Like many braces-wearing, pigtail-rocking, itty-bitty geek girls, I gravitated toward the female characters in my childhood media. I adored Princess Sally in the Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday-morning cartoon and waited with bated breath for her to appear in the games. (She didn’t.) I mastered the “Spinning Bird Kick” with Chun-Li and took down the villainous M. Bison—and then I did it again with Cammy’s “Cannon Drill.” I cheered for Barbara Gordon when she decided to put on the cape and cowl, triumphant music playing as she leapt across the animated rooftops.
And, of course, I adored Wonder Woman. Kinda.
I grew up with a father who collected comic books, but I was more of a television watcher, so I met many of Marvel and DC’s iconic characters through my pink bedroom or the big screen. Wonder Woman for me came in the form of Lynda Carter or the Justice League animated series—two versions of her I enjoyed, but I didn’t think much else of it once those shows were off the air. It wasn’t until I got older that the connection started to grow, and it grew in a way I didn’t really comprehend until I heard she was being included in Batman v Superman.
Why was DC’s leading lady being reduced to a cameo? Even Shaquille O’Neal got to be a big-screen hero before our Amazonian princess.
By that point in my life I had made the realization that many non-braces-wearing, natural-hair-rocking, fully adult geek girls had made: female representation is pretty dismal in comparison to our male crime fighters. This is especially true for the big screen and extra specially true if she’s the star. This isn’t just the number of lady heroes, but the way they’re presented to us. There’s no reason why a movie about one of Batman’s coolest antiheroes couldn’t be great, and yet, there Halle Berry was, getting high off of catnip. And instead of pointing at the problem—a piss-poor story—the blame was placed on the woman. Same with Elektra. That’s not to say the actresses did a good job, but to write off the issue as “Female-led movies are doomed” is, frankly, something that needs to be left in the kitty litter.
So by the time the new Wonder Woman was announced, I thought, “It’s about time” . . . only to be told that we’d have her for about 15 minutes. This made me worry about how she’d be treated, not just in this cameo, but in her own movie. I wasn’t one of those people who grew up with her, collected her comics, and wore her T-shirts as much as humanly possible, but I was—and still am—a woman who wants good representation for the lady heroes. I, like many other women, want, need, and deserve a female superhero who is well thought out, well written, and given a chance to shine to her full potential.
That’s exactly what I got with Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman.
As I sat down and wondered how to write a review that wasn’t just a giant Yaaaaas Lord all over the page, something occurred to me. Not only was this movie delightful to watch, but it made me rethink a lot of the tropes I’ve come to expect from movies with women in them. There are a lot of plot lines foisted on female characters that test the limits of my gag reflex, but after watching this movie I realized that it’s not the tropes that bother me: it’s how they’re handled. Allow me to explain how Wonder Woman handled tropes the right way.
The Overprotective Parent
Diana, Princess of Themyscira (Gal Gadot), wants to go and help mankind. Her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), forbids it. We all know how this goes: child wants to do something, parents say no, child does it anyway. This comes off as extra annoying when the main character was born to protect the world. We, the audience, know what Wonder Woman was meant to do, so we’re letting out exasperated sighs as her mom’s sound advice goes in one ear and out the other. Or at least, that’s how I thought I would feel. Instead, there’s something really human about that interaction in this movie.
Just about everyone knows what it’s like to have a parent tell you not to do something that you feel you really, really, really should go out and do. But as a queer woman of color, seeing a mother tell her daughter about the dangers of “man’s world” was painfully relevant to me. See, Diana thinks that if she goes to kill the Big Bad of World War I, then all the fighting will stop. And yes, there is a Big Bad in the movie, but there’s an even bigger threat, one that every woman, every person, can relate to—the world. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my mother about the issues that she faced growing up as a black woman: The racism. The sexism. The hatred because of who she is. She grew up in a time of marches, protests, and movements to make the world a better place. So I can hear the exhaustion in her voice when I tell her about the things I still face: The racism. The sexism. The homophobia. The everything from hateful people in this world. The everything that she wanted to end with those marches, protests, and movements.
