Much excitement has greeted the release of Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman, starring little-known Israeli actor Gal Gadot. Written by Alan Heinberg, whose experience lies more in television production, the film rides the current wave of feminism that is shaking up industries across the board, from the military to the arts. The world seems to be figuring out that women’s lives are worthy of centring epic stories, our minds smart enough for public office, and our bodies capable of inflicting great violence.
Faithful to the origin story, Diana Prince is an archivist in modern USA. She discovers a photograph of Wonder Woman in the rubble of a First World War battlefield and is transported back to the Greek island where Diana was born in the tribe of the Amazons. Daughter of Hippolyta, she is brought up surrounded by women prancing around on horses brandishing swords and shields, yet her mother does not want her to join them. Diana insists, harnessing the wisdom of her aunt Antiope. Played by Robin Wright, looking very much like President Hale Underwood underneath all that brass and leather, Antiope doesn’t do much more than look Homerically into the heavens and quiver her arrows. None of the women have much to say, but they sure look great striding around in their helmets and breastplates, muscles gleaming in the shimmery light of the Aegean sea. In a jousting exercise with her acolyte, Antiope’s cry ‘You’re not tough enough!!’ catalyses the famed superpowers of Wonder Woman – gauntlets that can deflect bullets, a golden lasso that doubles as a lie detector. Her physical prowess is marvellous, especially when massaged by Hollywood’s best stop-motion artists.
Time travel takes us to the trenches, where Diana morphs into her magical self in order to fight the evil Germans. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for Nazis – Wonder Woman after all was invented in 1941. Many of the superheroes were invented by Jewish artists, their foundation myths provoked by the pogroms of the early twentieth century; the artists were often from lower middle-class backgrounds, and outright underdogs. William Moulton Marston, of Anglo heritage, also invented Wonder Woman in response to the Second World War, making her a woman in response to an idea of his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston’s. A comic book artist and psychologist who invented a lie detector, Marston lived in a reputedly functional ménage with Elizabeth and Olive Byrne. He insisted that Wonder Woman have ‘all the allure of a good and beautiful woman’.
Warmongering Germans have now receded so far into history that they make good mythical demons, and the film’s creators have savvily banked on the fact the few of their movie-going public can differentiate between First World War, a quagmire of nastiness on all sides, and the Second World War, the greatest conflict of the twentieth century where blame could easily be laid at the feet of genocidal dictators. But, weirdly, we are in the trenches in the 1910s, fighting evil Germans. Ares, the god of war, is supposed to be the cause of all of this.
Highlights include a kooky laboratory where a deranged female scientist with half a ceramic face brews a magic potion that will help the Germans win. This fictional mustard gas is more like a combination of poppers and crystal meth, the ampoule broken open, releasing white smoke that floods the face of the officer, turning him into a raging lunatic.
There’s a love story between Diana and the American soldier who washed up on her island all those centuries ago – whoops, forgot to tell you about that. It thankfully takes a back seat. And there are some funny social observations as Diana lands in London and greets much of the modern world with confusion or disdain. When a secretary explains her job, Diana replies, ‘Where I come from that’s slavery.’
In discovering the world is at war, Diana decides to save it – by going to war. Intervention politics all the way. Alongside her American soldier, she assembles a crew that includes a sleazy Latino, a mad little geezer not dissimilar to Shane from The Pogues but speaking instead in unintelligible Scottish brogue; and lo, a Native American character dressed in fringed suede. This character never surpasses the decorative, partly due to the fact he resembles a tchotchke who leapt from a cigar box left on set by one of the producers. Also because he is only given about ten words to say. In yet another weird accent. (The voice coach was definitely drunk at Chateau Marmont for the entire shoot.)
Why does Diana look so befuddled when people speak to her of war, coming as she does from one of the world’s most famous warrior tribes? (‘I must get this book to British Intelligence, then we can stop the war.’ ‘War, what war?’ ‘Why, the war. The war to end all wars!’ **Diana blinks and tilts her head like a cat watching dust**) Yes the script is abysmal, but director Patty Jenkins brought us Monster, a film of considerable substance. Could she have wrought more? Is it Gadot herself who can’t rise above her talents as the former Ms Israel? Whatever the reason, the character often lapses to a dumb, bestial mode of femininity endemic to B-grade blockbusters. It’s a shame because Wonder Woman was one of the smartest superheroes – and she does display her talents as a multi-linguist here, but not as amply as her talents for dressing up in lots of outfits.
