I should probably link the book I wrote on Wonder Woman, A Golden Thread. Which I just cut the price of. Buy that here.
I saw Wonder Woman opening night, with a big group of friends. Standing outside the theater afterwards, everyone in the group – mostly female – expressed their love for the film, until eventually all eyes turned to me, and I confessed that I kinda hated it. Since then, I have largely opted to shut up about it. What I want out of a Wonder Woman film is, after all, by definition idiosyncratic, and in no small part incompatible with mass audiences. More importantly, however, despite having literally written the book on Wonder Woman (or at least a book), this was very clearly just not my conversation. I didn’t, and indeed still don’t want to be the guy who shits on the first superhero film to actually offer serious female representation largely untainted by the male gaze. There are widespread reports of women crying with joy at seeing a female superhero on screen, including ones who don’t even like superheroes that much. That matters more than a weirdo blogger who happens to have written a book.
Still, it’s been a few weeks now, and we’ve got a nice little lull between seasons of Hannibal, so let’s finally tackle this. First, I want to reiterate that nothing I say here is intended to take away from the basic importance of representation, both in front of and behind the camera. The elation female audiences have had for this film matters. It matters a lot more than tracking the particular movement of Wonder Woman as a signifier within the larger context of superheroes and specifically DC Comics. Nevertheless, tracking that movement is a thing I do, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least sketch my thoughts on the matter. Consider this a distant appendix rightfully buried at the end of the cultural report on Wonder Woman; an obscure dissent that’s gone at least three contrarian twists too far.
Let’s start with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Longtime readers of mine will know that I am a Zack Snyder apologist. And while Batman v. Superman is a hot mess of a movie that either needed to be an hour shorter or two hours longer and a TV series (preferably the latter, really), it remains in fundamental ways more interesting than the bulk of what has by this point definitely become an obscene glut of superhero movies. Much of this – indeed essentially all of it – is down to the bizarre cynicism of Snyder’s view of superheroes. Batman v. Superman spends its first half hour in outright fear of its title characters, treating them as objects of horror, an idea inherited from Man of Steel’s controversial resolution in which Superman kills Zod after a city-wrecking battle. And it never really backs away from this view. This is a film that views superheroes as at best morally dubious, embracing the Grant Morrison “superheroes as gods” take while viewing gods as awful intrusions into the world of mortals.
This was, needless to say, not an approach that won a lot of admirers among the left-leaning ends of superhero fandom, whose attachment to superheroes as idealizations of liberalism knows no bounds. But as someone who’s long been of the “superheroes are actually kinda fascist” school of thought, my contention has always been that grappling with this by doing superheroes from a position of religious terror is a way to explore this without going full Miracleman. And indeed, while Snyder’s cynicism led him to make a complete hash of Watchmen, applied to DC his take has been consistently invigorating in its strangeness, even if it’s easy to take the wrong lessons from it, as Suicide Squad grimly demonstrated.
But this approach was always going to find its limits with Wonder Woman. Part of why Snyder’s films work is that they were rooted in the Batman/Superman dyad. Man of Steel was explicitly Snyder executing Christopher Nolan’s vision of Superman, and its take was always in part “what if you cast the same sort of moral suspicion that’s routinely cast on Batman onto Superman?” In actually adding Batman into the mix for Batman v. Superman, Snyder simply took the argument a step further, creating a Batman that was correspondingly skewed to match his Superman, which maintained the basic logic. But it also shifted to the official DC party line that the narrative foundation of the DCU is not in fact the Batman/Superman dyad but the establishing mythos of the Trinity, with the third of their continually published characters, Wonder Woman, also added into the mix.
But Wonder Woman is a problem for the dyad as Snyder understands it. There are basically three ways in which Wonder Woman has been defined within the Trinity; one quite good, two deeply flawed. First, she is simply “the girl one” – the laziest option by far, although still capable of being interesting in the way that diverse representation inherently is. Second, she is defined by her association with war, a contrivance of Gail Simone’s that works to distinguish the character, but not actually on particularly interesting terms. And finally there is the one that actually works, which is to embrace the connection with radical politics offered by William Moulton Marston, which is, of course, also the approach that’s never actually done. But none of these options are great for the dyad as Snyder creates it. “The girl one” is at its most reductive when put in the mix with the excess testosterone of Snyder’s Batman and Superman, while “the warrior one” is scarcely a distinction. Which leaves the radical politics option. Played as a negative option in the same way that Batman and Superman are, this quickly makes Wonder Woman indistinguishable from a supervillain (as basically happens in Injustice); played positively against the quasi-fascist objects of horror and it’s so didactically on the nose as to be pointless.
For what it’s worth, it’s clear that Snyder is broadly sympathetic to Wonder Woman in a way that he’s not actually with Batman or Superman, which is actually about you’d expect from the director of Sucker Punch. I remember Jack, who I gather will be writing about Wonder Woman soon, pointing out with evident relish the way in which she’s portrayed as enjoying the climactic fight against Doomsday, a delighted smile playing across her face at the opportunity to charge in at impossible odds. Which is, obviously, the Simone approach (also what you’d expect from Snyder), but is still an interestingly privileged position for her. More broadly, Sucker Punch makes clear that Snyder views femininity as a potentially viable alternative to the bleakness he identifies in masculine heroism, a viewpoint that comes tantalizingly close to what Wonder Woman was originally created for. She’s even positioned as the chronological beginning of superheroes, with a century of experience under her belt before Batman ever hit the scene, a move that seems primed to take the third option and allow her to be the actual moral foundation of the DCEU.
