I just went to see the new Wonder Woman movie and brought back so many thoughts I couldn’t keep myself from writing a post about it. If you haven’t seen the film, you might want to see it before reading my pearls of wisdom. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but part of my joy seeing the film came from worrying that they’d F’d it up, being pleasantly relieved that they didn’t, and then being super pleased by all the great things they did instead. If you’d like a similar experience, perhaps wait to see the film before reading on.
After writing for this blog for several years, I’ve started to dread the world a bit whenever something promising seems to be on the horizon. In this case, the dread started just before the new Wonder Woman film came out and I remembered the entitled mansplainer in my social media network who can’t seem to help himself when it comes to bashing media created and marketed for female audiences. I thought I’d educated him through some courageous social media engagement, but the snide posts about women’s television shows getting canceled kept coming. As Wonder Woman opened, I waited for his inevitable verdict with a mix of curiosity and dread. Would he see the film’s merits or just remain an entitled white male who thinks everything should be for/about him? Well, as if on cue, this popped into my feed:
Two things — First, one of the mainsplainer’s male peers seems to be on my side here. Second, C-C+?!?! Really? I hadn’t seen the film at this point, but it has a 93% positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes and ranks as the third highest rated superhero film in the database. Perhaps this guy can’t be saved.
More than a little piqued, I was determined to see this movie for myself. Heading in, I was feeling the dread again. There were so many ways this could go wrong. To my profound relief, nearly everything went right. It sorta goes without saying, but having a female lead and a female director for a major summer blockbuster franchise is a big deal. Much has been written about the ridiculous lack of women in director’s chairs so I won’t explore that particular issue here. Suffice to say it was very apparent that a different kind of voice championed this film, especially compared to previous films from the DC universe, and I think the film benefited immensely as a result.
First, having reviewed Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future in a previous post, I worried that the film would perpetuate “dominator” perspectives. With superhero movies (and action movies in general) typically featuring men solving their problems by shooting, smashing, and/or blowing up adversaries to solve problems, I dreaded an otherwise promising film ruining its female-lead opportunity by simply having a lady act out the same “dominator” role. Simply having a woman shooting, smashing, and/or blowing up her adversaries to save the world would have been a huge let down. A film featuring a “partnership” approach would be much more interesting, although going full Earth Mother probably wouldn’t play well with the entitled mansplainer demographic.
Ultimately, the film did nearly exactly what I’d hoped. Yes we have a woman warrior, but she’s not glorying in battle. Warfare is clearly horrifying, not romantic. Rather, she’s matching the dominators and preventing them from, well, dominating. While the “fighting for love” line falls a bit flat, the broader message about defending idealism, human connections, that good beer with your friends, a slow dance with your partner, a song about the old days, an adorable baby, a delicious ice cream, and even the simple life going to work without fearing for you life, seems almost revolutionary. A twist revealing the true insidiousness of dominator thinking sealed the deal. I kept thinking, “YES! Is everybody seeing this?!” Many progressive critics will quibble that she still blasts plenty of apparently fungible German soldiers though barracks walls, etc., but I was willing to overlook that given the lead character’s overwhelming positivity.
Owning Our Villains
Second, the filmmakers must have read my “Owning Our Villains” post from a few weeks back. With the film set during WWI it surely would have been easy to cast nothing but male baddies and call it a day. No woman was ever on the “wrong side” right? They were all weak, scared, and innocent, clutching babies and looking distressed. Right? Blech. As I wrote in my earlier post, if we want to claim our women heroes we need to claim our villains too. Real villains, none of that Evil Demon Seductress BS.
While Wonder Woman doesn’t have a particularly well developed female villain, one of the co/sub-villains is female in a way that does not overemphasize her femaleness. The role might have been written gender-blind because it really could have been played by a man or a woman without much tweaking. She’s just a human person doing horrible things (with science no less!) for her own reasons. It’s a little sad to call this progress, but I thought it noteworthy.
Strangely, the interminable previews running before the film featured several female villains, including The Mummy‘s Princess Ahmanet and Thor: Ragnarock‘s Hela. This latter film looks absolutely terrible but it’s got Cate Blanchett playing the baddie in an awesome looking goth-esque get up. I almost want to see this movie just to see her!
Freeing the Leading Man
Third, I have to admit I’ve been unfair to Chris Pine. While I never had much against him, I always had this vague dislike for yet another white male super hunk doing super hunk things. Of course this is not his fault. Hollywood is slowly turning talented American actors into interchangeable meat bags forced to resurrect outdated characters from 1960s franchises – in Pine’s case James T. Kirk of Star Trek. The guy even had to turn his recent SNL monologue into a tongue in cheek explanation of how he isn’t Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, or Ryan Reynolds.
The Wonder Woman film, in contrast, gives the actor a wonderfully nuanced role. Who knew that if you give a talented guy a nuanced, multi-dimensional role he’ll turn out a great performance? Again, the dominator model gives way to the partnership model, producing compelling ensemble performances and some of the strongest on-screen chemistry I’ve seen in a while. Pine’s Steve Trevor has seen enough of war’s horrors to want out but still sees the value to be lost if he gives up or gives less than everything to save it. Without a trace of menace, the actor instead embodies a man who desperately wants the woman in his life to be safe and happy while also recognizing her autonomy. The performance is gripping without reaching over the top for typical tropes or cliches. Even the implied love scene suggests two humans achieving a profound connection rather than whatever passes for “love” in the typical action movie these days. Perfect? Probably not, but hopefully its enough for the industry to take note and support broader roles for both men and women.