So I just got back from seeing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, written and directed by Angela Robinson. I want to tell you why it’s a better Wonder Woman story than the one which starred Gal Gadot this past Summer, but I think I’ll start by explaining why the Gal Gadot film (actually, the Patty Jenkins film) disappointed me. I wrote this review the day after seeing that Summer blockbuster, but I didn’t publish it. It felt like I was spitting into the wind, because damn near everyone had declared that Wonder Woman (2017) was just the best superhero film ever–especially people who knew nothing about Wonder Woman and didn’t like superhero films.
Now, though, presented with what I think is a far superior film about Wonder Woman, if not starring the character, I want to share what I wrote then. Tomorrow, I hope to share my reflections on Robinson’s film.
A Lifelong Wonder Woman fan’s response to Patty Jenkins’s film
(Consider yourself spoiler-warned right now. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know plot details.)
I love super heroines. Always have. Before I started reading comic books, the women of the Starship Enterprise fascinated me. A while back I wrote this tribute to the character I thought was Captain Kirk’s equal as an officer and an action-heroine.
I loved Fuji on Ultraman, and was always annoyed when she was left behind while the boys went on a mission. My best friend was a girl, and it just didn’t seem right to me that adventure stories should be all-boys affairs. My favorite Batman episodes featured Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.
When I discovered comic books, I fell in love with Supergirl, Mera, Hawkgirl, the Scarlet Witch and Jean Grey. It again annoyed me that many of them were relegated to the sidelines, and won less cover time than their male counterparts in titles like Justice League of America, The Avengers or The X-Men. I was thrilled when Hawkman, Katar Hol, told off his Justice League comrades for discriminating against his wife and said he wouldn’t belong to a group that wouldn’t allow her as a member. That was the kind of man I wanted to be, more than I wanted to have Superman’s muscles or Wolverine’s claws.
But it was Wonder Woman that made me a comics fan, back in 1974. I wrote about that in this blog about the first issue of Sensation Comics, in which she became DC’s first female headliner. She was the greatest of the heroines, and the reason why I discovered all the rest.
So you can imagine how happy I am to have lived into the age of Marvel Studios, where Elizabeth Olsen has brought the Scarlet Witch brilliantly to life, and Jean Grey is allowed to gloriously become Phoenix on the screen, without being loaded down with soul-crushing guilt. (Both of these characters, over the years, have been made to feel guilt over their powers, turned into murderers, and used as illustrations that power corrupts. Kinda funny, since power never corrupted Superman or Thor. Wanda and Jean are Marvel Comics most powerful females, and those storylines just said to me that a lot of male writers didn’t want the women playing in the big leagues.)
And I’m just as happy to see a Supergirl TV show that’s actually fun, and that Hawkgirl came into her own in Bruce Timm’s amazing Justice League series a few years back. Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash have brought us The Huntress, The Black Canary, Stargirl, Vixen, a live-action Hawkgirl and Jesse Quick. It’s a great time to be a comics fan, especially if you wanted the heroines to start getting their time in the spotlight. Why Mera is even slated to appear in the new Justice League film.
Yeah. About that.
I’m not stoked about the Justice League film. The previews make it look like more of the Zack Snyder-Verse that we saw in Man of Steel (which I detested) and Batman V. Superman (which I’m pretty sure even Zack Snyder detested, since he did it the disservice of letting the public see it naked.) And, sadly, I have become convinced that those in charge of the DC “Expanded Universe” films just don’t understand the characters at all. Sadly because the most damning piece of evidence in favor of my argument is Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman.
Let me say up front, this is a good film. I will not say that people who loved it were tricked into loving a bad film because of its political associations. (Unlike Get Out, which is absolutely a bad film that people were tricked into loving because of its politics.) The lead characters have great chemistry, the supporting characters are memorable and engaging (especially Etta Candy), the humorous bits are humorous and the sad bits are tear-jerking.
But my (also comics-loving) son said to me months ago, “I think this is going to be a good film. I just don’t think it’s going to be a good Wonder Woman film.” And he was absolutely right. I’ll go a little farther and say that the character who’s delighting audiences in theaters as I write this is a great lead for a film…
She’s just not Wonder Woman.
I think a lot of people who believe that Gal Gadot is a great Wonder Woman don’t really know that much about the character. Or they only know a more recent incarnation of her, in which some of her strongest qualities have been diluted in an effort to make her relevant to modern audiences.
Often, when translating a character from the page to the screen, writers, directors and actors will change the character to make her more appealing to audiences, or to make her fit into the story they want to tell. Sometimes, they change the character in a way that’s a deal-breaker for her longtime fans.
This time, the creative team behind Wonder Woman managed three deal-breakers for this fan.