But, of course, this is just an illusion. The actual franchise history – which is of course where Wonder Woman’s narrative claim to intrude on the Batman/Superman dyad comes from – remains firmly centered on Snyder’s more nihilistic vision. Wonder Woman may be the first hero, but she’s explicitly positioned as having hidden herself for the hundred years between the mysterious photograph of her standing around with Captain Kirk and the present day such that Superman’s “revelation” (as the film’s opening chyron puts it) remains the narrative anchor point.
And there’s a fundamental way in which this decision sets Wonder Woman up for failure. It has to be a story of Diana not becoming a hero – an explanation for how “A hundred years ago I walked away from mankind.” And indeed, its opening monologue promises to explain just that by having her declare “I used to want to save the world,” pointedly suggesting that she doesn’t anymore. Yes, the film eventually finesses this in the final monologue by having her say that “only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be,” which is semantically indistinguishable from wanting to save the world. But the overall frame is still essentially just how Wonder Woman came to occupy her Batman v. Superman role of haunting the film with the possibility of the larger DCU. It’s an origin story for a ghost.
It is in this light that we must understand Wonder Woman’s period setting. The decision to revert back to something very close to Wonder Woman’s actual historical origins makes the film into an explicit near-miss of Marston’s original vision: a story of how the character he imagined doesn’t quite take hold and instead gets caught in an embryonic state, waiting a century for the men to come along that will enable her to finally take form. This is, of course, painfully on the nose; it may not be a literal century, but it’s been seventeen summer movie seasons since the first X-Men film kicked off the cinematic superhero boom, and we’re only just getting around to a major female-led film. Wonder Woman really did have to wait. But what’s important here, I would argue, isn’t just the structure of delaying Wonder Woman, but that this is accomplished by going back to her Golden Age origin in precisely the way Batman and Superman’s DCEU versions do not.
Well, sort of. Marston’s Wonder Woman was, of course, a World War II character, as was the entire golden age superhero era. And she was overtly political – the reason she’s sent from Paradise Island to Man’s World is because the “last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women” is in danger from the Nazi menace. This was mostly a trojan horse for Marston’s elaborately weird philosophies about how men need to submit to loving female authority, but this doesn’t change the underlying sense of activist utopianism in Wonder Woman. But the film changes the setting to World War I, consciously moving from the “good” war with clear-cut comic book villains to a war defined by its futile pointlessness.
The major reason for this is obvious, which is that it sets up Wonder Woman’s disillusionment regarding saving the world, taking the “war to end war” rhetoric and subsequent disillusionment surrounding it and making it a personal character arc. But this ends up being a half-formed transition; World War I is presented virtually indistinguishably from World War II, with all the jingoistic rhetoric of valorous Americans/Brits and evil and murderous Germans intact. And so the switch to World War I doesn’t end up changing anything about Wonder Woman’s origins except to strip them of moral content. The Germans are essentially indistinguishable from Nazis and providing all of the same narrative function as comic book Nazis; it’s just that no moral point follows from this and there’s not actually a point to opposing them.
It’s around here that a joke like “Executive Producer Steven Mnuchin must have been thrilled” feels appropriate, and while it’s easy to read too much substance into the politics of one of the film’s financiers, it’s still culturally significant that this is a Wonder Woman film executive produced by Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary. Not so much, again, because of how this influenced the film as because it’s just so perfectly depressing an image. Because this is Wonder Woman utterly defanged, made as utterly unsubversive as possible.
This loss is perhaps most keenly felt around the Amazons. The film goes out of its way to make them look middling – Hippolyta is a hypocritical coward who lacks the strength of her own convictions, and those convictions are reduced to nothing more than “wait for Ares’ return and then fight him.” The film never even looks back at them once Diana is off the island – a frankly bizarre bit of narrative structure. This is unsurprising – the underlying cynicism of the Snyder approach was never going to fit well with a utopian society of women. But it’s still remarkable just how much the film seems like it would prefer that Wonder Woman have some other origin.
Well, I say the film. But what I mean is the script. The film’s saving grace is, in many ways, the fact that Patty Jenkins is blissfully unaware that she’s been handed a pointlessly deconstructed take on Wonder Woman. She’s not directing a film about Wonder Woman’s failure to become a hero, but rather a straightforward superhero film about a woman. At times she even lets traces of the character’s radicalism through, most obviously in the largely improvised Diana/Steve boat scene. And she introduces her own quiet radicalism in her decision not to frame Wonder Woman in the male gaze, which is admittedly more than Marston ever managed or indeed tried. While the film she’s directing is less interesting than the untidy excess of the Snyder films it spins off from, it’s still a better fit for Wonder Woman than any option other than having Wonder Woman actually be the moral alternative to the Batman/Superman dyad, which was never actually going to happen because, again, we live in a world where the Wonder Woman movie is executive produced by Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary.
Which brings us back where we started – with the thing that’s good about Wonder Woman simply and straightforwardly being its female representation. And to be fair, that matters more in the face of “institutionalized misogyny” being taken to a whole new plane by the Trump administration. So yes. In the face of a President who’s admitted to serial sexual abuse, a Vice President who refuses to promote women to positions where they’d have to meet with him one on one, a seventeen year superhero boom that’s had no major films with female characters, a sustained assault on women’s health care and reproductive freedom, and the rise of the alt-right in geek culture that’s determined to push women out of cultural spaces the representation of Wonder Woman matters. It matters more than anything else on the table, and it renders most criticism of the film, from “the first and second acts are to different movies, neither of which are resolved in the third act” to “its politics aren’t radical enough” firmly irrelevant.
On the other hand, the fact that we’re so starved for female representation that we have to uncritically settle for this is the best argument for subjugating men to loving female authority since William Moulton Marston.