What makes Wonder Woman a good superhero movie is not that the female superhero wins, but that she isn’t always heroic.
In this world deprived of female superhero movies – let alone good ones – Wonder Woman (2017) creates history simply because it exists. What’s surprising, though, is that Wonder Woman is actually worth watching. Of course, Wonder Woman as a character has always been fascinating precisely because she is rooted in history. Her creator, the Harvard psychologist William Marston, was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage. His two partners, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne (the three had a cohabitant, if not polyamorous, relationship), were both unapologetic feminists. Olive was the daughter of Ethel Byrne, who helped start the US’s first birth control clinic, while Elizabeth earned three degrees, became a psychologist and worked with her husband on developing tests that eventually led to the invention of the polygraph or the lie detector. Elizabeth was also the primary breadwinner for herself, her two partners and their children. In this unconventional family, Wonder Woman was born a tribute to and amalgam of the fierce women in William Marston’s life. The Lasso of Truth that Wonder Woman wields to force confessions from her adversaries, for instance, seems much like the polygraph tests Elizabeth researched.
Although curious about a movie incarnation of one of DC Comics’ most historically intriguing characters, I expected little more than a silly saga of love story, moral righteousness and long fight sequences in devilishly sexy costumes. Wonder Woman bears all of these – it is, after all, a superhero movie and must satisfy certain requirements to qualify as one. But the way the film perforates its own tropes makes it a delightful watch.
Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) is raised as the only child on Themyscira, a secret island of women warriors known as the Amazons. They have a “sacred duty to defend the world” against Ares, the god of war. When a WWI Allied spy, Steve Trevor, crashes his plane into the waters around Themyscira, Diana rescues him. He is the first man she has met. He tells her about the “war of all wars” and how he is trying to stop an evil Doctor Maru from developing a new poisonous gas that will enable the Germans to kill more people than ever before. Believing that Ares is behind this violence, Diana resolves to fulfil her duty as an Amazon. She agrees to help Steve escape Themyscira, on the condition that he take her to this war. A collision of mythical Amazons and WWI Europe might seem unfathomable, but emerges as a conceit that is both charming and hilarious. At the front, Diana proves herself as the star fighter. Of course, she and Steve fall in love. Steve manages to destroy all of Dr Maru’s poison gas to save millions of lives. Diana finds Ares, who has taken on the guise of Sir Patrick Morgan, an armistice negotiator in the Imperial War Cabinet. She finishes him off with pyrotechnic, gravity-defying extravagance. Steve martyrs himself in saving the world, while Diana lives on to keep saving it – each wins the battle they left Themyscira to fight, but the world still remains in need of heroes like them.
A woman who can flip over her head three times to knock down the bad guys is the epitome of superhero behaviour. But what makes Wonder Woman a good superhero movie is not that the female superhero wins, but that she isn’t always heroic. Diana often falters in battle and constantly discovers and tests the limits of her own powers – she has to find the strength to defeat Ares. Her (feminist) politics demands a constant revaluation of how a woman can be a hero to herself and how strength doesn’t have a single definition. For Diana, her strength eventually comes from a sense of unconditional love – a quality that’s typically reduced to innate femininity is reworked into, literally, earth shattering power. “It’s about what you believe”, she says, “And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world”.
Diana recognises the power of love only when Steve tells her he loves her, before leaving towards his own death. Here, Wonder Woman retains its requisite romance and yet subverts it. Diana does not follow Steve. She stays behind to complete her mission, which she believes is a different means to the same end. She stands by her own cause and still feels deeply the pain of losing a lover – she reconciles for herself her romance and her sense of purpose.
Her lover, too, despite being a blonde-haired do-gooder, isn’t flawless. He can triumph only with the help of Chief and Sameer. A Native American who has no allegiances, Chief helps people from both sides cross the frontline. He says he has nothing left to fight for because Steve’s people, the white men, eradicated his people. Similarly, Sameer, supposedly an Arab secret agent but actually an amorphous combination of many brown cultures (arguably the most noticeable stereotype in the film), dreamed of being an actor but failed because of the colour of his skin. Without Sameer’s playacting and ingenuity, it would be impossible for Steve to find the German poison gas plant. Always in need of help from those who his people have violated, the white, idealistically unpatriarchal hero is not absolved of his crimes. This is another of Wonder Woman’s strengths, how it raises political complexities and yet allows them to remain unresolved – even superheroes cannot fix genocide and eras of institutional heartbreak.
The film’s heterosexual romance is upturned also in the power dynamics between the lovers. While Steve describes himself as “above average” – both in moral character and the size of penis – Diana remains stronger, physically and emotionally, and more empathetic. Even when she has a chance to kill the heinous Dr Maru, Diana sees in her villain vulnerability and fear. Sexually, too, she remains in charge. Just before she and Steve first have sex, he is about to leave the room and bid her goodnight. But she looks at him, asking him to stay. Sex, then, is not his conquest, but her desire. And hopefully, her pleasure, too.
Unlike her comic book counterpart, who is often tied up by her enemies in positions that are thinly veiled representations of sexual bondage, the movie Wonder Woman is not always framed as a spectacle for male pleasure. William Marston had a strong interest in what he called “captivation emotion”, sexual tasks performed in submission. His superhero, too, was often subjected to these sexual preferences. But while the movie Wonder Woman retains the sexy pinup girl costume, she is never bound, and ‘gets on top’, as it were, to take down the bad guys. She is also the one who chooses how she dresses, be it the grey skirt and coat in London, or the blue gown at the German ball. When Steve tries to dress her frumpy to attract less attention, he fails. She becomes a living, fighting example of ‘you never ask for it with what you wear’. I wonder if these subtle departures from the comic book’s male objectification owe to the film’s female director, Patty Jenkins, and its large female crew. Whatever the reason, Wonder Woman, just when it seems like it might sink under its male-driven origins, redeems itself.
Lying in a boat as they sail away from Themyscira, Diana and Steve talk about sex – he is surprised she knows about it, despite having never met a man before. She is quick to point out his ignorance. Citing Clio’s treatises on bodily pleasure, she explains, “when it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasure, not necessary.” She hasn’t learnt such feminist lessons from the Greeks alone, but from the women around her. After all, the Amazons live in a paradise with only themselves. Incidentally, in the 1940s, the Wonder Woman comics were banned for supposedly encouraging ‘lesbianism’. Wonder Woman, the movie, too, without making a corny event of lesbian relationships, lets us know that this is a paradise where women live and love and lust for each other; where they are content without men and yet not averse to them either. These are the women who are dedicated to fighting for the world. And Diana, Wonder Woman, has inherited the battle of these women who made her. She offers us a lesson for our own feminist moment that slowly grows more aware of the fractures of class, caste, religion, race. It is a moment, like Diana does as she leaves the Amazons for a world of her own, to reassess what has been done and what needs doing. A moment to listen to other women rather than blindly deploying our own ammunition. To remember the women – revolutionary, flawed and fragile – who fought this same battle before us.
Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer based in Bangalore.