This was, in every sense, Marvel’s response to Wonder Woman, and that is probably what kept it from being a really good movie. It was enjoyable, and the MCU is long overdue for a female lead, but the weight of those expectations and Wonder Woman led to a movie that was obviously trying too damn hard.
The Main Attraction:
1) Character – As an origin story, this success of this movie is entirely dependent on how engaged the audience is with Diana and therefore Diana’s story. Shockingly this seemingly common sense bit of storytelling is lost on many contemporary film makers / studios (who then wonder why their big budget tent-pole blockbuster failed harder than the 2017 Cleveland Browns).
This movie was almost creaking from the weight of the expectations heaped upon it. From being a female-led superhero movie, to being a female directed movie, to representing 75+ years of comic fandom, to being a chance for WB/DC to finally make a decent DCEU movie, it’s no wonder my hopes for it dropped to “please don’t suck.” As such, there’s a lot to unpack with the success of the movie.
Or maybe I should have titled this, “An example of how NOT to write a strong female character.”
I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. Let’s go back in time to the 1980s. It was a time of neon and pop music, of big hair and big egos, of memorable if lamentable fashion choices, when MTV still actually had something to do with music, and kids came home from school to watch cartoons all afternoon. I’ve already commented upon many such shows, and now here’s another. In the harmful tradition of gendered marketing, this is about a show to sell dolls that was aimed squarely at little girls who worshiped Madonna (the singer) and dressed like Cyndi Lauper – Jem.
A Bit More on Mythology:
I realize I cut my own argument short and may not have expressed myself well. I understand that the New 52 was trying to modernize the Greek pantheon and I think the creative team seriously missed that mark. Since the gods are major players in Wonder Woman’s stories, misinterpreting them further undermines Wonder Woman. So, yes, I realize Ares isn’t handsome; he’s been reimagined as a weary veteran who’s seen too much (hence the empty eyes) and done too much. However, Ares (especially with the conspicuous absence of Athena) ends up portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character in that horror of war seems inevitable. This change results in Wonder Woman’s greatest enemy becoming her mentor.
However, I don’t dislike the reinterpretation of Ares as much as I do most of the other gods. First of all, I don’t think the portrayal of the gods as a mafia-esque family in a “Game of Thrones” like power play is very true to the source material. The Greek gods were very much about the order of the world which is why the greatest mortal sin was hubris. The Greek gods were also severe on mortals who showed disloyalty to their families. I’m not going to argue the Greek gods were “good” in any human sense, but I disagree with this reinterpretation that presents them as almost evil. Since I’m nitpicking, I’d also like to point out that while the gods were sometimes called by what they represent (i.e., “the Moon,” “the Sun,” “the Messenger,” “Hell”) this is conflating some Olympians with the Primordials. Hades is not Hell; Tartarus is Hell. Hermes is a messenger, but Iris was a messenger as well. Persephone, by the by, wasn’t some wilting flower of a goddess either. Her entire purpose is to die and be reborn and die again (the pomegranate is a symbol of marriage and life [and incidentally one of Hera’s traditional symbols]). And can someone please tell me what is up with some of the re-designs? Why is Apollo purple? Why is Poseidon a giant frog-monster? And why oh why is Hades a physically stunted man with a head like a melting candle?
Anyway, this gross misunderstanding of Greek mythology is only one of the reasons to bring back the original Wonder Woman. Here are some more.
A Discussion of Narrative Bias and Forced Diversity:
I’ve gone over this is a bit in my various “narrative choices” critiques, but I’m going to expand and focus this discussion. Psychologists have known for a long time that people are immediately attracted to that which is like themselves and that this starts at a surprisingly young age. For example, a father hacked Donkey Kong for his three year-old daughter so she could play as Pauline instead of Mario; as Mario she liked the game but as Pauline she loved the game and all because the pixels were supposed to be a girl rather than a boy. Most people default to what they already are and anything else is “other.” There’s nothing wrong with this but it does mean we need to force ourselves to be aware that our perception is not the only one. We need to force ourselves to think outside the box of our own biases.
