"Wonder Woman" Does Battle with Tropes
The existence of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” is in itself a success. Despite the inundation of superhero movies at the box office, “Wonder Woman” is the first film in both the DC and Marvel Universes with a female lead and a female director. Jenkins and star Gal Gadot shatter this glass ceiling in bringing a high caliber and financially successful big-budget superhero flick to theaters. The film easily squashes arguments about the dearth of talented female directors or the monetary impotence of female-driven films. Movies by, about, and for women will inevitably infiltrate theaters as their cultural value and financial capabilities are embraced by consumers and producers, respectively. “Wonder Woman” catalyzes a new era in superhero filmmaking, one where white men aren’t the only ones who save the day. As the first film of its kind, “Wonder Woman” advances our shared imagination, but it also inevitably has issues that deserve exploration.
Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) was born on the island of Themyscira, a mythical matriarchy made up of fierce but still conventionally attractive warrior women. Raised by her mother Queen Hyppolyta (Connie Nielson) and trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana harnesses her powers and grows into a strong and distractingly beautiful woman. It’s worth noting that although the island is occupied only by women and equipped with fairly limited technology, none of the Amazonians of Themyscira seem to have any body hair. Cynicism aside, expositional sweeping shots of these women training—flipping off of horses, wielding swords, and shooting arrows with lethal precision—got me fairly misty-eyed. In a cinematic landscape where most big-budget movies can’t even pass the Bechdel Test, seeing a field full of women warriors doing parkour and beating the shit out of each other was nothing short of inspiring.
“Wonder Woman” is a feminist work, but it isn’t a feminist manifesto—which, of course, it doesn’t have to be. Not all movies about women have to touch on the political and social issues that shape our lives; in simply telling our stories, they are radical. Diana and the Amazonians’ very existence is a testament to the strength, skill, and power of all women which, in today’s climate, is overtly political. And forcing male audiences to enter an exclusively female world and sympathize with female characters is inherently feminist. But besides a brief comment about men being necessary for reproduction, but unnecessary for pleasure (which earned a silent but hearty HELL YEAH from me), “Wonder Woman” is hardly staunch.
The film also plays with several tropes that have undermined female characters in the past, examining their place in Wonder Woman’s story. The trope that Diana best fits into is one called Born Sexy Yesterday. Think Leelo in “The Fifth Element,” Madison in “Splash,” or Giselle in “Enchanted.” Most often, female characters who are Born Sexy Yesterday are very naïve (due to their isolation from “the real world"), impossibly attractive (as they have the body of a sexually mature woman), and skilled in an area that earns the respect of her male peers (almost always combat). They learn about the ways of the world from their male counterpart, who guides them through the unfamiliar environment they have entered. “Wonder Woman” makes a conscious and admirable effort to subvert this trope; Diana is intelligent, multi-lingual, and well-studied in many areas, including the biology of sex.
But once transplanted into London, Diana’s wisdom and power are diminished. As a fish out of water, she’s suddenly endearing and adorable, gushing over babies and ice cream and getting her own makeover sequence. On Earth, Diana’s Themysciran ideology about men and war becomes wide-eyed idealism and a point of contention between her and Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). She just doesn’t understand that men and war are complicated in the real world. Ultimately, Diana is proven right (it really was Ares!), but not without learning about human complexity along the way. This is where Jenkins subverts the trope; Diana grows and expands her worldview on her own. She falls for a red herring, realizes her error, modifies her beliefs, defeats Ares, and is shaped by the experience. In this, Diana is responsible for her own evolution. Steve just has a front row seat.
The transition to WWI-era London from Themyscira is stark. Women are visibly oppressed—unable to vote, confined to constricting clothing, excluded from high-level military positions (although that one’s still an issue). The time period lends itself to the Smurfette Principle, a trope in which there’s one female character in an all-male ensemble. Think “Inception,” “The Avengers,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Expecting Diana to be a part of a co-ed military task force is historically unreasonable, and her time spent on Themyscira helps the film pass the Bechdel Test several times over. There’s speculation that the sequel will take place in present day, which will hopefully provide more opportunity for Diana to interact with other women outside of Themyscira. In the case of “Wonder Woman,” the Smurfette Principle isn’t the result of lazy, male-slanted writing; it’s an effective tool to contrast a matriarchal paradise with the patriarchal real world, forcing Diana to hold her own while surrounded by men—a new, unfamiliar, and super prejudiced breed.
Diana and Steve’s romance is a crucial achievement in the superhero film genre. Neither are forced to play damsel; both are capable, intelligent, and in pursuit of a common goal. Steve’s death is nothing short of beautiful. In the hands of Patty Jenkins, we linger on his face just long enough to get the full emotional impact of his selfless decision and his acceptance of the consequences. His death parallels the deaths of countless superhero love interests before him, like Spiderman’s Gwen Stacey or Batman’s Rachel Dawes. But Steve’s death sets an important precedent for the way female love interests can and should die, if they have to (you know, to give superheroes something to fight for or whatever). Scott dies with purpose, intent, and valor. Most importantly, he does not need saving because he acts with willful autonomy. And unlike Bruce Wayne’s love interest Rachel’s death, Steve’s further empowers Diana, unearthing for her the profundity of their love. In the film’s climax, Diana and Steve battle evil alongside each other, sacrificing as they see fit and supporting each other’s decisions.
At times, Diana shares much of her story with Steve. He’s not just her love interest, but a compelling and dynamic character that undergoes his own arc. It’s almost frustrating that he’s not as flat and helpless as every other female love interest in the superhero canon—on top of better pay and political representation, men get dynamic love interests too?! Not only is Steve interesting, but he’s funny. Whereas superheroes like Deadpool and Spiderman are far funnier than their serious and/or clueless girlfriends, Steve gets to crack jokes and earn laughs even as a good-looking object of affection because he’s a man (and because that’s what Chris Pine does best). I was hoping Diana could get a few laughs of her own that weren’t because aww she doesn’t know what ice cream is! One step at a time.
But Steve’s gender also allows him to purposefully point out where female objects of affection are lacking. Jenkins puts her love interest to work, challenging women’s limited roles as eye candy and damsels. In an unabashed appeal to the female gaze, Steve parodies gratuitous female nudity (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” anybody?) with a pretty tasty Bathtub Scene, even throwing in some strategic genital-covering action (nice). Later, in an alleyway standoff, Diana (literally) singlehandedly saves Steve from a thief’s bullet, gender-bending the iconic scene between Clark Kent and Lois Lane in “Superman.” After his death, Diana doesn’t just wistfully remember Steve as a hot guy or a reason to fight—he is a hero in his own right. Hopefully, Steve’s depth and arc can set a precedent for future female love interests.
“Wonder Woman” is not a perfect film. But any work of art that is the first of its kind shouldn’t be perfect. It’s up to the filmmakers of the future to take all that “Wonder Woman” got right and expand upon it. And considering all that the movie nailed—emotional punches, sympathetic characters, compelling romance, elegant battle sequences— there’s a lot to learn from and improve upon. With “Captain Marvel” due in 2019, we can only hope “Wonder Woman” will be the first of many superhero movies with women at the helm.