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Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. This is one of the animated feature films involving the characters from the creators of the original animated shows.

Did you… did you stop Ares?

No. I didn’t. I couldn’t.

What? Why not?

I had to save you.

(slap!)

Ow!

– Diana clarifies to Steve that she isn’t a damsel in distress

I have to confess, I’ve never been grabbed by Wonder Woman as a concept. Is she a feminist? A socially conscious superhero? A female superman? A superhero who is willing to take a life if it’s necessary? A diplomat? She’s been all these things and many more, which is perhaps why it’s hard to get a handle on her – which is perhaps why it’s difficult to care for her. Her origins cannot be summed up in a single sentence like Batman (an orphaned “rich kid with issues… lots of issues”) or Superman (who Grant Morrison managed to sum up in eight words) – her origin will likely eat up at least a paragraph of this review. As such, you can understand my surprise that Wonder Woman is perhaps the best DC comics animated adaptation they have produced to date.

Taking a swing at the character...

There’s an argument that Wonder Woman is redundant as a superhero. At her most reductive, she’s the female version of Superman. At the next level of complexity, she’s creation of the bondage-crazed inventor of the lie detector – the representation of women’s liberation with a strange fascination for tying men up (and being tied up herself). The argument follows that surely being a woman isn’t the only interesting aspect of her as a superhero, is it? Is that hook the only fascinating aspect about her – and, if it is, isn’t that cause to worry about one of the “big three” heroes at the company?

There’s one scene in the film which pretty much hammered home her importance. Diana and her guide Steve land her invisible jet (bear with me) in Central Park, and Diana observes children playing. Coming from an island only populated with women (called “Paradise Island”, no less), she has never seen kids before. However, only the boys are playing sword-fighting. The only girl is sitting on a bench by herself. “I’m a girl and they need someone to save,” she explains. Diana immediately steps in, “Would you like me to teach you how to sword fight?”

Maybe he needs to get some Ares...

In fairness, the movie itself plays with the sweetness of the moment, as Diana’s colleague remarks, “That was sweet. Teaching her to disembowel her playmates like that.” Still, it’s a nice little scene, which hits on a fair point. Even if Wonder Woman is just a female Superman (and that’s a big “if”) what is so wrong with that? She’s a hero for young girls, who teaches them that you don’t need to be a damsel in distress in your own fantasy. There are countless male adventurers and heroes and icons who can globe-trot and be daring, so why not a girl? At her most basic, Wonder Woman is a giant middle-finger gesture to the “no girls allowed” mentality that kids pick up so easily. It’s the kind of think that a lot of people also note about superhero comic books – whether it’s intentional or subconscious is a debate for another time. And, when female action heroes are so rare that Alice in Wonderland sparks a debate on feminism, there’s certainly still a place for her.

Somewhat ironically in light of my above comments, it should be pointed out that this is not a movie for kids, perhaps more than any other film in the line. And, to be fair, the movie earns its right to be relatively mature by tackling its subject in a mature and considered manner. It’s worth remembering that this is the first feature-length Wonder Woman movie – live action or animated. There was the campy Linda Carter show and her character in the cartoon Justice League, but neither was really an appropriate forum for exploring what the character’s about.

Warrior women...

And, this movie suggests, perhaps correctly, Wonder Woman is about sex. Or, rather, sexuality – for the movie tackles this angle in a mature and reflective manner.

The villain of the piece, the god of war Ares, is a rapist. The queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, suggests of their son that Ares “forced him upon me” and Wonder Woman is offered to Hippolyta as a child “not created through unholy union” – free from the involvement of a man in the reproductive process. When dealing with a man, the warrior women threaten to “castrate” him to keep him in line (for a bunch of women who haven’t seen men in centuries, they are very aware of sexual violence). Hippolyta seeks to “protect” her daughter from the taint of the world of men (and, not coincidentally, Steve Trevor is introduced as “the kinda guy mothers warn their daughters about”).

And yet the movie is playful about it as well – though most of it comes from the silky tones of Nathan Fillon as Steve Trevor, the US pilot who stumbles into Paradise Island. On waking up in a room full of women and tied to a chair, Steve mumbles that “I haven’t had this dream since I was thirteen.” As Steve is tied up with the lasso of truth (a frequent Wonder Woman device), he remarks (perhaps channelling the character’s creator), “I’m into the kinky stuff too.” As Wonder Woman goes on a rant about female empowerment (or lack thereof) in the modern world, Steve is quick to stop her getting off track. “How about we stay focused on that other social evil? God of war?”

Wonder Woman's hard to tie down...

