Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, soared into theaters June 2, 2017 and two years later, the world is more populated with female crime fighters than ever before, following in the Amazon’s gladiator boots. The movie made $821 million dollars at the box office and holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%, thus making it one of the DCEU’s first critical successes and gave many fans hope again in DC movies after the mixed appeal of Man of Steel and the critical failure of Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad.
Wonder Woman, despite not being the first female representation for the superhero genre to grace the big screen, felt like the beginning of a new era. With Jenkins at the helm and the success of Wonder Woman, audiences craved more female representation both in front of and behind the camera. Since the movie’s release, we have seen Captain Marvel destroy the box office after being directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and the upcoming Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is being directed by relative newcomer Cathy Yan. Wonder Woman felt like a success for women across the board but how does it hold up two years later in a world slowly progressing forward.
The movie follows Diana (Gal Godot) and her journey from living peacefully with the Amazons in Themyscira to take on the world of mankind after an invasion of her island and learning from Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) the Great War has the potential to destroy the world as we know it. After watching her Aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright,) die and hearing her refer to the “god killer,” Diana is propelled to fight and leaves with Steve in order to fight with and for mankind despite it going against her mother’s wishes.
Diana’s departure scene, between her and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is heart-wrenching and one of the most emotional moments in the entire movie as Hippolyta tells her daughter mankind does not deserve you. A point that later gets twisted and turned into a rallying cry for Diana.
Throughout the film, Diana makes a point to tell those around her that what she does is “not up to you.” Early in the movie, Diana pokes fun at Steve for being bound to his watch yet not even a few frames later she is scaling up a tower in order to retrieve her classic sword and shield now determined to leave the island with Steve. Unfortunately, this moment and the ending of the movie show that despite her words her actions don’t quite follow.
Diana does a lot of strong and powerful things but it is often because other people have encouraged her too. Diana is a more than capable character who at times she feels empty as if she is just husk waiting for the best idea to fuel her as opposed to having her own agency. Part of this is an oversight of all-male writing team of Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs.
This complaint is similar to issues with the main villains of the movie. In addition to having a strong female lead, Wonder Woman featured a female villain in Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), also known as Dr. Poison. Maru doesn’t seem to have any clear motives in wanting to continue the war. Even in her conversation with Trevor, who is disguised, Maru acts like a generic villain only wanting to see chaos. She has no personal vendetta and other than still having a job, very little is gained by her continuing the war effort. By the end of the movie, Ares taunts Diana into killing her, revealing what she is behind the mask. Dr. Maru had the potential to be a terrifying force and villain but she was sidelined into a prop for Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and later Ares.
Additionally, while it is never clear how Maru got her physical deformity, though it is alluded her work with poisonous materials, implying her deformity is part of what makes her evil in the final fight of the movie is problematic. Disabled people are often stereotyped as evil and commonly seen as villains within media. This more commonly known as “the evil cripple” trope.
Most recently there have been conversations around this within the movies Us, Detective Pikachu, and even Ant-Man and the Wasp. While the issue isn’t black and white and there is nothing in theory wrong with a disabled villain, there is something concerning about the continuing perpetuation of that stereotype. In a movie that was marketed on its female empowerment, it failed disabled women.
However, despite these empty moments, Wonder Woman does a lot right. While the movie offers almost no representation for women of color outside of a few scenes with the Amazons, it does highlight some of the struggles of people of color through the character Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).
Sameer is a former grifter turned soldier who desperately wanted to be an actor but as he tells Diana, he was born the wrong color. Additionally, The Chief is a Native man who has watched his people lose everything. When speaking with Diana at a campsite on the way to the war front, The Chief tells her as much and when she asks who destroyed everything his people had, he points to Steve Trevor and says, “his people.” This moment sets up the complicated relationships and alliances people of color or marginalized people have with white people and those of privilege within not only this movie but in history.
Both of their backstories feel real, even in a world with a woman who can throw tanks at German legions. It also shows that Diana can’t save all the world’s problems.
Wonder Woman is different from a lot of female superheroes we had seen previously. She is defined by her kindness and her willingness to face danger head-on. One of the most beautiful scenes, and a scene that gives me chills every time I watch it, finds Diana walking through No Man’s Land, the ground between the two opposing trenches that cannot be safely crossed. Diana doesn’t understand the nuances of the war or the significance of No Man’s Land, she only understands that people are in danger and it is her duty to stop what she can. Her “fish out of water” naivety is not unbelievable or obnoxious.
Throughout the movie, Diana’s major flaw is her arrogance. Even before she knows she is the “god killer” and about her true power, she is sure of her ability to stop the war. When entering into man’s world, Diana is determined Ares is the cause of all the pain and misery despite Steve’s persistence telling her otherwise. It isn’t until Diana kills Ludendorff that she realizes she was wrong. Her fight with Ares wasn’t what she expected and humbled her in a lot of ways by making her realize what she is fighting for. It also forced to understand the value of other voices like Steve’s.
The final fight with Ares cinematically is beautiful and while the reveal of his existence seems to speak counterintuitively to the character development the movie was attempting to give Diana, the message is still gratifying. Often superhero stories are about revenge, justice, and lack mercy. Diana is different. It isn’t until she loses Steve and sees her true power during her final fight with Ares that she becomes more humble, finally understanding the beauty of humanity and how “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe,” and Diana believes in love.
Many critics dislike the fact Diana’s final character development and motivations come from Steve’s death. However, it is just as complicated a conversation as speaking about disabled villains, inherently there is nothing wrong with it but because so many pieces of media before Wonder Woman have perpetuated this archetype it feels tired. That being said, no one harps on Batman for the death of his parents propelling him to become the Dark Knight. Very few people consider it a tired archetype that Superman in the Injustice games and comic series becomes the tyrant he does following Lois Lane’s death. Steve’s death is heartbreaking, Pine plays the character with charisma and charm.
The chemistry he has with Gadot is palpable. He is endearing and watching him sacrifice himself not only to save the day but to ensure Diana saves the world is beautiful. He got a hero’s death that had agency. And unlike a lot of examples of this archetype, he isn’t a damsel in distress nor is he “fridged,” the comic book trope whereby female characters are injured, raped, killed, or depowered as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story. His death is not meaningless nor does it only serve to further Diana’s story because prior he had such a huge part to play and he chose to sacrifice himself for the greater cause. Overall, Wonder Woman is an incredible film that despite its flaws does a lot right and has helped usher in a world with more female superheroes. However, its dull villains and predictable, slightly disappointing twist ending are serious marks against an otherwise beautiful and fantastic comic book origin story.
Wonder Woman still remains one of my favorite comic book movies of all time but revisiting the film puts into context that this isn’t a Best Picture contender. But that doesn’t in any way change the pop culture and societal relevance the movie or the character has as well as how it and Diana have resonated with many women, including me.