“Highly enjoyable popcorn flick which ticks the box of female empowerment despite struggling to break into truly progressive territory.”
Title: Wonder Woman (2017)
Director: Patty Jenkins 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 and story by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Zack Snyder 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Jason Fuchs 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Standard fare for a comic book origin story: thrilling action (with standout fight choreography), earnest idealism, and subtle humor. On the flipside, slightly uneven pacing and simplistic characters and storylines.
I’m giving this an extra half point due to the social impact of this being the first female superhero franchise—directed by a female filmmaker, to boot. Patty Jenkins shouldered a massive responsibility and met it head-on with this highly enjoyable popcorn flick, which ticks the box of female empowerment despite struggling to break into truly progressive territory.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 35% of creative decision-makers were female.
This was a tricky category to grade. I would love to give Wonder Woman a 5/5 in Gender for its unquestionable importance as a feminist work that impacts women and children around the globe. And if I were just grading the first third of the film, I would have done so, considering the all-female cast portrayed as warriors, politicians, and caregivers alike, covering a broad swathe of different types of women and relationships. However, the second and third acts of Wonder Woman shrink to a majority-male ensemble, save for Diana (Gal Gadot) as the leading hero and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) as a welcome female villain.
Unfortunately, there were two glaring issues—likely carried over from its 1940s source material—that I simply could not overlook:
- A Forced Romance - Chris Pine is wonderful in his role as Steve Trevor. But the closed-door love scene between him and Diana is wholly unnecessary, as is his awkward interjection of “I love you” before he dashes off. I hate that Diana only finds her true powers due to some sort of implied, romantic awakening; why couldn’t she have found her powers thinking about Antiope, who had trained and mentored Diana for her entire life? Or why couldn’t she have been inspired by Steve as a platonic embodiment of the goodness of human beings? This film would have been so much stronger if the tension between Diana and Steve was kept at mutual respect, rather than romantic interest.
- The “Born Sexy Yesterday” Trope - I would highly recommend a viewing of Pop Culture Detective Agency’s explainer video, which covers the history of this common pitfall and how antithetical it is to female empowerment. Beth Elderkin sums it up:
“‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ is the crafting of female characters who have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women...the idea that a sexy yet virginal woman needs a man to explain the basic fundamentals of being a person, making her dependent on him. It doesn't matter how unremarkable he is, she'll always find him fascinating, because she's never known anyone else.”
I was disappointed to see Wonder Woman unfold in these exact blueprints. Diana may be a warrior goddess, but she has never seen a man before Steve Trevor. Who she, of course, falls in love with and (as the film suggests) sleeps with. It’s frustrating to watch the actress be forced to play dumb; if Diana knows what hydrogen is and can speak hundreds of languages, why does she need Steve Trevor to explain the word “marriage” and what it means to “sleep with a woman”?
Lastly, mimicking the unfair tightrope all women have to balance, Diana is even more the paragon of perfection than male superheroes have to be. She’s physically incomparable but with the mind of a child so as not to threaten the egos of fanboys. She’s otherworldly in beauty and scantily-clad, yet manages to embody honor and virtue—contrasting attributes that real-life women are unfairly expected to exhibit simultaneously.
It would be much more empowering, in fact, to have seen Diana as flawed. If Batman gets to be an obsessive human with no real superpowers, Spiderman gets to be a twerpy nerd but still get the girl, and the Hulk gets to have debilitating anger issues and transform into an unsightly monster as his superpower, why does Wonder Woman have to be utterly perfect, with her only Achilles’ heel the eroticized, forced bondage at the hands of a man?
That being said, I still appreciate the undeniable role Wonder Woman is playing right now, advancing opportunities for women to direct big-budget blockbusters and to feature as leading characters. The visible gender role reversal—Steve Trevor as the gorgeous, flawless, and self-sacrificing love interest—is truly refreshing. I just want to get to a point where seeing a female superhero headline a franchise is de rigeur, as opposed to a rarity that occurs once every 76 years.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 5% of creative decision-makers were POC.
White-centric, though it could be argued that Diana, as a Greek goddess played by Israeli Gal Gadot, is less America-centric than it could have been. We see an effort at ethnic diversity within the mercenary group assembled by Steve Trevor—he hires a stereotypical Scot, drunk on whisky and clad in a kilt, along with slightly more nuanced appearances by the francophone, Moroccan Sameer and native American explosives expert known only as “Chief”. Sameer and Chief represent communities significantly underserved by Hollywood and whose parts feel fairly authentic, especially considering this positive reaction written by Vincent Schilling for Indian Country Media Network. Yet the film as a whole remains visibly white, with rank-and-file characters hailing from Themyscira, Great Britain, America, or Germany.
Similar to the Gender category, I sincerely appreciate the effort to diversify—especially in looking across international borders for talent. Casting a lead actress who hails from abroad is notable, though Gadot's support of the Israel Defense Force (IDF)—a major player in the Israel-Gaza conflict—is hardly free of its own issues with race and identity. As Amal Matan writes for Nerdy POC:
"Gadot paints a naive picture of service in the IDF, where giving back is benevolent, rather than resulting in a complicity in criminal acts...It’s contrary to the courage, accountability, and responsibility to justice that [Wonder Woman] has demonstrated again and again."
Beyond Gadot and the controversy that surrounds her selection, other cast members are non-American too: Huston, who plays German villain Ludendorff, is Italian while Dr. Maru is played by a Spaniard.
But the bottom line is, despite their countries of origins, the aforementioned actors all play white characters. So I can’t bestow much more than an above-average score in this category.
Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.25
Wonder Woman has been an queer icon for decades, with the original comics containing lesbian subtext and the writer of the latest reboot going so far as to confirm Diana as canonically gay.
Yet in Wonder Woman, her romance with Steve Trevor is as heteronormative as its gets. Christopher Hooten puts it succinctly in The Independent:
“Her long-standing bisexuality will not be referenced. Instead, she will very boringly fall in love with the very boring Chris Pine.”
What a lost opportunity! How much stronger would Wonder Woman have been without this mind-numbingly routine romance? Now, don’t get me wrong—I don’t condone queerbaiting (the practice of filmmakers and TV showrunners coyly hinting at queer subtext in their stories without ever delivering actual LGBTQ characters). But considering this is just the first film in what we hope will be a full franchise, the writers could have left some breathing room, simultaneously paying homage to Wonder Woman’s longstanding role in queer and lesbian culture.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
This is an exciting moment for women all over the world, make no mistake. But the outdated source material hinders Wonder Woman from reaching full-out beast mode, at least by 2017 standards of intersectionality and feminism. It isn’t enough for me just to see a “bad-ass” woman anymore—I want to see complex ones, as flawed and relatable as male superheroes are allowed to be.
Still, this is a huge step forward and I’m thrilled about how its worldwide success could open wallets for female directors.
So, for today, I genuinely enjoyed Wonder Woman and am thankful for the strides its making. But tomorrow, I’ll want to see more from this franchise—more complex women, more ethnic diversity, and a proper homage to its LGBTQ roots.