Of gods and love: a discussion of DC's new film Wonder Woman
[SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains details that may spoil the film for readers who have not yet seen the movie. ]
DC Entertainment's new film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, has been captivating audiences since its release June 2. Opening weekend, the film grossed $103.2M in the United States alone, and is on track for record numbers in its second weekend.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is the first female-centered superhero movie to be produced in twelve years; the last one being Elektra (2005) starring Jennifer Garner. Additionally, Wonder Woman is only the second comic book-based film to be directed by a woman; the first being Marvel Studios' Punisher: War Zone directed by Lexi Alexender.
The new film is a non-stop, action-packed origin story for the famous DC superhero. It combines elements from the original comic book series, merged with an updated narrative, integrated (and somewhat overused) CGI, and a love story.
This is not your mother's Wonder Woman. Jenkins' film is of this time with messages and visuals to satisfy a contemporary generation of film goers.
Along with capturing the feminist aspects present in the original comic book series as imagined by psychologist and writer Dr. William Moulton Marston, the new movie also includes her backstory - one that has always been loosely based on ancient Greek and Roman mythology. However, the recent evolution of her origin tale with respect to mythology has provided a new modern vitality to the characterization of world's most popular female superhero.
Wonder Woman is no longer simply an Amazon endowed by the gods with divine power; she is divine. This difference significantly alters the reading of her narrative and her character as a developing hero.
Wonder Woman was born into comic books in February 1941 with an embedded feminist spirit. Dr. Marston created her for DC Comics, and her story was debuted that year in its All-Star Comics series. She was featured on the cover of the first issue of DC's Sensation Comics in 1942.
Wonder's Woman's release came a pivotal time as the U.S. had just been pulled into World War II. As a result, women were being called out of their homes and into the workforce in order to support the national war effort. This was the era of Rosie the Riveter.
DC publisher Maxwell Gaines opted to take risk on publishing Marston's female character after years of enduring complaints about the content of his comic books. According to Smithsonian Magazine, these comic books were considered a "national disgrace" and, as one journalist wrote, "Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month."
Wonder Woman was essentially an experiment in the comic book publishing world. Gaines was hoping that his female heroine would be non-controversial and even be celebrated for her show of patriotism. However, that wasn't the case. Concerns were immediately raised over her costuming, and eventually over the narrative expression of what was considered to be bondage, submission, permissive sexuality, and other similar subject matter.
Despite these complaints, Dr. Marston was not at all deterred. He claimed to understand what lines not to cross, adding that "You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers’ erotic fancies." As Smithsonian Magazine reveals, many of Marston's opinions were based on his own unconventional lifestyle choices with regard to marriage, sexual relationships, and women, none of which were known at the time.
In addition, it was later revealed that he was had ties to and was deeply affected by activist and early feminist Margaret Sanger. He reportedly vowed to uphold her legacy.
Regardless of any early push back, DC continued its run of the series, and since that point, Wonder Woman has become one of its leading characters, and the most popular female superhero in American entertainment.
Considering Wonder Woman's feminist roots, it is not at all surprising that the 1970s, a decade filled with woman-centered narrative entertainment, saw a rebirth of the superhero in the form of a popular television series starring Lynda Carter.
From Rosie to Demigod
While Wonder Woman has continually made appearances in various entertainment forms over time, DC's new movie has given the character new life for new audiences. In this modern reboot, writers did not entirely use the same origin story found in Marston's original narrative. As the story was originally conceived, Diana was an Amazon given special powers by a number of different gods, including Demeter, Artemis, Hermes, and Zeus. Those gifts include superhuman powers, the magical bracelets, the lariat of Hestia (magic rope), and her crown.
In other words, Wonder Woman, although an Amazon, was not the owner of her powers and magical paraphernalia.
The writer's of the new film, in contrast, decided to capitalize on DC's 2011 reinvention of the Wonder Woman origin story. In November of that year, DC revealed that Diana is a child of Zeus, which makes her a demigod. DC co-publisher Jim Lee said, “In this case, making her a god actually makes her more human, more relatable. We’re approaching all the classic characters in a way that feels true to their origins but thoroughly modern.”
Lee's comments speak more about modern viewing trends than anything else. Since 2010, there has been an increasing output of mythological and fantasy films that rework and re-imagine a hero's or villain's history, explaining their motivations (e.g. Deadpool 2016; Suicide Squad, 2016; Dr. Strange, 2016; Maleficent, 2013).
By changing the source of Wonder Woman's powers, writers not only grounded the character in something relatable for readers, as suggested by Lee, but also altered the nature of the character herself. She is no longer an agent of the divine, but is divine in her own right. Her powers are internal to her and a part of her very existence.