The writing is great. It’s pitch perfect. You remember that rumour many moons ago that Joss Whedon was writing a Wonder Woman script? Yeah, this is probably what it would have looked like. It’s tight, it’s focused, it makes the most of its runtime, and it perfectly balances character with spectacle. It probably helps that Gail Simone, one of the more recent writers to handle Wonder Woman in a widely praised run, was heavily involved with drafting the story.

The story gets straight down to business. As I hinted above, Wonder Woman doesn’t have  a snazzy origin that can offered in a single sentence. She isn’t a teen geek bitten by a radioactive spider. Or a person born with superpowers due to a genetic defect. Or an orphan who seeks to avenge his parents by waging a war on crime. Or a refugee from a dying planet. As a comic book character, this fact is compounded by the simple fact that it’s rare to find two writers who completely agree on what she is or what she should be. So each generation of writers comes in and adds their own particular slant or gimmick or twist to the character. This then gets brushed aside when the writer is replaced. However, all those elements have to add up to something, and they typically combine to form a weight around the character’s neck.

Is it all plane sailing ahead?

The animated movie does a very good job of condensing the character’s origins. She was sculpted from clay to be the first child on Paradise Island, where she grew up as the child of Queen Hippolyta, unaware of the world of men. Following Steve Trevor’s arrival on the island, she was dispatched as an ambassador to the outside world after covertly entering a contest to identify the most appropriate candidate (against her mother’s wishes). She has an invisible jet. And, at least in this iteration, her costume resembles the American flag because it is rendered “in the colours of the foreign nation as a sign of respect and peace.” Have you got all that? Good. It’s to the movie’s credit that it all flows as smoothly as it does – it certainly helps that the movie keeps a smile on its face as it does so.

That said, you can make a pretty convincing case that the Wonder Woman herself is a sexist creation. After all, the only thing more sexist than the suggestion that “the world of man” is a corrupt and horrid place is the notion that Paradise Island is pure and virginal. The very idea that a world without men would be paradise is a cute joke (and one which would be slightly more offensive if made in the opposite direction), but it becomes distinctly uncomfortable when offered as a superhero origin. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t hesitate to point of this flaw.

Paradise island...

During an argument – and with just cause – Steve accuses Diana of “playing the sex card again”. He points out that the assumption at the heart of Amazonian culture makes them just as flawed as the human race they mock. “You act brave, but cutting yourselves off from the outside world was cowardly,” he observes, “not to mention stupid. Like less communication between men and women is what the world needed.” He makes an impassioned plea for basic manners (holding a door open for the woman or grabbing a coat), suggesting that “not everything a man does is to further a misogynistic agenda.”

However, the movie works on its own terms. It’s smart and it wisely doesn’t take itself too seriously. “They’re messin’ with Lincoln!” Steve protests as the hordes of hell lay siege to Washington. “Nobody messes with Lincoln.” The action is well staged and the animation is top-notch. As far as movies focusing on individual heroes (as opposed to groups), this movie is perhaps the best of the bunch – it looks and feels like an epic saga, and it’s a story featuring a character all too frequently overlooked.

Would he hit a woman?

I’ve remarked time and time again that the casting in these movies is top-notch, but Wonder Woman stands out. It isn’t populated with television stars, so much as major Hollywood movie stars. Alfred Molina has played a supervillain in one of the most popular live-action superhero films of all time, after all. Rosario Dawson is a character more at home on the big screen than the small screen. Oliver Platt has done great work on both (and steals the show with his cameo as Hades here). Virginia Madsen even pops up as Hippolyta.

However, the main attraction here is the reteam of Keri Russell and Nathan Fillon, the leads in Waitress (of which, I will concede, I was not a fan). However, the two have chemistry (despite the fact that they more-than-likely recorded their dialogue separately). Fillon is something of a geek god, and he’s in his element here – clearly enjoying the chance to play the comic relief (and boy does he deliver).

She's a wonder...

Wonder Woman is arguably the strongest DVD in the collection. And that’s quite saying something. It’s smart, it’s well-written and it’s more than a little sexy. Just like its leading character, I suppose. It’s a damn shame that the movie didn’t do well enough on DVD to justify a sequel – I certainly would have been on board.

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4 Responses

  1. Great post! Provocative insights..thanks!

  2. I’ve never cared for Wonder Woman either. I have positively no idea how she is still considered one of the big three. Everyone knows the general origin, power/skill set, personality, and villains/supporting cast of Superman and Batman. I am gonna say that if you told anyone on the street that Wonder Woman is connected to the Greek gods, it would be of genuine surprise to them. No one knows anything about her. I’m not cynical, just realistic.

    • I think that’s a fair point, actually.

      Everybody knows about Krypton and Gotham, but Wonder Woman’s popular iconography is completely divorced from her mythology. (Invisible jet, bullet-proof bracelets.)

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