‘Wonder Woman’: Dawn of the Female Superhero

When Diana isn’t kicking ass or leading the charge, she’s often at the mercy of endless mansplaining. She enters a room full of male delegates and is sneered upon because it’s no place for a woman. Or she’s standing before an audience of generals and basically told, “we’ll take it from here.” The film may be set in the throes of World War I, but let’s face it, women endure male condescension no matter what century they’re in. 

Much has been said about Wonder Woman saving the entire DC cinematic universe (and rightfully so), but the film’s real triumph is its assertion of women at the superhero forefront. Yes, we’ve seen Catwoman, Black Widow, Gamora, and Harley Quinn, but all of them have been relegated to a supporting role and subjected to the male gaze. Wonder Woman may be in a skirt, but director Patty Jenkins never objectifies her heroine. This is the first female-fronted superhero movie and Jenkins understands the importance of this.

Wonder Woman wastes no time in establishing the Amazons as mythic figures (and establishing Robin Wright as a total badass). The opening sequence at Themyscira shows women engaged in gladiatorial combat, leading an otherwise peaceful existence. They fight their own battles, speak for themselves, and have never even heard of mansplaining (must be nice). When Steve Trevor shows up, bringing with him the devastation of war, the repercussions of man are sorely felt.

Diana encounters many a great foe in her journey into the modern world, but her most formidable one is the very thing she is trying to save: mankind. Entering “civilized” society, she is pitted against an onslaught of sexism. She can’t make it a single block without being judged, glanced at, or catcalled. And it’s the way she handles such disrespect that makes Wonder Woman an unexpected joy. She may deflect bullets and thwart bayonets, but she steadfastly endures the glaring misogyny that pervades so much of society. She’s a hero long before she reveals the costume. 

Diana is woefully and wonderfully out of her element; a veritable fish out of water. If she was free to walk around with a sword in Themyscira, she’s not free to do, well, much of anything. This, during a time when gender politics governed society. Women don’t fight (“we fight with our principles”); women are secretaries. They don’t wear armor and they certainly don’t tell off an army general. Steve is quick to tell her what she can and can’t do (essentially trying to domesticate her) and she looks at him perplexed. This is the free world?

It’s the longest running joke in the film – Steve desperately trying to protect a woman who is more than capable of protecting herself. Jenkins has quite a bit of fun subverting the damsel-in-distress convention. Cornered in an alleyway, Steve gestures for Diana to get behind him. Or when they are entrenched in enemy territory, Steve bids Diana to stay put. When the bullets start flying, it’s the men who need saving. Jenkins then takes her character’s heroism a step further by asking whether mankind is even worth the trouble.

It is the Amazon’s mission to safeguard humanity against the wrath of Ares. It’s the bedtime story Diana grew up with, providing her the moral certitude that springs her into action. Kill the god of war, end the war. She believes so blindly that she can save mankind with a single swing of a sword, that one mischievous entity is responsible. But Diana learns a far more complicated truth: that man is not as innately good as she had hoped. 

When Steve lies to his superiors, Diana is baffled that he has to stoop so low to do the right thing. Saving innocent lives should make perfect sense, yet his captains are more concerned with the politics of war. The way of the patriarchy. Men wage wars in conference rooms, resort to chemical warfare, and ably overlook bystanders as collateral damage. This is a world run and invariably poisoned by toxic masculinity, and, much like the threat of mustard gas, it’s the true villain which Diana cannot possibly fight.

Humans, so far, have been rendered a hapless race that somehow manages to get saved again and again. Wonder Woman is the first superhero film that ponders if mankind is beyond saving. During the film’s second act, Diana bears witness to a war-ravaged village and hears the countless pleas for help. Steve tells her to ignore the village and focus on ending the war. Diana, meanwhile, wonders how the two could be mutually exclusive concerns. Steve Trevor, a literal folly of man incapable to explain man’s selfishness and corruption. The fault of man is that they have to be tested in order to tap into their moral compass, whereas Diana has that ability in spades.

The most reassuring thing about Wonder Woman is how the film doesn’t succumb to the masculine fantasy of superheroes, but instead embraces the character’s identity as a woman. It’s Wonder Woman’s capacity to empathize and cherish all that is good in the world that ultimately saves mankind. She coos at babies (who hasn’t?) and pauses briefly to give thanks to an ice cream vendor (again, who hasn’t?). Empathy is so often seen as a trait of weakness, but through Diana it is THE strength that enables her to rise to the occasion. 

Steve Trevor is the first to tell the Amazons of the world war, a conflict that has claimed the lives of millions. The loss of life is unthinkable to Diana, coming just moments after watching her own comrades die. “I cannot stand by,” she says to her mother, and that’s all we need to know about Wonder Woman and what she will do. Being a hero requires a resolute belief in doing the right thing. It requires a bit of defiance. Most of all, it requires giving a shit.

In the film’s climax, Diana is in an ideal position to take up Ares’ proposition and return the world to its natural paradise. Yet, Diana elects the good of mankind. Humanity may be beyond saving, but they are not entirely irredeemable, capable of love and acting selflessly. It’s the kind of well-meaning heroism we so rarely get to see as comic book movies often hinge on an over-the-top end-of-the-world scenario.

