Princess Diana of Themyscira, otherwise known as Wonder Woman, saves the world.
What’s more, she saves not just one but three worlds in one go. One world is that which is found in this year’s movie, a world embroiled in WWI and teetering on the precipice of extinction. Another is the traditionally somewhat lackluster world of DC Comics’ extended universe.
Then there is the world of the longtime fans, which includes middle aged men like myself. Finally, in one fell swoop, she saves those women in our world who experience oppression simply by the virtue of being a woman. Wonder Woman is a marvelous movie, and its victory march through the global box office is simply wonderful.
Droves of young female viewers enjoy dressing up as Wonder Woman, the Wonder Woman movie grossed more than Man of Steel‘s super box-office success and has taken the crown as the highest performing movie by a female director. The film’s popularity is undeniable.
Wonder Woman stands alongside Superman and Batman as one of DC Comic’s top three heroes, but has never really enjoyed the same renown as her brethren. Neither the TV series starring Lynda Carter, nor any of the previous movies were a roaring success. But now the Wonder Woman of this year’s film is basking in the spotlight as a savior of worlds.
With the cold war long gone and in an era of unbalanced conflict, what is the world that we want to save?
Many reasons can be given for the movie’s overwhelming success, the most compelling of which is undoubtedly the appeal of Gal Gadot. She has captivated the minds and hearts of men and women, both young and old, from all corners of the globe.
However, upon the initial announcement of her role as Wonder Woman, there were some who criticized it as a mismatch for the character’s traditionally glamorous image. Perhaps this dissent was a result of the primarily male image of Wonder Woman as a sex symbol. Though, had the casting been guided by this same principle, there is no doubt the movie would never have been so wildly successful. Super heroines have appeared in countless super hero movies, but almost always in support of the male fantasy. If that had been the case here, female viewers certainly wouldn’t have taken to her like they have.
The brains behind this movie were well aware of this fact, which is precisely why they chose Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins. As a result, the film appeals to both men and women. A wise decision, given the climate of today’s film industry, and one that the film’s success only serves to highlight.
Like-minded thinking can be seen in the recent Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, which both feature female leads. Airing from September of this year, the star of the new Star Trek: Discovery series is also a female first officer. These days it’s not unusual to see women in leading roles. Hollywood has turned a corner: previously the just savior role was played by, or exclusively reserved for men, but is now played by women as well, and audiences love it. [ Ed’s note: Not all fans loved the idea of a black female actor leading the cast of Discovery.]
The same can be said for video games.
Wonder Woman has done an excellent job of adapting to Hollywood trends in the here and now, but is actually a long-running series born in 1941 amidst the backdrop of WWII. Wonder Woman, as the story goes, was born and raised as a member of the female only Amazonian tribe on Paradise Island, far removed from the world of men. The film adheres to this same origin story, but sets the stage in 1918 amidst WWI. At the time, women’s suffrage was not on entirely equal terms with men. As portrayed in the film, when Diana enters the halls of politicians with male cohort Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the immediate reaction is a flabbergasted inquiry as to why a woman, of all people, has been allowed inside.
Not only was a female soldier unthinkable at this time, but in fact, women were expected to wear impractical corsets that restricted their movement, and frilly clothing for show. Having arrived in London wearing Amazonian attire, there is a rather comical, and if not a bit cynical scene, where she must change into the dress of the day. Once you know that Gal Gadot served in the Israel Defense Force, the scene appears all the more satirical.
Of course, Diana eventually sheds the “women’s attire”, and transforms into Wonder Woman. There’s even a scene where she infiltrates a party in a stunning dress with her sword “God Killer” concealed on her back.
Wonder Woman’s power to break the rules of the male-centric or human society becomes focused on the allied forces main rival: Germany. Spying behind enemy lines, Steve learns of a terrifying German plot to develop a lethal gas superweapon, but his appeals to take immediate action are denied due to ongoing peace negotiations.
Not content to sit back and accept their fate, Steve and Wonder Woman gather a small force, and take on the Germans themselves. Thanks to her valiant efforts, they successfully foil the German plan and restore peace to the world.
Initially, it’s Wonder Woman’s chance encounter with British military man Steve Trevor on Paradise Island that eventually brings her to London. Princess Diana and her fellow Amazonians are forced to take up arms against his German pursuers when they invade their land, despite the fact that it is the Amazonian ideal that their weapons be used foremost for defense.
That Amazonian philosophy is highlighted by Wonder Woman’s array of weapons which include her “God Killer” sword, her shield, the Lasso of Truth – which forces the truth out of its captives – and nigh on indestructible, bullet deflecting bracelets made from the metal “Feminum”. Nearly all are defensive weapons. The emphasis is on protecting oneself, not on felling your adversaries, an ideal akin to the philosophy of martial arts schools of Aikido and Shorinji Kempo.
The first half of the movie does a tremendous job at expressing this ideal. Unfortunately, the latter half of the movie shifts from the portrayal of the “woman” to focusing on the “wonder” of her power. Watching her battle alongside the fighting men is a rush, but the more her super powers took center stage, the more I felt my expectations in the movie’s portrayal of her wonderful side fade away. But the focus on superpowers may have been unavoidable, at least to a certain degree, given that the film is an origin story.