Themyscira is a paradise where none of that negativity exists—much like the world inside my own home before I moved out, and much like anyone’s home before they venture out. And as Diana tells her mother that she just has to do this one thing to make our world right, we all know it’s not true. This isn’t because we know that World War II is just around the corner (though that is part of it), but because we know that there are just some terrible people out there who are terrible because they feel like being terrible. When I watched Hippolyta see Diana off, already knowing her daughter was going to leave her safe haven no matter what she said, I remembered every conversation with my mother. I remembered the talks about racism, the talks about sexism, and, when I came out to her, the talks about homophobia. My mother has told me numerous times to be myself and do what makes me happy, but there’s this underlayer there, this understanding that “People will hate you just because.” And it’s heartbreaking to not have a reason why that negativity exists. It’s just there. And honestly, we don’t really understand until we see it firsthand—something that happens to Diana throughout the movie.
What Are These Mystical Powers?
One day, you’re minding your own business, training with some bad-ass Amazons. You know, the usual. You let your guard down. You’re getting wailed on. You try and protect yourself and unleash a massive wave of power.
Every hero in the history of heroes has that moment when they discover their abilities. (Unless their superpower is wealth, but even then, Batman has to test out those gadgets, right?) This usually leads to a montage in which a guy tries to climb up a wall like a spider, the Son of Krypton flies around the landscape, or a young farm boy travels to a swamp to be told that there is no try. However, this isn’t really the case with Wonder Woman. It probably helps that she grew up among warriors, so fighting is something she knows how to do, with or without those extra bursts of power. This means she’s not suddenly overpowered—oh no, she’s been training for years, so it doesn’t feel like she suddenly becomes an unstoppable force overnight. As she discovers her abilities, it really feels like a coming-of-age story, and what geeky girl doesn’t want her coming-of-age story to star a woman who can flip over a tank? More importantly, when Diana discovers these extra abilities, she decides what she wants to do with them. She’s not being told that she’s the chosen one who absolutely, positively has to go and save the world with her newfound strength; she decides for herself. Everything she does is up to her, and she is excited to do it.
She also works with the other people around her. When watching characters like Superman and Batman, I tend to wonder why the police are even on the scene—not to say that Jim Gordon and Alfred aren’t cool characters, but Batman generally takes care of things on his own. Same with Superman; no one is going to assist in that airborne battle against General Zod. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, actually works with the soldiers in the war. There’s a scene in which she and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) are standing back to back, taking out the opposing side. There’s a scene in which she distracts enemy units so the others can run in. There’s a real sense of teamwork, and it makes sense since the Amazons themselves are a team. Diana is more powerful than the men, but they aren’t useless, nor does she make them feel useless.
A Whole New World
An amazing, beautiful, powerful woman enters our world and . . . has no clue what anything is. This is a trope that can—and often does—go so utterly, insultingly wrong. While it’s entertaining to see Captain America pat himself on the back for understanding The Wizard of Oz, many female characters who fall into this trope are reduced to the quirky, ditzy eye candy who loses her cool character traits when she steps out of her comfort zone—until the big, strong man comes to learn her a thing or two, of course.
Then the trope doubles down if the woman is entering a place where women generally don’t go. It’s not enough to have all the men around her leaking drool out of their mouths over her existence, but then she’s surrounded by nothing but men who (gasp) can’t believe a woman is among them.
However, there are a couple of reasons why this trope actually works in Wonder Woman. For one, the story starts with Steve Trevor entering into Diana’s world, so he’s the fish out of water before she is. This means that while he’s asking about her world, she’s not ashamed of it: in fact, she’s proud of where she comes from. There’s also an interesting element at play since Steve is aware of who the gods of Greek mythology are, so his sense of “I can’t believe this is real” is because, to him (and the audience), Zeus and the gods are just fantastical tales.
