Wonder Woman is an amazing thing. It's fantastic that this movie exists, and it took entirely too long to get a female-led superhero film to the big screen from a major studio. Hell, the movie almost made it to release date without having a sexism-fueled controversy nipping at its heals. At least we didn't have to deal with Ghostbuster levels of unnecessary blowback. And now, here we are: Wonder Woman is out, and we're free to talk about all the things it does and doesn't do, for better or for worse. And on the whole? Wonder Woman is an enjoyable superhero movie, with a buoyancy and and sincerity that has been sorely missing from the DC film universe since it started back in 2013.
No matter what, Gal Gadot leading a solo Wonder Woman film is a huge moment for women, especially those who have been yearning to see themselves reflected in a powerful, ass-kicking demigod for as long as they can remember. Nothing can take that away, and nothing should. At the same time, it's worth taking a deeper look at Wonder Woman's gender politics, just like it's worth taking a deeper look at the subtext of just about any movie. So what's going to follow is going to be the most objective interrogation of Wonder Woman that I can possibly muster. I'm going to take a look at the movie's gender politics, which necessarily means I'm going to be taking a look at the film's feminism. I'm doing this as a guy, and as a guy who doesn't claim to know shit. As such, I'm going try to avoid offering any kind of prescriptive evaluation, suggesting that the film should have done such-and-such instead of whatever it did or didn't do. Instead, I'm going to try my best to objectively evaluate the film's depiction of its lead character, and by extension its feminism based on a rubric provided by another film that I think successfully imbues its narrative with a strong feminist subtext.
Also worth noting? This necessarily means I'm taking a critical look specifically at the movie's script. And while Patty Jenkins directed the absolute hell out of Wonder Woman (seriously, its action sequences are some of the most thrilling I've seen since John Wick: Chapter 2), the script was written by men, and was based on a story developed by men. And the more we get into it, the more I think that it'll become apparent that this was a story that should have been told by a woman at the script stage, too. But we'll get there.
For the most part, we're going to be taking a look at Diana and her trajectory throughout the movie, paying close attention to the way she's portrayed, the way the men in the film around her are portrayed, and the way the movie uses both to comment on the way men and women relate to one another.
In the film's second act, Diana makes her way off the Amazon-inhabited island of Themyscira and follows Chris Pine's Steve Trevor to London. Prior to this, everything is pretty much peachy-keen for Diana. She's part of the Amazons, a clan of warrior women who basically hang out on a beautiful island and practice fucking shit up in a combat kind of way forever and ever. Beyond a few (correct) mentions that the world of mankind doesn't deserve someone like Diana, there isn't much to unpack in terms of gender politics throughout the film's first act. It's when Diana arrives in England and gets to interact with society at large that the film really gets the opportunity to make any moves in terms of gender politics, and it's unfortunately here where the film starts to drop the ball.
There's no question about it: Diana is fucking gnarly. To use a term from Christina Cauterucci's fantastic article at Slate, she's hypercompetent. And while her hypercompetency should be the source of the film's most feminist undertones, it's instead...played as a joke. Over and over, throughout the film. I don't know that this would have been a problem, had it happened once; the film's temporal and social setting all but demands it. Women weren't treated particularly well during World War I (not that they are now, but this is a work in progress), so it only makes sense that many of the men in the film would respond to Diana's lack of concern with traditional gender roles and extreme levels of capability with a measure of surprise. In fact, this is pretty much expected in social settings. Where the film truly missteps — and this was well-discussed in Cauterucci's article — is in its commitment to having Diana's abilities played as the punchline to a bad joke, over and over again.
Each time Diana does something badass in front of one of the film's male leads, we get some combination of cartoonish surprise and awkward arousal. It happens repeatedly, and what this winds up doing is giving us a film that tacitly agrees with its main characters' surprise at Diana's competency, which undercuts said competency in the first place. Why show us a powerful character only to have the other characters surrounding her express their repeated doubt at her abilities. Frustratingly, this continues right up until the third act, when someone has to point out to Steve Trevor that Diana just got done knocking down a fucking building by jumping into it.
Having each male character respond to Diana's ability with googly eyes and a line amounting to "HOO BOY CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS WOMAN CAN DO SHIT?" while they scramble to cover up an erection seriously undercuts the fact that Diana's as powerful as she is in the first place. And again — this is a script issue. It's as though Wonder Woman was afraid to simply present a woman who can fuck shit up left and right without a second thought...the script had to wink at its audience, going "You sure didn't expect that, did you?!" every time it happens.
Consider a film that takes the exact opposite approach: Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa's competency is never really remarked-upon; it simply exists as fact in the world of that movie. Max and Furiosa are very much on equal footing, and they work together because they need each other and neither is afraid to recognize this fact. When every male character reacts with surprise at the fact that Diana can do stuff, it serves to narratively undercut the fact that Diana can actually do stuff, as opposed to an example wherein male characters aren't repeatedly surprised at the competency of female characters. Instead of playing Diana's ability as understood and par for the course, Wonder Woman repeatedly calls attention to how unexpected it is. And again — depicting this reaction once might not have been an issue...but the film's repeated depiction of male characters confounded at Diana's power (perhaps inadvertently) suggests that the audience shares this reaction, and even identifies with it.
Now, when this issue is coupled with the film's other main issue, the root of these problems become clear: this script was written by men. I'm referring, of course, to the male gaze that incessantly follows Diana throughout the film. Her appearance is remarked-upon constantly, with one character even going so far as to state that he is both "afraid and aroused" after watching her ruffle some manfeathers in a bar. Male characters are repeatedly reduced to being able to comment about little other than how fetching they find Diana's physical appearance, which brings us to what might very well be the film's biggest problem: Wonder Woman reeks of things that men think women might find empowering.
Diana is constantly and repeatedly reminded, by just about every male character with which she comes into contact, that she is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. She's objectified repeatedly throughout the film, even if it's meant in an almost reverent way (massive eye roll). On top of this, her competency repeatedly confounds the male characters who innately doubted her. Look at this goofy man who didn't think that Diana could actually be strong or capable! How hilarious is it that he was proven wrong! It's in these ways that a mostly-fantastic script falls into the trap of exploring female empowerment through a distinctively male lens.
Despite all this, there are moments of successful, inspiring, fist-in-the-air feminism throughout the film, not to mention the fact that the film's existence in the first place (and its opening weekend box office performance) are huge steps in the right direction. The No Man's Land sequence is brilliantly setup and sublimely executed; and several moments where Diana, Trevor, and their group of wartime cohorts work as a team absolutely cook onscreen. For the most part, Wonder Woman succeeds at what it sets out to do: provide a fun superhero with a lady in the lead, and it's fun as all hell, to boot.
Maybe just next time let's get some ladies in the writers' room to tell these stories, yeah?