‘Wonder Woman’ And The Disappointment Of Incremental Change

It’s no surprise that Wonder Woman is enjoying some success, both financially and critically, because in a lot of ways it gives us exactly what we said we always wanted: a female-led, female-directed, earnest superhero movie, and a DC adaptation better than Batman V Superman. Anyone can see the validity of a character who inspires girls to be more than just a beautiful princess who marries rich, and Wonder Woman at the very least does that, giving girls a character in whom they can see themselves, the way little boys can see themselves in Thor, or Iron Man, or Captain America, or The Hulk, or… You get the picture. Wonder Woman gives girls the chance to envision themselves the heroes of their own story, and that’s great.

That a $150 million Wonder Woman movie exists at all is a sign we’ve advanced at least a few inches of societal progress since those studio execs were caught saying women couldn’t carry a successful action movie. That said, being better than regressive dickheads think we are still feels like a low bar. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where Wonder Woman didn’t have to be a symbol, where it could just be a movie, and not a referendum on female stories or storytellers, a cultural battleground and steaming cauldron of the internet’s hottest takes? I mean, is “Girls should have stuff too” really political speech now? Oof.

That’s the trouble with the mainstream: It’s so slow to catch up to the obvious that cheering it on can be a little… well, anticlimactic. (Outside the mainstream, there are a million brilliant female-told, female-led stories, but I can understand eight-year-old girls being rightfully reticent to trick or treat in Toni Erdmann costumes.) Is a gender-swapped version of the mediocre heroes we already have for boys really all we can hope for?

To be fair, simply being a symbol of progress isn’t all Wonder Woman does well. It’s refreshingly earnest, without much in the way of winks or jokey references to the ’70s TV show. Director Patty Jenkins said in a recent New York Times profile that “‘cheesy’ is one of the words banned in my world.” Her commitment to sincerity shows, and erring towards flawed sincerity is probably preferable to Marvel’s tendency to be self-aware, occasionally to a fault (*cough* Ant-Man *cough, cough*).

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, has a compelling mix of no-nonsense feistiness and idealistic naiveté, perfect as a real-life Amazonian, raised to become a warrior on a ladies-only magical island and baffled by 19 teen-era gender roles when she confronts the outside world (hoop skirts, bro are you serious?). She projects idealism as a kind of strength, unpolluted by weak-kneed naysaying. Even her Israeli-tinged accent is sort of perfect for conveying “I’m not here to f*ck around.”

Diana is brash, and impatient with half measures, and her defining characteristic seems to be to ignore the people around her telling her “no.” That isn’t a huge departure from other heroes, but it’s probably more cathartic in a female one.

When she leaves her home island of Themyscira with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Diana’s earnest aims include nothing short of killing the War God Ares, turning the hearts of men, and banishing war forever. Stopping war forever seems like a worthwhile, even perhaps unusual goal for a superhero. But at this point in the movie, we don’t know who Ares is or whether he even exists. And wasn’t “the war to end all wars” World War I’s misguided slogan to begin with? Is the problem that killing begets more killing, or is the problem that flawed men are doing the killing wrong? Either answer could work; Wonder Woman never really chooses.

There’s another scene set in no man’s land on WWI’s Western Front, where a battle has been fought to a years-long stalemate, with villagers caught in the middle. The men seem to ignore it, but Diana is horrified by the immense suffering all around her, and the humans’ (mostly men’s) curious indifference to it. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? This is something of a groundbreaking angle for one of these movies — that a hero’s strength could come from compassion, rather than the usual, more male conception of heroism which involves a hardening of the heart to prepare for battle. Even just the phrases “man of steel” or “iron man” imply a certain emotionlessness. Wonder Woman flips that on its head, or at least attempts to.

Casting aside her disguise and fully transforming into Wonder Woman for the first time (I do enjoy the idea that she can’t fight right unless she lets her hair down and exposes her leather bodice), Diana climbs out of the British foxhole and smashes through the German lines, maxim gun rounds pinging off her magical shield (which seems to attract them). It’s a rousing scene, but it’d be a lot more so if we could tell what she actually accomplished. Did she save the villagers? Unclear. Should we be excited that she just merc’d all those German grunts, because she had such pure intentions? I assume the movie wants us to be, judging by all the cheers in my theater (pretty easy to see why women-only Wonder Woman screenings are a thing, what with all the loud idiots around), but I’m not sure why.

Moreover, doesn’t killing a bunch of people for supposedly humanitarian reasons already describe the justification for most wars? What did Diana do that was heroic here, other than be better at war (side note: her actual powers are very vague)? Is the men’s flaw their militarism, or is it just that they don’t have superpowers? How did what Wonder Woman inspired the men to do differ from what Ares inspired them to?

In a lot of ways, the modern superhero movie’s central task is to figure out how to explain why killing lots of people is a good thing. Diana expresses compassion, but her actions don’t entirely follow. Diana feels for these people, and so she… has to kill Ares? I guess killing is more okay if you’re killing the devil or whatever? Aha, the ol’ God dodge!

Meanwhile, by the time she actually figures out who Ares is (the lack of a substantive villain for most of the movie’s running time is another issue), she, like many other modern (male) superheroes we’ve been critical of in the past few years, seems to have already caused a decent amount of suffering.

Like Man of Steel, Wonder Woman‘s climax basically comes down to whether mankind deserves the demigod’s help, that make-or-break moment where we find out if a superhero movie can justify all of its bystander death. Wonder Woman‘s justification?

“It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe! And I believe in love!”

I’ll admit, a few lines of dialogue to explain why you’d save a clearly undeserving humanity is a big ask these days, but these words kind of sound like bad pop song lyrics. And frankly, Janet Jackson did it better (if you believe in love, sing!).

And so, we’re left with a female-led superhero movie with good intentions and a few improvements, but one that mostly suffers from the same problems as male-led superhero movies. The stakes are too high (do they always have to save the entire world?), the superpowers too vaguely defined (making the fights mostly about how much scenery gets demolished), and the justifications for saving humanity are a little thin. Not to mention that yet again, the task of saving the rabble from themselves is left to a hero with noble blood. Honestly, can we have just one of these movies that doesn’t feel like a weird justification for monarchy? After 12 Star Wars movies I’d love to watch one that didn’t come down to who was whose father. Anyway. At least she didn’t have to destroy a portal.

There’s powerful symbolism, where Wonder Woman proves that women superheros can do what male superheroes have been doing for all these years. That’s important, and you can’t minimize pure equality. But was it wrong to hope that a female superhero might do it… I don’t know, better? Because male superheroes could sure stand to be a little better.