Queen Hippolyta’s beautifully, weirdly digital-freize-like story of Amazon slave revolt ends when Ares kills all of the gods and so Zeus steps in and apprehends him, leaving the Amazons a sword called the god killer. In Wonder Woman (2009), the Amazon revolt is lead entirely by the Amazons, and so the Amazons alone defeat Ares and his army, and Hippolyta goes against Zeus’ command and kills Thrax, the child she birthed after her rape by Ares. This is an angry, inspiring text, which encourages the audience to stand up to man and god alike to seize her own liberation. Wonder Woman (2017) strips revolutionary anger from the hero and offers in its place the platitude of ‘hope’. It is no Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but it should have been. It is obvious that a direct-to-DVD animated cartoon can get away with more than a film that cost $149 million to make, but it is disappointing to find within minutes evidence of the kind of compromise that will dictate how Wonder Woman (2017) plays out. Was that cartoon in any way dangerous? Comparing the two might be unfair, but it is a convenient way of seeing what could and should have been.
There is a tension if not outright dissonance between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and the film that she has found herself in. Diana greets challenges with this kind of gleeful faith, ignoring the idiots and the details around her. For her the War is neither politically complicated, nor loaded with moral imperatives- it is an abstraction; a continuation of a conflict since ancient times where the gods and not our ‘true nature’ manipulate us into doing bad. The Germans, she says, are being guided by Ares, and critically we find the ancient puppet-master on the ‘good’ side as well. In Wonder Woman (2009), Diana arrives in our world and systematically runs into evidence of oppression, responding to it with disbelief and then disdain. This is the world she wants to make better- she is a feminist voice arriving in a ‘man’s world’. In Wonder Woman (2017) she calls out wage slavery as slavery, encounters Chief who acknowledges that ‘the good guys’ actually slaughtered and stole their land from his, and walks blindly into (a male-only) war room. Gadot imbues the character with positivity which the film then undercuts- she is either shown as indifferent or naive.
Two moments stand out as being particularly unnerving. Steve asks how women on an island with no men have heard of sex. We think ‘because they have sex with each other?’ but Diana responds that she has read copious amounts of books on the subject. The scene pays lip-service to being progressive, turning the tables so that Steve seems prudish, but it brings with it an immediate problem as well as a recurring one. How and why has heteronormativity been shoehorned into a world where this would be a bizarre and alien concept? The Amazons were written in 1941 so that they are fundamentally queer, so that no writer could impose normative categories on them, but here in 2017 they are reduced to a male predatory fantasy of an island of virgins (given that same-sex relations are not even an option) waiting for a man to arrive. The Amazon reading of the male as being ‘only necessary for procreation’ does contains echoes of Wonder Woman (2009), but such moments suffocate when we become stuck for the rest of the film with her entourage. At every turn her physical appearance is commented on by one of these people, the paradise turned fantasy for sexual predators comes up again, and even when Diana wins a fight for these men, one of them comments that he is now ‘aroused’. Is it not enough that women have to put up with this shit every day, that a would-be empowerment film is subject to the same casual misogyny? Apparently even when a woman is actually a superhero, she will still have to ‘be cool’ with being treated like a sex object in her own film.
In the other, Steve’s secretary mentions to Diana that ‘not fighting’ and just behaving are ways that women are currently trying to convince men that they should be allowed to vote in elections. At first glance this is supposed to be a humorous counterpoint to Diana- her non-passivity is used relative to the secretary to convince us that she is more revolutionary than she actually is (or if she is, the film certainly is not). At the same time it panders to its presumed audience- a cinema full of people can look back on a time where women were not allowed to vote and think to themselves Things have gotten so much better! Wonder Woman (2009) never settles for this- Diana’s fresh perspective highlights systems of oppression operating today- it doesn’t settle for historical platitudes. The period setting is limiting in itself- Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice allow these decades’ old figures to play out in the present; as a way of us making sense of trauma, barbarism, and the normalisation of exceptional politics. Why are men allowed to explore these things, but women aren’t? Wonder Woman should be chaotic, angry, impassioned, but it’s not. It’s nostalgia politics plus passing mentions of social issues. Diana is figuratively and literally trapped in the past. This was surely done on paper so that her arrival would coincide with the Representation of the People Act where post-war politics began to include suffrage, but Wonder Woman the film seems unwilling to engage female wartime perspectives, much less female perspectives today. We’re shown a ‘man’s world’, and Diana simply acts in it. We do not necessarily need something as on the nose as Trump proxies getting blown apart as in The Final Chapter (although that would be good), but Wonder Woman’s past-ness is too safe to matter. In Wonder Woman (2009), she finds enough oppression in our world that she decides to stay to fight and improve things. She is affected by what she finds- she accuses us of not caring, and challenges us to change this. Wonder Woman (2017) frames Diana as only caring about ‘the big picture’- challenging Ares, fighting old wars, her motivation is ‘love’. Nothing challenging, nothing tangible. What that secretary says about ‘going with the flow’ until things somehow improve is Wonder Woman in a nutshell- it trades in contemporary concerns for ‘things used to be worse’ and ‘women can kick butt too!’ In its quest to appeal, it avoids anything that could scare idiots afraid of feminism.