In the story, protecting Steve equates to protecting the alliance, and of course, the Germans are the bad guys, so we learn little about them. Wonder Woman’s sense of justice isn’t explored either. It’s just automatically assumed that the side Steve is on, the allies, are in the right.
Her aggressive use of power is, in fact, a declination of her homeland’s defense centric teachings. Watching her conquer force with stronger force, is reminiscent of Cold War “justice”, particularly of the Regan era.
But what if she had first met a German soldier? Would she have joined the Central Powers instead? This simple question is left unanswered.
As mentioned previously, 1941 ushered in the birth of Wonder Woman in DC comics, but it was also the same year that Captain America first appeared in Marvel Comics. Due to their naming and costumes, they are both generally perceived as heroes that embody the United States of America. In reality, Captain America isn’t loyal to the USA as a country, but is instead loyal to the principles on which it was founded. If freedom, equality and philanthropy are jeopardized, Captain will even stand in opposition to America. These ideals are what pit Captain America against Iron Man and company in the film Captain America: Civil War.
The Marvel cinematic universe tries to portray the post 911 era, where “justice” is in the eye of the beholder. Elements like gender, race, religion and social position mold various notions of justice. In the present day, these notions are even further fragmented, giving rise to a veritable mosaic of perceived and actual justice. Marvel heroes portray a consistency in line with this, evidence that their narrative is a step more mature than DC’s.
The feminist perspective of “social progress of women” and “gender equality” that Wonder Woman portrays is the first step in questioning what justice means in the DC Universe. This is a perspective unique to DC, and currently missing from Marvel. Marvel doesn’t have a character like her, that uses her powers for justice, but from a feminine perspective. Perhaps that’s why DC crisscrossed the themes of “social progress of women” and the “power of justice” throughout the movie. Wonder Woman represents the first step in revitalizing the DC Universe, and it is also the first chapter in Diana’s growth as a woman.
The “fighting heroines” that used to be in Hollywood movies, like Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, often achieved self-actualization through their job. Clarice, working for the FBI, solves a case with the help of Dr. Lecter, while coming to terms with her past and earning a social position. The battlefield of women was work and society in those movies. This is a testament to the lack of gender equality of that time.
In the 80’s James Cameron was creating fighting heroines such as Ripley (Aliens) and Sarah Connor (Terminator). At first, neither of these characters show any unique abilities, but towards the end of their stories they are saving the world from crisis. Interestingly enough, the wellspring of Ripley and Sarah Connor’s fighting spirit is their motherhood, something that no man can ever obtain. (Of course, this being a wellspring for the fighting spirit may also be a male fantasy.) These portrayals are also markedly different from Wonder Woman, who is at least as capable as the men she fights beside on the battlefield. Regardless, the separation between men and women remains in both character types. So, is there a hero that breaks this mold? A hero that overcomes differences of men and women?
We have already met that ideal hero in The Bionic Woman.
In 1975 the TV series Wonder Woman starring Linda Carter aired. The following year, 1976, introduced The Bionic Woman. Jaime Sommers, played by Lindsay Wagner, is critically injured in an accident, but is reborn as a cyborg. Jaime, a former tennis player, uses her bionic powers in service of the U.S. government, but never for violent purposes such as destruction or killing. As an agent, it’s her duty to contribute to the well-being of the country, but she doesn’t directly lean on her bionic abilities to defeat the enemies of the state. She doesn’t punch or kick her opponents. Her powers are used for defense, not for aggression, for infiltration and escape. They are not the end, but merely a means to an end. She tries to solve problems not through destruction but through dissuasion. The way Jaime uses her powers is a representation of her philosophy and her way of life. Bad guys, good guys, men, women of all ages and races, whoever she meets falls for her demeanor and changes their ways. Jaime was the stuff that melted walls of opposition and saved the world by connecting people. She looks lithe, calm and kind, but has a firm strength at her core. That was Jaime.
When this show aired I was in my early teens, and I was instantly fascinated by her. It wasn’t just me either, people all over the world fell for her. She originally appeared as a guest in The Six Million Dollar Man, before spinning off into her own three-season series, an accomplishment that is evidence of her popularity. The way Jaime is portrayed is the ideal hero. A hero anyone can relate to, regardless of gender or race. For me at least, Jaime is the ideal. She is a wonderful woman who saves the world. She saves the world without relying on the force of “a strong man”, nor by using the “female exclusive” trait of motherhood.
These are the questions, above any of gender, race, religion or social status that we should address.
The success of Wonder Woman proves that “a woman saving the world” is indeed a wonderful thing. The next step should be overcoming the differences in gender and asking ourselves what is justice? Why do we fight for it? With the cold war long gone and in this era of unbalanced conflict, what is the world that we want to save? What kind of justice is needed to achieve that and what is power in itself?
These are the questions, above any of gender, race, religion or social status that we should address.
We are witnessing the birth of a woman who is a wonder, and we should then seek to answer what type of justice a wonder human should shoulder. I’m looking forward to seeing how the human, Princes Diana, will lead the Justice League.