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.