Building a plot around gender politics is always going to require a delicate balance. It’s inevitable that an origin story with Wonder Woman is going to have some complication between the secluded women-only island she lives in versus the outer world where, gasp, men live. In the right hands, this can present an interesting, fair analysis for our central character to see the good in men without downplaying women’s own specific fears and agendas. After all, the point of feminism is not that we’re against men, but rather the system that forces inequality on women. Unfortunately, though Wonder Woman tries, it fails to meet this requirement.
In a bid to regain her freedom and that of her sisters, Hippolyta engaged in battle against their former owner, Ares, God of War. When she emerged victorious, Hera granted her two things: that Ares would forever be her eternal prisoner and that she will one day have a daughter born of clay. The latter is Diana, a curious young woman who has lived her entire life in the paradise island of Themyscira, a women-only sanctuary that Hippolyta has kept safe from the outside world. Their harmony is thrown off balance though when a pilot named Steve Trevor accidentally crashes onto their island. Diana tasks herself to return him home, but more challenges are in store for her when Ares breaks free.
The best part about Wonder Woman is that I really like Diana’s character. She’s a determined warrior who has her own specific goal: uniting her home with the rest of Earth. She’s compassionate and honest, freely speaking her mind, but kindhearted to those in need. I like that she may be naive to the outside world, but never comes across as a moron who needs a man to guide her everywhere. Her frustrations on the insufferable sea of patriarchy is complimentary to how I felt and as the viewpoint character, it serves as the movie’s chief saving grace because the rest of the film has problems.
Wonder Woman‘s major issue is that it undermines the fears women have of the patriarchy and the men who act in accordance to it. The plot drives it home with Not All Men Are Bad jargon that serves less as a means for equality as it is to defend them without good reason. This is decidedly clunky because the chief male representative of Wonder Woman is Steve Trevor, a horny little flirt who can’t keep his eyes off Diana’s “rack” (his word, not mine.) Is it any wonder Diana is annoyed with him? There’s not a single moment when he isn’t being a pig, so when he makes a grand speech that he doesn’t view women as damsels in distress and defends his gender, I was rolling my eyes. His case is not helped that the only time he confesses the flaws of male chauvinism is when he accidentally steps on the Lasso of Truth rather than admitting his true feelings willingly. It would be emasculating otherwise, am I right?
Even without Steve drooling over Diana, the rest of the movie pointedly goes out of their way to make men look awful. There’s Ares’ slavery of Hippolyta and her sisters, that one fanservice scene of the Amazons bathing while a lusty Steve gazes, the men-only thieves, and the boys refusing to let a little girl play pirate with them. While these are all pointed out as negatives (especially Ares’ involvement), there is not one genuinely nice guy in the entire film, further convincing me of the merits of isolating Themyscira as a no-man zone. How can I believe Steve’s claims that Not All Men Are Bad if the film itself barely backs this up? This could have been resolved if Steve wasn’t a jerk to begin with, but putting sympathy on him completely negates Hippolyta’s justified concerns of gender imbalance. This comes off as patronizing when this is a genuine issue that women are constantly fighting against every single day. By the end of the film, I was right there with Diana, angry and scared.
I’m also not a fan of how the central conflict came into place. One of the Amazons, Persephone, frees Ares because she’s in love with him, but later reveals a deeper motive: she wanted to marry and have children. While this neatly plays into the hypocrisy of Hippolyta having been granted a daughter while other Amazons who would want a child is denied, using it as the main premise for everything that happens in the movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it puts focus on the awful stereotype that what women want more than anything are babies. Even a small scene with Etta Candy jealously eyeing Diana over Steve falls under a line of stereotyped cattiness that was tiring back in 2009 when the movie came out.
This is especially irritating because Wonder Woman already had a decent foundation that they could have used to drive the plot. The movie’s first act hints the advanced progression of technology from the outside world could be a detriment to the stillborn Themyscira, stuck for centuries without a hint of change. If one man can land on their island, even accidentally, imagine what else they could potentially be ill-prepared for. Diana’s desire to see beyond that, to prove not only that Man’s World has changed, but that there are benefits to allying with the outside world is a mere footnote by the end of the film.
There are a few bright spots throughout, most notably in the form of a lovely subplot dealing with the bookworm Alexa and her inability to fit in with the warrior-clad Amazons, especially her militant sister Artemis. The movie firmly justifies her love of books and it ends up playing a big role at the very end. If anything, Alexa’s comment that she could use more books beyond her island home could have also tied in neatly with the above suggestion. The action scenes are also exceptional, with some exciting sequences worthy of a big screen cinematic.
The Commemorative Edition of Wonder Woman is available as a Blu-ray/DVD and digital download pack. Extras include a brief preview of the upcoming DC Animated film Batman and Harley Quinn. Other extras include “What Makes a Wonder Woman,” a feature detailing the seventy-five year history and the influence the character had on the comic industry and feminism. “Wonder Woman: A Subversive Dream” focuses on Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston and his motivation for her existence. “Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth” centers on the Greek Mythology that served to inspire the creation of the character. Rounding out the features is a trailer for “DC Superhero Girls: Hero of the Year” as well as creator commentary for the movie.
Diana largely carries Wonder Woman and certainly speaks against its flaws, indicating that there was at least some self-awareness within the narrative, but there just isn’t enough validation to prove the point they’re trying to make. Wonder Woman constantly falls into tired stereotypes and sexism while barely making the effort to counter or subvert them. Wonder Woman is great as an epic story with a fantastic leading character, but inadvertently demonstrates that we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to gender politics.