First, Wonder Woman does not kill. Yes, I’ve seen the articles online, detailing all of the times she has killed. I’ve read quite a few of those stories. I didn’t particularly enjoy a lot of them, but I read them. Here’s the thing about those examples of a killer Wonder Woman in the comics: all of the instances referenced come from a time after Wolverine and The Punisher–that is, after the late 1970s, when comic books began to feature characters who did kill, unlike most heroes up to that time. These characters were of a new, grimmer, grittier type. A lot of fans fell in love with them. And a lot of writers and editors decided that turning their older characters into bloodthirstier type who were willing to kill would sell more comics.
So Wonder Woman succumbed to peer pressure. Or at least her creative teams did. So now the comics show us a Wonder Woman who kills, and our first Wonder Woman movie does the same, as Diana storms through World War I Europe, grimly killing German soldiers who get in her way. I can’t blame the director or writers entirely, of course, since the comics went off track first. But one of the lessons the Marvel films creative teams seem to have learned that DC’s film makers have not is that it’s best to make your films about the iconic versions of the character, the simpler versions from days gone by, that both new viewers and old hands can recognize. If the DC films continue to proceed with DC Comics’ attitude that superheroes are something to be ashamed of, and that we have to apologize for their fun-factor by making them gritty and depressing, they’re going to continue to wind up with a smaller audience share, the impressive sales figures for this one film notwithstanding.
In trying to present a more up-to-date version of Wonder Woman, the film misses the point of her character.
Diana was established early on, not as a warrior, but as a force for peace and love. Beautiful as Aphrodite, Strong as Hercules, swift as Mercury and Wise as Athena, her mission in “man’s world” was to show non-Amazons that there was another way apart from using violence to subjugate each other. There was a maybe-more-than-healthy dose of female-biased sexism in that mix, courtesy of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (AKA Charles Moulton), who held the belief that women were naturally more peaceful and loving than men. His stories made it clear that it was male dominance that had created a violent society.
(In case you’re curious, no, I don’t agree. Some people are naturally more peaceful than others. I don’t believe it’s genetic or tied to gender.)
But this movie shows us the Amazons as an even more violent society, downright Spartan in its devotion to military drills and martial arts techniques. The opening training montages of the Amazons, as well as their initial battle with invading Germans, are intensely violent, and, while their home is beautifully constructed, nowhere is there evidence of Amazons participating in artistic or intellectual endeavors.
Moulton’s Amazons trained and fought, but as a game. They laughed while they were fighting, and, just as often as they fought, they studied and created and bettered their minds. They were portrayed as good people, like the monks of Shangri-La, guardians of a better way, weathering the storm, staying out of the rain of violence and war. The movie’s Amazons are just isolationists who have no moral high ground, and nothing better to offer us than a superior talent for violence.
And let’s not gloss over the whole laughing-while-they-fight thing. This was Diana’s heritage, and, like John Carter of Mars, she always laughed as she decimated her opponents. But it was a friendly laughter, a gentle recognition that she did not engage in violence in order to hurt anyone, but merely to show them how silly they were being. Moulton’s Diana was never—ever—grim.
When the battle was over, she didn’t kill her opponents, indeed, she often led her foes to a better path. When her foes were women, she even offered them the gift of true sisterhood, bringing them to Paradise Island to learn to be Amazons. Paula Von Gunther was one of her earliest enemies. Paula became a regular in the strip after Diana and the Amazons reformed her.
Paula was a Nazi! Wonder Woman was so good, she reformed Nazis!
And she didn’t hate men or hold them in contempt for being violent. She was loving and patient and just tried to show them a better way.
Some readers would argue that iconic characters must change with the times. Readers and viewers now expect a higher level of violence, more attitude and less commitment to morality from their heroes. We need a Superman who snaps necks, because we don’t believe in one who wouldn’t. If we were Superman, we would snap necks.
But that’s just the point. Superman isn’t us. Neither is Wonder Woman. They. Are. Better. Than. We. Are. If they’re not, then they’re not relevant. To reduce them to amoral—or even morally compromised—killers is to neuter them. So saying, “If I were Wonder Woman, I would kick ass!” is to admit that you’re no Wonder Woman. And, while some are celebrating the fierceness of this Wonder Woman as a realization of the feminist ideal, I ask why a realization of the feminist ideal has to be an ass-kicker and a killer? Why does she have to steal moves from Wolverine and The Punisher? Why do some feminists believe that, to be equal to a man, a woman has to embody the traits of the worst men on the planet?
Wonder Woman, at her best, didn’t need to kick ass. Although, in the 1940s, she gave quite a few spankings. That’s amusing as hell to a modern audience, in a different way than it probably was to a 1940s audience. It makes us wonder if Marston was perhaps sharing some of his kink with us through comic books. Fair point. But all the spanking and B&D imagery were probably also his way of establishing his character as a maternal figure—the only violence she was really going to engage in was loving and for our own good.
