that, but that’s not what [Wonder Woman creator] William Marston wanted, that’s not what he wanted at all! His original concept for Wonder Woman was an answer to comics that he thought were filled with images of blood-curdling masculinity, and you see the latest shots of Gal Gadot in the costume, and it’s all sword and shield and her snarling at the camera. Marston’s Diana was a doctor, a healer, a scientist.”
Putting aside issues of her real life political stances, I thought Gal Gadot made for a fine Wonder Woman, I just want her role to be written and directed according to Marston’s original principles which informed the creation of the character, and not this antithetical violent reimagining that makes Wonder Woman all about “killing” anything, even if it’s the God of War. Wonder Woman would know you can’t defeat the God of War with violence.