In Search of the Feminist Blockbuster: Some Musings on WONDER WOMAN (Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman deserves criticism and praise almost in equal measure.

On one side of the ledger, it earns very little of the praise heaped upon it in some quarters for being a truly feminist blockbuster. After the first act, most of the key roles go to men, and the film becomes something of a buddy war movie–pleasant enough in itself, if you enjoy that kind of thing, but hardly progressive from a gender standpoint. There’s also a bit of a “born yesterday sexy” vibe for much of the movie, with Wonder Woman sometimes depicted as daft and inexperienced and in need of male nurturing on her path to mastering the ways of a complex world.

The film’s climax undermines its feminist aspirations, too. The dual-focus plot divides our attention between Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) efforts to commandeer a bomber containing lethal gas and Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) tussle with Ares (David Thewlis). Couldn’t the screenwriters (all men, by the way) have imagined an ending where Woman Wonder alone saves the day? Speaking of which, Steve perishes in an act of self-sacrifice. Would Lois Lane have ever been popped off in such a fashion? Wouldn’t Superman have been given the power to save her? Not so for Wonder Woman. To add injury to insult, it’s Steve’s selfless act that causes Wonder Woman’s awakening to the power of love. Romance, we now learn, will motivate her. Only a Wonder Woman in love can turn the tide on Ares. 

Fig. 1. Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya).

A few more items could be added to the stockpile of foibles. The first act–a long 40 minutes set on the isle of Themyscira–is, I am afraid, rather drab looking. It’s shot, staged, and edited like your average fantasy TV show, with CGI to fit. A little later on, the screenwriters miss a golden opportunity to create long-term anticipation in the franchise. They work to build up two perfectly good villains, Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya)–pure villains, none of this pish-toshing about with C-grade baddies who we’re told are “complex,” as we often find in Marvel. But Ludendorff and Poison soon find themselves upstaged by Ares. David Thewlis gives Ares some gravitas, and his disappearing act late in the film is a delight, but Ares might have been saved for a future installment. That would have given us something to look forward to, and left more space in the screenplay for Poison, who I found intriguing (despite her, too, being defined by a yearning for romance). 

Fig. 2. Wonder Woman liberates an occupied Belgian village.

On the opposite side of the ledger, the second act, set in London, where Wonder Woman has to pretend to be a Victorian lady, is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in a superhero movie. Fish-out-of-water incongruities abound. It’s the stuff that makes Superman II (1980), Thor (2011), and Iron Man 3 (2013) some of the best superhero flicks ever–heroes put in predicaments where they struggle, in sometimes comic, sometimes touching ways, to act like regular types like you and me. Director Patty Jenkins gives it all a smart feminine spin, with Wonder Woman wrestling with corsets and the heels and the “slavery” of secretarial labor and the shortcomings of a male-dominated military command. The first major action set piece, where Wonder Woman takes the frontline and saves a Belgian town, is damn exhilarating. Jenkins’ doesn’t just make the action slick and intense. She makes you care about the timing of the Amazon’s interventions–we want her to come through in a bind, but only when the time’s right, for the best possible payoff. And perhaps most important of all, Gadot is perfect in the lead role. She carries the movie with her comic timing, her ability to modulate between moments of tenderness and innocence, of conviction and menace, much of it conveyed through her jet black eyes, and with a stature and physical presence that proclaim, muck about with her and you’ll get schooled.

I hope one day we get to see a feminist blockbuster. Perhaps we have already and I’ve missed it. But Wonder Woman, for all the ways it seeks to clear a path, isn’t up to the task.

Fig. 3. Wonder Woman, trying on “the Victorian lady.”