Kinda warped? No more warped, to me, than celebrating a mass murderer as an iconic hero.
My second big problem with the film is the presentation of the Amazons as not only warlike, but, in fact, primitive. This first shows up when Themiscyra is attacked by German forces. Steve Trevor says to Diana, “I hope you have guns!” I was thinking, “Of course they have guns, Steve! These people invented the game of bullets and bracelets!” But, um, no, they didn’t have guns. Bullets and Bracelets was not a game these Amazons invented, apparently. It wasn’t a game at all, in this film. It was something mystical that Diana discovered she could do as a result of being a living weapon.
(“Themiscyra,” by the way, is an inaccurate name for Wonder Woman’s home. Themiscyra was, according to legend, the home the Amazons were driven out of, not the one they fled to. It’s an actual place in Greece. It wouldn’t be the name of their island home.)
Later, when Steve and Diana go to leave the island, I was prepped for hilarity to ensue when a World War I flying ace was confronted with an invisible plane.
But… This Diana didn’t have an invisible plane. She had a boat. Not an invisible or particularly fast boat, just an open long boat, such as Jason’s Argo might have been, if it had been shrunk to canoe-size.
Allan Heinberg is a favorite writer of mine, but his development of the Amazons (if indeed it was his) as denizens of an island with the technological sophistication of your average third world country c. 1916 falls victim to two tropes which are favorites of political liberals. One is that “better” societies don’t have guns. The other is that women from cultures which have little to no technology are inherently wiser and more moral than all men, and also wiser and more moral than women from more technologically advanced cultures.
But the Amazons don’t bear out this conclusion, as they kill with impunity using bows and arrows, and their leading citizen turns out to be, not actually a person, but a weapon designed for killing gods. I see no evidence of wisdom or morality here.
Moulton’s Amazons were technological geniuses. They built the aforementioned invisible plane, faster than anything the Axis or the Allies had, and, well, invisible to boot. They also created such wonders as a telepathic radio, and a purple healing ray which could do damn near anything short of raising the dead. They had a lot to offer the outside world, and they sent Diana to offer it, not to say, “Nyahh, I’m smarter and stronger than you, and I’ll kill you if you don’t fight on my team!”
Finally, this movie commits a sin committed over and over again in the comic books, and always subsequently uncommitted. I refer to the untimely (and incredibly contrived) death of Steve Trevor in the film’s climax. Steve was killed in 1968 when DC decided that a liberated woman didn’t need a boyfriend. At the same time, they took away Diana’s costume and powers, and placed her in the care of a racially-stereotyped Chinese man named I Ching. Very enlightened. Steve was brought back to life a few years later by the gods after Diana regained her costume and powers. A few years after that, he was killed again, around the time that DC was killing its supporting characters (Iris Allen, Arthur Curry Jr., Batwoman) right and left, in order to seem “edgy.”
He was brought back again, of course, before a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths prompted the re-invention of most of DC’s characters from the ground up. (It was an original idea in 1985. They’ve since done it about a dozen times. Almost never successfully.) The “original” Wonder Woman married Steve and the two went to live with the gods on Mt. Olympus. A new Wonder Woman was created, and a new Steve Trevor. These two had zero romantic interest in each other.
Over and over again, creative teams since 1968 have decided that Diana is stronger without a romantic partner. Sympathetic fans have chimed in to say that they prefer it that way, because Steve Trevor was “emasculated” by having a more powerful girlfriend, and/or Diana was cheapened by “having to have a man.” So, it’s okay for Superman to have a girlfriend, and later wife, whom he frequently has to save with his superior strength. That doesn’t de-feminize her or weaken him because he “has to have a woman.” But a super-heroine can’t have a boyfriend? And that’s not sexist?
Of course it’s sexist. Adults in romantic partnerships have different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t strip the gender away from one of them if the other is better at something. Indeed, since Lois Lane in the comics was allowed to evolve from the bratty, Lucy Van Pelt wannabe she was in the 1960s, and since her relationship with Clark Kent / Superman was allowed to evolve as well, she has become his true partner in life and in his work. The resulting interaction has only served to enrich both characters, leaving neither seeming weak. Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman could be the same, but the DC film universe has, for now anyway, decided to go with the tired old, “Wonder Woman’s too powerful and too absorbed by her mission to have a romantic partner in her life.”
Which is funny, because I keep hearing how important this movie is for female empowerment. But wasn’t one of the standing goals of female empowerment supposed to be that a woman could have both a personal life and a career? Wonder Woman not only should set that example, I say, as someone who’s loved the character across five decades, that she deserves to be shown setting that example.
In short, Wonder Woman deserves better.