I have a theory why the movie Wonder Woman worked.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please go see it. As of this writing, Wonder Woman scored a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’m convinced the other 7% were simply wrong.
(One negative review I read delved into the failures of feminist theory, which makes me wonder if they actually saw the movie, or accidentally slipped into a Feminist Theory lecture.)
And the reason why I thought it worked has strongly to do with traditional gender roles, which is also why I’m glad we haven’t seen a Black Widow or a Scarlet Witch movie from Marvel–because Marvel’s current formula would badly fuck those movies up.
I’m not a film reviewer, so let me quote one: Wonder Woman Reviews
Director Patty Jenkins’ film is so threaded with sincerity and goodness it’s a wonder how it got past the pugnacious minds responsible for what’s come before. ‘Wonder Woman’ evokes not only the spirit of Richard Donner’s ‘Superman,’ but also Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,’ while still being its own thing. Just look to the image of Gal Gadot confidently striding out alone onto an unwinnable battlefield with only a shield, a sword and a mission — and prevailing. It’s enough to give you goosebumps.
Diana Prince is not the highly confident person challenging Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film Gadot thoroughly stole from the bigger names in the cast. Instead, she plays Diana’s strength, plus the vulnerable, optimistic, moral core that was missing from that initial performance.
Let me toss an observation out there. Before feminists and cultural relativists stepped onto the scene in order to reinvent mankind in their image, it was presumed that men and women had certain traditional roles in a tribal community.
Men hunted, and women gathered and raised the family.
Now if you are a feminist you may have blanched at the statement above. But think it through, because it has some serious implications on who we are as human beings.
If men hunt, then girls are attracted to the bad-boys, the ones who can go out and act cocky while brining down a deer or defending the tribe against outside invaders. Likewise, boys want to be the bad boy: the cocky powerful person who can crack a joke while swinging a sword.
Now, with that in mind, look at most of the heroes in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Iron Man, who quips if he didn’t have his suit, he’d be a “genius, billionaire playboy philanthropist.” Thor, who in recent trailers quips when he sees The Hulk come at him: “He’s a friend from work.” The Hulk, punching Thor off the top of a fallen enemy, or repeatedly slamming Loki into the ground. Captain America, going back and forth with the “language” banter.
Cocky bad boys, all of them.
Which drives their appeal.
I believe Wonder Woman worked as a movie–one I cannot recommend highly enough–because it tapped into the women’s side of these traditional roles.
Which is this: by being the gatherers and by being the ones who raise a family, women in traditional societies become the moral center of the tribe. Sure, most tribal leaders tend to be men–but then, most tribal leaders tend to be the strongest one who can knock some sense into others who fall out of line.
Women, on the other hand, are the ones who define the moral and ethical center of the tribe. They are the ones who care about the children of the tribe. They are the ones most concerned with the welfare of the group. They are the ones who, as they reach maturity, define the conscience of the tribe.
And Wonder Woman taps into this. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is sincere, honest, kind, and earnest. She sees injustice and gets outraged. She defeats her enemies without getting cocky. She overcomes adversaries because she believes in the inherent kindness of humanity. She wades across the no-man land between World War I trenches and overcomes a hail of machine gun bullets armed with nothing but a shield and a sword because she believes.
She’s beautiful–but that isn’t her appeal. Her desire to wade in and fix injustice regardless of the cost–and the movie Wonder Woman extracts a high price in the end–is what makes the movie so powerful.
The failure to establish a female superhero franchise derives from the fact that movie makers keep trying to portray women superheroes as sex objects who fight.
I think it’s because cocky bad boys who fight are seen as sexy.
That formula fails with women. Which is why we’ve gotten so few powerful female superheroes, and the ones we’ve gotten tend to be shallow and–frankly–idiotic. It’s why I’m glad we haven’t seen a Black Widow or a Scarlet Witch movie from Marvel–because the same cock-sure bad-boy formula with sex appeal would be an absolute disaster. The few movies featuring a strong female hero figure without leveraging sex appeal, such as Salt or Lucy featured women who were fundamentally damaged in some way.
What makes Wonder Woman work is that our heroine, despite being young, despite being naive, is the first representation of a fully functional adult woman.
She has a moral conscience and an ethical center–and driven by agápë, the highest form of charitable love–overcomes great odds by fighting for what is right.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the Marvel movies. They are fantastic popcorn movies; entertaining and funny and exciting.
But there is room in the superhero genre for stories of sacrifice, of redemption, of outrage over injustice, of overcoming the odds for the ones you love. There is room for the earnest and sincere movies.
If DC wants to compete against Marvel they need to stop being the shallow, confused and messy imitators, trying to swish onto the stage with a wink and a nod and tripping over their own feet.
They need to produce more movies like Wonder Woman.