“Wonder Woman:” A Wonder or a Worry?

WARNING! SPOILERS! Spoilers everywhere!

Let’s go ahead and get out the unabashed praise for Wonder Woman right now. Let’s praise it for being a female led solo superhero film. Let’s praise it for making women feel empowered (if you didn’t leave the theater thinking you could take somebody, you’re lying.) Let’s praise it for being the kick ass lady movie that we all needed in the Trump era. It was fun, it was entertaining, it was, frankly, much better than I thought it was going to be.

To be fair, my expectations were depressingly low. I haven’t seen a DC movie that I’ve loved yet and I’m a hard core DC fan in a moment when Marvel reigns supreme, not to mention the initial casting of Gal Gadot deeply turned me off. However, I didn’t feel like breaking anything or crying as I watched the movie, which I had assumed would be my reaction for about a year and a half now.

So while I’m interested in talking about what the movie does right, its highlights and strong suits, what we’re not going to do is accept it uncritically and hail it as the most feminist movie in existence. 

It’s not.

Not even close.

The first thing we need to talk about is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Diana, though far from one of my favorite superheroes, is a heroine that I highly respect and relate to on a deep level. Wonder Woman, by rule, is a warrior princess– she is big, and strong, and beautiful…intimidating and awe-inspiring. When she walks into a room, all eyes slide to her because she is impossible to ignore and it’s not just because she wears a corset and a mini skirt through the streets of 1940s London without realizing how she’s inappropriately dressed by the period’s standards. Gal Gadot, by contrast, is cute. She’s dainty. It was adorable to watch little Gal try to look intimidating while she was fighting, flexing her barely there muscles for the slow motion spin kicks and sucker punches. I thought, “How precious” when Diana tasted ice cream for the first time. At no point did I think, “Wow, that’s bad ass!” And you have to admit, there’s something wrong when the only adjectives you can think to use to describe Wonder Woman are “cute,” “dainty,” “adorable,” and “precious.”

I’m still on the “Serena Williams for Wonder Woman 2017” train.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, it was a smart move to write it as a memory, a sort of important footnote about Wonder Woman and her history, while she’s thinking about what her role will be in the Justice League, foreshadowing the next big adventure in an important way. Unfortunately, the pacing was poor, so the beginning, which revealed important information about Diana’s upbringing, lagged dreadfully. It’s painful for me to admit, considering how much I like Themyscira and love the Amazons– but I really didn’t get into the movie until she ran across No Man’s Land. I wasn’t impressed by Hippolyta. I found Diana’s departure from Themyscira anti-climatic. I do not think Steve Trevor is cute or particularly interesting. (Although, if someone can point me in the direction of a good Steve Trevor story/rendition, I’m more than willing to give it a shot.)

Another disappointing factor was the unresolved Dr. Poison plot. The movie starts out and it seems like we might get an interesting woman versus woman fight to the finish, but of course, because it’s a Wonder Woman movie, the main bad guy was our homeboy, Ares. The movie jerks us around, at first leading us to believe it the villain might be Dr. Poison, then Ludendorff, until finally, we have to accept that Wonder Woman’s battle was greater than any earthly threat. As a Greek mythology stan, I love Wonder Woman’s background. I love her perpetual fight with Ares. But I really wanted there to be a showdown between Diana and Dr. Poison. I wanted them to at least talk to each other. I wanted Dr. Poison to be more than what she was.

And that’s the rub, is it not? If you’re looking for any sort of depth in superheroes, movies simply are not the answer. The movies are amazing at entertaining people for two hours and interesting enough to spark a conversation or two while leaving the theater, but mostly leave just enough gaping holes to provide anyone invested in doing a serious analysis with enough material to write five entirely different, scathing critiques. 

While I was scrolling down Facebook this morning, my friend tagged me in a long winded post about Wonder Woman, which I mostly agreed with until I saw the phrase: “I think superheroes have lost all analytical power and don’t work very well any more to tell stories with power or resonance.” Yes, there was plenty wrong with Wonder Woman and it’s particularly striking when you’re an academic and your job is to pick things apart, you’re trained to critique and offer alternative suggestions, or in most cases, simply critique and say “do better.” I do believe that a lot of the depth that was lacking can be attributed to the form. The fact is, tv shows and comics are a better form if you’re trying to develop a character or a complex story line. You’ve got more room to spread out, grow, and experiment, whereas with a movie, it’s one and done–you have one shot to present an entertaining story, a complex character, and keep long time fans and mildly interested, first time superhero movie goers happy. Something has got to give. Something will always fall through the cracks. 

I do not, however, believe that superheroes have lost all analytical power. I do believe that they tell stories with power and resonance.

It’s all about perspective.

As an adult, an academic, a superhero fan, a geek girl, and Black woman, I could talk for days about all of the things that Wonder Woman could have done better. 

But I sat next to a young Black girl in the theater when I went to go see Wonder Woman the night it opened. She complimented my Wonder Woman jacket. It was clear she wasn’t a huge fan, mostly a young girl who’d been awe-struck by the image of a woman clad in armor, wielding a sword and battling all on her own. At the end, I looked and saw how impressed she had been– how excited she was.

Just because I know that I had issues with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor’s idiocies, and a cheesy story line, doesn’t mean that everyone else does.These stories feel like they lack power because they resemble each other. As you get older, you hear more stories, so less feels brand new. But for every person that’s heard the story, there are nine others who haven’t– and of those nine people, you never know who the story will touch. Of the people who have heard the story, you never know when a new spin will breathe new life into you.

To tell a brief, somewhat tangential but related story, I spent years of my life doodling Superman symbols on the backs of my notebooks, the corners of papers I had to turn in, on my arm like temporary tattoos without having picked up a single comic. When I finally decided to back my love of an idea with real knowledge, I almost gave up and picked a new hero because I disliked most of the Superman comics I was reading. But then I found Smallville– that became the version of Superman that spoke to me. This was the symbol of truth and justice that I had heard so much about.

The point is that despite the shortcomings, and the supposed lack of power these stories are fighting against, it is undeniable that these stories mean something to millions of people. 

During a political moment in which we need hope, superheroes are making their ways into the hearts and minds of many– even if it isn’t yours. I don’t necessarily love Wonder Woman, but I love the idea of her. I love what she represents. 

Gal Gadot may not be my Wonder Woman, but she and her character means so much to so many, and that cannot be discounted. 

She’s a first step and a start in the ongoing conversation about empowered women, but by no means is she the finish line. We can, however, follow her example, be encouraged by her inspiration, her light and her hope, and move forward in the world, making bigger and better changes.

I truly believe that superheroes are time capsules. They incorporate the best of society’s most prized values and their villains, society’s worst fears. The truth is, the more we use Wonder Woman to inspire, to make strides in society, our next Wonder Woman is going to be even better, encapsulating all the strides that we take forward as a society. So, yes, we should critique our heroes. We deserve the best. But it would be a damn shame to deny the power they do have in this moment.

They do something for all of us. Wonder Woman reminded me how powerful I am. What did she do for you?

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