Diana’s steely belief in the good of mankind is both a course-correction and a relief from the overwhelmingly dour tone of the DCEU. Batman is forever tormented by the undying grief for his parents, while Superman remains adrift in the existential dread of a lost home world. It’s also a renewed hope for future portrayals of superheroines. Contemporaries like Black Widow and Harley Quinn, in comparison, are given masculine qualities as a substitute for their attributes (and when they do use their attributes, it’s often to seduce or manipulate). It’s momentous to not only see Wonder Woman in action, but to be portrayed as a superhero who relies on her femininity instead of forsaking it. Diana, a beacon of hope in a gloomy landscape.

Misogynist trolls are still busy trolling every review. They won’t get it. It’s not about appealing to a demographic. It’s about representation. Wonder Woman is the first female superhero movie of its kind, in a monotonous genre that has been indisputably male dominated and male asserted. Cries for female-fronted films have been equally met by outcries against it. No scene better symbolizes that than the now famous No Man’s Land sequence (a powerfully cinematic scene that is truly a wonder to behold). Diana is surrounded by men who tell her that she can’t, she shouldn’t, that it’s hopeless. She proves everybody wrong. Wonder Woman is proof that we didn’t need Batman and Superman punching each other in the face, or an edgy supervillain mashup to shake up the superhero genre. What we needed, in the end, was a woman. 

7 thoughts on “‘Wonder Woman’: Dawn of the Female Superhero

  1. charandtheweb says:

    Your title made me go an tun tun tunnnn! I love it! I’m finally watching the film on Sunday (thanks, Europe for the late release date) and so I had to dodge a couple of spoilers here and there, but from what I’ve read, in your review and others, is that Patty Jenkins really created a film that appeals to the masses. It’s not shoving feminism down anyone’s throat, but it also didn’t give in to male fantasies (like you mentioned). I’m glad that Gal Gadot herself also proved all the haters wrong. Who said you can’t be pretty and fierce, and badass at the same time? Great review, enjoyed reading it.

    Would you be interested in sharing your work on Movie Pilot? I’d like to invite you to join the platform, and I’d love to hear from you so I can to expand on that. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail, my contact details are on my “About” page. Hopefully talk soon!

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      Yes! Patty Jenkins (god her name is so much fun) accomplished something truly historic with WW. One of the best superhero origin stories since Batman Begins – no small feat considering studios are so obsessed with team-ups and crossovers now. The film is such a sharp allegory on the overwhelmingly masculine playing field that is the superhero genre. There was so much riding against it, especially in the wake of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. Needless to say, WW triumphs in more ways than one.

      Thank you so much for the praise. It’s very reassuring. I actually have signed up as a creator and am currently enrolled in the academy. I’m ashamed to say my progress has been slow, but I am determined to finish by the end of June. I appreciate you reaching out. I’ll be in touch!

  2. sati says:

    Yet again, truly lovely article here. I loved how you highlighted how Diana fights misogyny practically every single step of this film. And yes her empathy, Jenkins really made such a brave movie what everyone else would deem too cheesy or too easy she just goes for it showing Diana as someone so innocent and so human, so naive and so sweet. She seems to get, unlike Snyder, there is nothing wrong with that and even in our cynical world people will respond to seeing these qualities in a character. They have done such a beautiful job establishing Diana as this lovely, likable character that when she finally does something extraordinary it raises it to such great heights in No Man’s Land scene. I can only hope that the following movies including her, mainly Justice League are worthy of the character and Gal’s work.

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      Oh you are too kind! WW’s greatest accomplishment is allowing its central character to be a woman. That alone feels monumental. Too often female characters are given overtly masculine traits to stack up against the guys, but it’s unnecessary. As the film reminds us, you can be badass and a woman at the same time (the two are not mutually exclusive). The No Man’s Land sequence is so awe-inspiring I think about it at least a couple times a day. Matter of fact, I’m going to see the movie a 3rd time tomorrow!

      My one worry, though, is how Wonder Woman will fare in Justice League. All of DCEU’s renewed success is owed to her that I’d be bummed if she gets sidelined to make way for the other character introductions. Honestly I’m way more interested in a WW sequel than anything else. I can’t help but think of Hippolyta’s parting words to Diana: “They do not deserve you.”

      • sati says:

        I actually think it’s gonna be the opposite with Justice League – there are massive reshoots happening now, after WW success. The only worry is that Joss Whedon took over and the script for his Wonder Woman from years ago was absolutely terrible

  3. Jade says:

    Wonderful post. Such a strong feminist message, and you’ve distilled it so well! How Diana sees our world, says so much about our male-dominant society. With her established beliefs and display of faith for humanity, Diana is made all the more powerful than the usual superhero we see in film. Her motivations are just so fresh and relevant.

    I’ve always found it odd that it took so long for the Marvel-DC universes to have a genuine superheroine film. Thankfully, it’s finally happened and might pave the way for more! Seems Jenkins is the real life Wonder Woman here. 😊

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      What I admire the most about WW is how it deftly imbues a feminist arc within its plot, and a nuanced interpretation at that. Leave it to Patty Jenkins to accomplish that! It’s not just good old-fashioned heroism, but a touch of feminism I have never seen in a superhero pic. That alone is historic. Marvel may be leagues ahead of DC, but DC has kind of made a fool out of Marvel with their previous interpretations of superheroines. Needless to say, Captain Marvel has got a lot to live up to (then again, it’s Brie Larson!). Kind of a bummer it took this long for a female superhero movie. I sincerely hope this is only the beginning.

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