But this isn’t easy to do and often isn’t done and this isn’t necessarily out of malice but just a lack of understanding (“I don’t understand it, so it doesn’t matter”). So many, many comic book characters are unintentionally created for straight white males because they were created by straight white males. Women and minorities are too often marginalized, but again, I believe that’s more of a lack of defaulting to what is familiar than any malice (although sometimes there is clearly malice involved). In a perfect world forced diversity wouldn’t be necessary. But this isn’t a perfect world so sometimes (often) people need to be pushed out of the default and try to be more inclusive. Sometimes this doesn’t go well, but sometimes it does. In general, I’m not a fan of gendered marketing because too often it reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. But on the other hand, sometimes having anything is better than nothing. And sometimes the people heading up the marketing actually do get right.
Enter William Moulton Marston. He was a psychologist who was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth, and his lover Olive. He already had ties to the growing feminist movement. As the machine of war geared up again in the ’40s, and comic books were under fire for “corrupting the children,” Marston was approached by what would be DC Comics to create more educational comics to provide positive role-models for children. He decided to create a superhero who won with the day with love rather than violence. Some accounts say Elizabeth told him to make this superhero a woman; even if that’s not true Wonder Woman is clearly modeled off Elizabeth and Olive who were pretty amazing women in their own right. Wonder Woman was meant to be the physical equal of Superman but a “good and beautiful” woman who would serve as a role-model for little girls and teach little boys that women were worthy of power and respect (and submission; although this aspect was played down after his death). In a sea of white, male superheroes created by white males and for white males, Wonder Woman was created for little (white) girls; she was a push against the default (sadly minorities would have to wait a while to get this same consideration [and in many ways are still waiting]) to diversify the comic book universe.
Construction of a Feminist Icon:
While the current husband and wife writing/drawing team of Wonder Woman shy away from calling Wonder Woman a feminist, I don’t. Wonder Woman was absolutely created to be a feminist icon. Marston himself wasn’t exactly a feminist because feminism is technically the belief that men and women deserve equal rights. Marston actually believed women were superior, but I don’t know what that word is. However, he understood that presenting Wonder Woman as an equal was going to be controversial enough. Oh, how right he was, and that was over 70 years ago.
Consider the Bechdel Test which was created to highlight how in media women are almost exclusively defined by their relationships to men (although decidedly non-feminist works can pass this test it’s depressing to realize how many don’t). Wonder Woman is uniquely defined by her relationships to women. The Amazons of Paradise Island, like the Amazons of myth, were a society exclusively of women. The patron goddesses of Paradise Island were Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. The origin of Wonder Woman was a twist on the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea; Hippolyta wanted a daughter so badly she sculpted one out of clay and Aphrodite brought the little girl to life. She was named “Diana” after the virgin (Roman) goddess of the hunt. There is a slight divergence from mythology in that the Amazons from any source were noted warriors but the Amazons of Paradise Island were peaceful. They had been in bondage and escaped (symbolized by the vambraces) and lived in peace away from the male-dominated society that had caused them so much pain; they’d also advanced their society through a combination of technology and magic. Wonder Woman fought for the right to return Steve Trevor to Man’s World and once there she stayed to bring her message of peace and equality. She took the Lasso of Truth, which not only compels anyone tied up with it to speak the truth but breaks illusions, enchantment, and brainwashing, the Girdle of Venus, and NO weapon. This is very important; she was a trained warrior (the Amazons played “bullets and bracelets” for funsies) but she did not carry a traditional weapon. No sword, no shield, just her strength, compassion, and dedication to the truth. Her greatest enemy was Ares, whom Marston saw as the natural enemy to love (especially as Wonder Woman was created during World War II), and who was portrayed as was most common depiction in Greek mythology (a bloodthirsty brute).
Post-“Crisis on Infinite Earths” changed up this origin a wee bit and pulled her roots from World War II. She was granted powers by the various Greek gods, this time including Hermes, so her origin wasn’t quite as free from a male influence. However, pretty much everything else remained the same, and the new team introduced racial diversity to the Amazons, which was also good.
And that’s enough for now. More later!