‘Wonder Woman’ delivers defiant superheroine we’ve been waiting for

Alex Bailey/Warner Bros Entertainment/Courtesy
Alex Bailey/WarnerBrosEntertainment/Courtesy

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There’s something incredibly powerful about watching a superheroine goddess be trained to save the world by a battalion of badass women.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) — also known as Diana — was conceived by her mother, who sculpted her from clay and raised her alongside the island’s all-woman army, led by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana eventually becomes the fiercest fighter of all, ready to defend the Amazons and the world from Aries, the god of war.

Her destiny arrives in the form of a cluster of German soldiers who splash-land in the water surrounding Diana’s beloved island — beyond which, World War I is raging.

Upon arriving in London, Diana is genuinely confused by the multitude of ways that she and other women are sublimated, ignored or excluded.

As Diana moves within this historical world, she is constantly told that her looks make her “distracting,” which perplexes her — not because she doesn’t know she’s gorgeous, but because  she has more important work to do than to avoid “distracting” the straight men around her.

This is one of several ways that Wonder Woman refuses to be contained by the worlds around her. In her infancy, Diana was told she was meant to be a princess, not a warrior. She refused to stop training. She’s told to stay outside during crucial meetings between war generals. She refuses to be excluded. She’s told to hide in the trenches as male soldiers exchange fire, because “no man can cross No Man’s Land.” She refuses. As the 10-year-old girl next to me at the screening pointed out, “She’s a woman!”

Diana’s unwavering confidence and expectation of equity demonstrates the power of all-women environments to influence girls’ self-perception, and their perception of other women, as they grow. If young girls see women who are recognized as not only capable, but extraordinary multidimensional leaders — the way Diana did with Antiope and her mother — their perception of other women and themselves will be positively impacted. “Wonder Woman” positions this as an obvious truth.

For audience members who aren’t dedicated Marvel or DC fans, it can be hard to imagine a superhero movie communicating such a theme and narrative with nuance. But that’s exactly what “Wonder Woman” does. Although it still has the obvious “bad guy” narrative, at the heart of this film is an extremely poignant argument about gender and violence.

Our antagonist is Aries: a character who embodies the violent and threatening masculinity that is often subliminally encouraged in men, young and old. He attempts to gain power by dominating women and other men, and facilitating war without actually engaging in it — thereby enacting a kind of colonialist domination without having to sacrifice his own safety.

The ultimate triumph for Aries would be to overpower and control the woman who poses a physical and ideological threat to him: Wonder Woman.

An alternative masculinity that we see in the film is a kind of gender-reversed damsel in distress: Steve (Chris Pine), who becomes a pseudo-sidekick to Diana and eventually falls in love with her. Their passion is mutual, but what’s great about their relationship is that it demonstrates how a film can create a sacrificial partner that isn’t completely powerless.

In other words, I’m tired of women being the sacrificial sidekick so that a man can complete the heroic mission. “Wonder Woman,” of course, is having none of that shit. Steve does have a moment of self-sacrifice, but it’s not just so that Diana can save the world — it’s so that he can play his part in saving the world from annihilation via mustard gas. Thus, Wonder Woman gets to save the world, and Steve is still an everyday hero.

Of course, without Diana’s ability to speak hundreds of languages, Steve never would have known that the Germans had a formula for mustard gas in the first place.

Although the self-sacrificing role has often been occupied by women who are sidekicks to male heroes (à la Hermione in “Harry Potter: The Sorcerer’s Stone”), “Wonder Woman” responds to that history by demonstrating that it’s possible for a sidekick to be secondary without being passive or marginalized. Wonder Woman still saves the world with superhuman strength and indestructibility, and Steve accomplishes his personal goal.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman’s greatest strength is certainly her defiance, her capacity for love is a close second. The end of the film seems to argue that the latter came from her relationship with Steve, but it began with the unconditional love she received from the maternal figures in her life: her mother and her aunt.

At the end of the day, despite the fact that “Wonder Woman” could easily be perceived as a franchise commodification of feminism, it’s very likely to reach a demographic of young men who could definitely benefit from a film that criticizes normative masculinity and already reached the 10-year-old girls that sat next to me at the screening.

Those girls — and young boys, too — deserve a superheroine who kicks the patriarchy’s ass, and does so defiantly, unapologetically and with brilliant wit.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].