The excuse for confusion about war put into Diana’s mouth is that love is the answer. But given the alacrity with which she wades into battle, the trail of corpses and broken bodies she leaves in her wake – and all in high heels! – one can hardly believe her.
The violence is grotesque. Wonder Woman and her crew mow down people like ants, animation removing us from empathy much like drone warfare does. It is, I suppose, a fair reflection of a war that inflicted upon the world weapons capable of such terrible injury that it kickstarted the plastic surgery and pharmaceutical industries. But with all the blame on one side, without us knowing what exactly they did wrong, I can’t get on board with the mayhem.
Maybe I’m naïve to gripe. Maybe this sort of film is to be expected, the pantheon of American superheros like the ancient gods who partly inspired them, still worshipped as brave, ethical and necessary, when in reality their mission became redundant along with those genocidal dictators. By all means plumb the depths of ancient Greece – these are some of our foundation myths – but can we start telling these stories as they really are, without gilding the lily? Wonder Woman features a vignette about Zeus as benevolent patriarch, which conveniently forgets to mention the children he raped and murdered on his way to the top of the Pantheon. Oh, he raped a swan as well. It’s true. It’s been painted many times and is in galleries all round the world. In gilt frames.
Maybe I’m also upset because Tim Burton raised the bar with his superhero films, reinventing the stories with a wonderfully mischievous ambivalence apposite to a time in which it was really the USA who was the oppressive villain. Who can forget Jack Nicholson’s Joker trashing the art gallery in anarchic glee. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman filling her black latex with dommy perfection, with many more smart lines than Wonder Woman has here despite not being the main character. All that cultural critique is as far from Wonder Woman as Krypton is from Earth.
Yeah, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. This version of Wonder Woman is consistent with the quartet of superhero films by the media franchise DC Extended Universe. After seeing Man of Steel (2013), the most warmongering film I had ever seen, I swore off them. (I didn’t realise til afterwards that Wonder Woman was from the same studio; in any case how could a kinky feminist not go and see Wonder Woman?) Part of the trauma of seeing Man of Steel was that my companion, my sixteen-year-old niece, loved it. When I tried to explain that a nationalist agenda, that assumes the other is evil, then murders as many of them as possible, is a problem, she shrugged, It’s just a movie. She was kinda right.
Herein lies the problem: Hollywood is the USA’s most effective propaganda arm, dominating the content of cinemas all around the world, especially here. Wonder Woman is even playing in the Dendy, a cinema where ten years ago you could see Romanian, Iranian, and other foreign language films. There isn’t enough space here to investigate the politics of Zac Snyder, who created the story of Wonder Woman and the previous DC Enterprises films. But the message is nakedly interventionist, down to the orgy of US and UK flag-waving in the film’s climax. Much of the audience for these films are teenagers. Few will know that Gadot posted on Facebook in support of the invasion of Gaza in 2014. Like all her compatriots she served two years in the Israeli army. Lebanon has banned the film for this reason; Israel has countered with accusations of antisemitism. And so the tragic collapse onto one of the demons that inspired the original superheroes. Like Hydra, enemies grow as quickly as they are vanquished. What was that you said about love, Diana? But if we wasted time talking to our enemies, an entire industry would collapse, hundreds of thousands of jobs go. Seriously, this kind of movie – the entire superhero genre – relies on war for survival.
The film has broken box office records, and as I write, a sequel has been announced. Why change such a successful formula? Is there anything to look forward to? Artemis as sidekick? No complaints from those of us who so love watching these tall dark strong women smashing the shit out of evil men (erm, still not sure what said men did, but happy to default), their muscular thighs, thick flowing hair, sexy snarling pouts, the leather and steel and butch high heels, yeah baby yeah. Perhaps, if the paroxysm of guilt that has produced many of the female characters we are currently seeing in pop culture continues, we might see Artemis played by an African American.
But I’m not paying for this pap next time. I resent my justified thirst for strong female characters being so cynically exploited. We’re going to have to toughen up even more, my sisters. Remember Margaret Thatcher? Like a cup of piss after a century in the desert.
If you must see Wonder Woman, dear readers, just download the fucker.