I used to love Wonder Woman. In the postmodern world of ambiguity and ideological confusion (which includes the world of comics), Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) remained – refreshingly – modernist. She represented the old-school superhero – old-fashioned and irony-free – fighting the good fight of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’.
Conceived by a psychologist and his wife during World War II, she was meant to be a feminine equivalent to the ultra-masculine Superman. Like Superman, her origins were traced outside the human realm. Like Superman, she represented “all that is good” and fought to protect humanity from destructive forces.
Unlike Superman, she did not have a deep love for human civilisation – the “man’s world”, as she saw it – or meaningful bonds with people (although later writings and rewritings added complexities to her character). Wonder Woman had all the beauty, compassion and nurturing qualities of an ‘ideal’ woman — and all the strength, wrath and condescension of a god.
She was hailed as a feminist icon. However, while she faced many of the same issues ordinary women confront in their daily lives – undermined, harassed, patronised, demeaned – at no point would she get into debates about ‘what feminism means’ or ‘what feminism looks like’.
Wonder Woman was not seeking equality – after all, who would want to be equal or complicit in a system that encouraged “war, hate, greed and lust for power” – because she was certain of her superiority.
“Oh, you stupid girls,” is how she would address women of the world. “Think! And free yourselves! Control those who would oppress others!”
What I loved about her growing up was the moral clarity, staunch anti-war stance, uncompromising ideals and the resulting childlike naivety that was compensated for by superhuman strength. Even her weapons were ‘moral’: anyone ensnared in her Lasso of Truth, for example, was forced to speak the truth.
Given this backdrop, I was disappointed to learn that Israeli actor Gal Gadot would play the latest adaption of the superheroine. Now, I understand the symbolic relevance of selecting a Jewish actor to play a superheroine fighting the Germans in Europe during World War I.
And my issue isn’t even that she is Israeli, as there are many Israelis that are thinking citizens, critical of their state’s policies. But Gadot, who repeats the state narrative, line to line, isn’t one of them. As someone who speaks highly of her time in the Israel Defense Forces – and even posed for Maxim’s shoot of Israeli soldiers (and who does that serve?) – she glamourises an occupation that affects women and children. It promotes a brand of unthinking, uncritical feminism — a feminism that is merely fashionable (i.e. surface).
One of the biggest problems with selecting her to play the role is that some have started conflating Wonder Woman with Gadot, propelling her as a role model for women and girls everywhere. But because this is a film review, not a political discourse, I’m going to separate Wonder Woman (the film) from Gadot (the person) and I hope others are able to do the same.
The film follows Diana of Themyscira as a young child – the only child – in an island ruled by a multi-ethnic, multilingual tribe of warrior women called the Amazons. The Amazons were created by the gods to instill love in the hearts of men and restore peace on Earth during a time of great disorder. They were successful for a while, but men (“easily corruptible”) enslaved them once they returned to their old ways, under the influence of Ares, the god of war.
Zeus and the other gods engaged in a ferocious battle with Ares, but each was killed off one by one by the god of wrath. Diana, “sculpted from clay and given life by Zeus”, was gifted to the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Nielsen), as a last wish.
The Amazons led a rebellion to free themselves of man’s tyranny and have since lived on a remote “Paradise Island”, cut off from the outside world. They live in fear that one day Ares will return and destroy their way of life. They are xenophobes and isolationists — but for good reason.
Man finally arrives (or crash-lands) on the island in the 20th century and with him comes war. An American pilot named Steve Trevor (Pine) accidentally discovers Themyscira when his plane crashes off its coast. He is saved by Diana (now a young woman), but the German cruiser that follows Steve to the island prepares assault. In an intense battle that follows, the sword-wielding, horseback-riding Amazons defeat the invaders, but not without heavy casualties.
Under the duress of the Lasso of Truth, Steve reveals his true identity – an American intelligence officer working for the British – and informs the women about the war “to end all wars”, which seems to have no end in sight. Diana knows she cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost. She leaves the island with Steve to join the fight against the Germans, aided by a team of multinational mercenaries. They are also helped (sort of) by Steve’s secretary: Etta Candy (Lucy Davis).
In the world, Diana learns about the strange customs and rules that govern human lives: the uncomfortable clothes women wear in the name of fashion (“how can you fight in this?”); the concept of time and watches that the civilised structure their lives around (“you let this little thing tell you what to do?”); and even discovers romance through her evolving relationship with Steve.
More disturbing for her are the realities of politics, modern warfare and weaponry. “What kind of weapon kills innocents?” she asks. She learns that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not as clearly defined as she thought and there are no clear-cut heroes and villains. “Everyone’s fighting their own battles,” says one character.
In terms of acting, there are some hits and misses. Pike is immensely likeable in his role as the wily intelligence officer. And without giving away any spoilers, we have one really great villain in the form of Ares.
However, Davis’ character, who is supposed to add humour and serves no real purpose other than helping the script move along quickly, is just … bizarre. Fit women are heroes and fat women are the butt of jokes? Where’s the feminist message in that? Gadot is a fairly average actor when it comes to well, acting, but somehow still manages to be convincing in her role — possibly because she looks the part. Or because Wonder Woman isn’t known for strong displays of emotions.
The film could do with a sharper script and some better one-liners, but as an action film primarily, it is thoroughly enjoyable. As someone who does not typically like fight scenes – confused herds of nameless, faceless men flailing around in moments of utter chaos and quick movement – I found myself thinking these were the best parts of the film. They are executed with utter precision and clarity — a bit like the superheroine’s world view.
This was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a former staffer of the Herald.