Then, when Diana does go to London, she still stays true to who she is and continues to respect the world she came from. She’s also not made to feel stupid for not knowing our customs—she’s given a chance to adjust to them. There is, of course, a moment of doubt about a woman in that time period marching into battle, but as soon as Diana shows what she’s capable of, the menfolk stand with her. More importantly, both she and Steve learn from each other. This includes the humorous moments of her trying to shop, the sweeter moments of her and Steve debating what proper dancing is, and the more serious moments where they both approach war differently. Neither character insults the other in regard to how they go about things; they understand that they come from two different places with two different ideologies. And honestly, neither ideology is wrong. Diana wants to defend everyone and charge into battle with honor, but she hasn’t actually been in a real fight outside of Themyscira. Steve has been fighting this war for years and has seen the ugliness of it, so his eyes are on the bigger picture and not the small battles where lives can still be saved.
Speaking of Diana and Steve . . .
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t dislike romance. I do, however, dislike the role women tend take in romantic movie plots, like when it feels tacked on (when did Natasha and Bruce establish that calming hand motion?). Or when a woman is only focused on the male character and nothing else (Dr. Chase Meridian: accomplished doctor who misuses the bat signal to touch that sweet, sweet bat chest). Or when the romance is used as a way to strengthen the male character, usually by death (Gwen Stacy). Or when her only purpose is to be rescued (Lois Lane, Mary Jane, that woman in Ghost Rider whose name you forgot). Or because attractive people are just meant to be together in movies (zoom in on those sexy lips). And so on, and so on, and so on.
I knew Steve Trevor was Diana’s love interest, so I expected them to get together. I didn’t expect to like their relationship as much as I did. The chemistry between the two is incredible. Romance is usually treated as the afterthought in an action-packed film, but Diana and Steve develop throughout the story, and more importantly, they don’t just care for each other: they respect each other. That’s not to say they agree with each other all the time; they butt heads quite a bit about the way to fight the war, and really, they should question one another’s ideals. It’d be unrealistic if they didn’t. You get to see both sides to the argument and really understand where both of them are coming from, and the two try their best to work with one another instead of immediately dismissing the other point of view. Of course, there are times when Diana just has to stand up and show Steve what she can do, but when he sees it, he works with it.
In short, Diana and Steve don’t just feel like a romantic couple. They feel like a team.
Love Is All You Need
As a certified princess from the Moon Kingdom, this is a trope that I know can work well. The power of love and friendship and all that sappy stuff can be very inspirational. Unfortunately, it can also come off as pretty cheap. (How do you stop the indestructible Phoenix? Have the man who’s been pining after her push through with a whispered confession of love, you know, because the love for her actual boyfriend wasn’t enough—and I’m not even a Cyclops fan.)
So it’s tricky to pull off the “love as cure-all,” but in a movie in which the main character sees things in a very black-and-white way, you kind of need a positive gray area like love. As Diana learns that man’s world is full of all kinds of evils, you do need something that says, “Here’s why we fight for these people.” Sure, I can point out how it’s a nice breath of fresh air to have a DC character on the big screen who dares to use the word love, but it’s also nice to see how she reaches that point. I am one of those fans who was (and still is) a bit bummed out about Superman being almost as dark as Batman when it comes to the DC Extended Universe. I don’t mind him dealing with society’s views of him, but it was sort of disappointing that he barely smiled in Batman v Superman given that we already had a dark, unfriendly hero in the movie. I had hoped that, after Man of Steel, we’d have a brighter hero up in the sky, but he spent most of the time just as down and out as Batman. Even his at-home moments with Lois felt dismal.
So seeing someone in the DCEU address love, hope, and positivity was a nice touch. As gritty as this world can be, there’s some good things to cherish—a lesson I think we all need these days.
In conclusion, Wonder Woman is, hands down, the most fleshed-out, well-handled character in the DCEU. She’s more than just a strong woman—she’s interesting, she’s caring, she’s flawed without being down on herself about it, she’s willing to learn (and eager to do so), and she’s taken things I thought I disliked in female characters and shown me the positive aspects of them. This movie proves that these tropes, when handled properly, can work. When you treat your female characters as actual characters and not tools to move the plot along for someone else’s benefit, you get a real wonder of a movie.