Allegorically speaking, in her thoroughly modern incarnation, Wonder Woman is no longer Rosie the Riveter. She is not the empowered woman of the 1940s, given tools by society, read that as patriarchy if you wish, in order to step beyond the conventional sphere to fight for justice.
The contemporary Wonder Woman is her own person, powers and all. As such, she can choose her journey, and she can choose whether to fight or not to fight - a theme that plays out consistently throughout the film. "You can do nothing, or you can do something," Steve remarks to Diana.
As an aside, the mythological aspects of Wonder Woman's story, both old and new, are only loosely based on Greek and Roman mythology. While some viewers may enjoy the creative use of the ancient stories within this fictional play, others may find it frustrating. The back story, for example, involving the Greek gods is, more or less, structured on a Judeo-Christian duality pitting good versus evil with humanity at the center. Ares is evil and Zeus is good, and Diana is the savior. While the gods Ares and Zeus do play on opposite sides in classic mythology, they are not pitted against each other in a moral war to the end.
Suspending all expectations for mythological accuracy will help a viewer enjoy the film.
The Heroine on the Hero's Journey
Structurally speaking, the new film is built on a traditional male superhero movie, and uses a classic man's coming of age story to propel the narrative. (e.g., Star Wars, 1977; The Lion King, 1995; Spider-Man, 2002).
Diana lives a peaceful but restless life with her aunt and mother. When her aunt dies at the hands of men, Diana is compelled to take her place in the war. From that point on, she embarks on a hero's journey to find herself, to learn about the world, and to discover her power as it connects to a larger universal narrative. By the end, Diana has learned her purpose and, through an epic battle against evil, she accepts her role as the chosen one or god-killer. She becomes the savior of man.
This is a very conventional hero's story, not one commonly given to a heroine. She could be likened to Joan of Arc in that way, who has been depicted in a similar way (e.g., Joan of Arc, 1948). However, we all know what happened to her.
It is important to remember that Joan's story is not fiction and the end is based on a legendary reality. Regardless, the comparison provides an important point in understanding the "woman as hero" construction within this contemporary narrative. Unlike the Joan legend and other similar stories, Wonder Woman's power is never questioned or considered evil, by herself or others. The film fully allows her to be the hero with minimal attention to the fact that she is a woman. Any and all references to her gender are minimal at best and serve more as comedic tension as she enters the human world (e.g., the clothes shopping scene, the government meeting).
Additionally, Diana is not objectified by the camera. In other words, the film does not focus on her beauty or sexuality outside of a direct narrative purpose and the defining of her relationship with her love-interest Steve. With that said, the film also does not hide from Diana's defined beauty; it simply lets it lie comfortably within the storytelling. As Dr. Marston might have suggested, you can't create a true female hero by ignoring or covering up aspects of feminine expression.
Part of this feminine expression can also be found in Diana's apparent interest in children and babies. While these brief moments do seem a bit abrupt and almost out of character at times, this choice adds a depth to her character in conventional terms. Diana can both fight and love children. She is both warrior and mother.
Love and a New Type of Hero
DC's new Wonder Woman film does offer a heroine for our age, and it attempts to address a variety of very current social concerns regarding issues like basic morality, gender dynamics, war, racism, and hate.
With that said, most of the film's attempts to tackle these subjects are done through jokes, a few somewhat contrived speeches, and off-handed comments made by a prototypical multi-cultural band of followers."Who did that to your people?" she asks The Chief. "His people," he replies. Or, "I wanted to be an actor, but I have the wrong color skin," says Sameer.
In the end, the film posits that every human contains both dark and light, and that we must choose which path to go. To make the world a better place, we don't really need any heroes; all we need is love.
(Cue the Beatles)
While this conclusion certainly allows for a feel-good ending, it is somewhat hokey after a 140 minute cinematic sensory-overload. However, it must be noted that Wonder Woman is by no means a hyper-intellectual expression of socially-relevant topics, and it doesn't try to be that. The social concerns as well as others are only lightly treated, although perhaps sincere in their presentation.
But what the film lacks in depth, it makes up for in pure entertainment.
Wonder Woman is a cross-pollinated classic American war and superhero genre film with a woman plucked into the conventional hero role, complete with her own journey story and crowning. The film provides all the speed, explosions, slow-motion martial arts, and weaponry that can be found either of those two genre films, as well as other common elements such as the motley platoon, World War, poison gas, personal sacrifice, a love story, and an epic battle between good and evil.
But perhaps more importantly, the film attempts to find a new space for the representation of the self-empowered woman. Where once such a character was constructed as a trangressive danger to men and society, this new independent woman is now the accepted savior of man.
But yet, in the end, Wonder Woman sends a different message, albeit in a somewhat stilted and sappy fashion. It is not Wonder Woman at all who we need to save our world; it is us. In that respect, Wonder Woman embodies her role as a demigod, becoming a new type of hero - one of pure inspiration.