Amanda Potter: Wonder Woman – An “Awesome” Ancient Hero for the Modern World

It was with much excitement and a little nervousness that I went to the cinema on 3 June to watch the new Wonder Woman film, directed by Patty Jenkins and featuring Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. I had been waiting for a long time for this movie. Seventy-five years after her first appearance in 1941 in All Star Comics, and after  , Wonder Woman finally had her own feature film, which re-tells her origin story.  In the film, Princess Diana volunteers to leave the island where she grew up in order to help the allies fight evil in the First World War – rather than the Second World War,  as in the original comic and 1970’s TV series. I had high expectations, after Gadot’s brief but shining appearance as Wonder Woman in the otherwise lacklustre Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which I discussed in The Conversation. And I came away happy: the consensus from friends and colleagues was that this Wonder Woman was “awesome”, with only a few reservations. (The critics have tended to agree, with the film four stars.).  My response to the film is that of a classicist and a feminist, and where Wonder Woman is concerned it is important to consider both these angles. Not only is she an Amazon with origins in Greek mythology, she is also a much-contested feminist icon.

What’s in it for classicists?

The film is topped and tailed with a Diana of the present day. She is linked to her classical past as an Amazon from Greek mythology through her proximity to ancient artefacts (a similar strategy was used in Batman Versus Superman where we meet her in a museum viewing a ‘fake’ Gordian knot). In Wonder Woman we first see her in her office at the Louvre in Paris, which is also a store room full of ancient weapons. Rather than taking a role within the government or military, as in earlier versions of the story, here she is a museum curator. This role will make use of her skills in linguistics, reading and speaking hundreds of languages both ancient and modern, as well as her knowledge of the customs of the classical past, gained from her upbringing on Themyscira.

Robin Wright as Antiope

Scenes on Themyscira show us the Amazons as able fighters and horsewomen who live apart from men. Here Diana is trained in the Amazon art of warfare by her aunt Antiope, initially against her mother Queen Hippolyta’s wishes. Her learned skill is enhanced by super–powered strength and speed, and like all great pupils on film she comes to surpass her teacher, although is “sorry” when she flings Antiope to the floor on the training ground with a force she didn’t know that she possessed. We are also treated to an Amazon battle scene, when pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island and is followed by German soldiers, who open fire on the Amazons. With some losses, the impressive Amazons are able to hold their own with bows and arrows against WW1 firepower.

On arriving in England, Diana is incredulous when she meets an English general in the safety of a London office when his men are dying on the front line. For Diana, an honourable Amazon warrior, a leader’s place is out in front fighting with the men (or women). On the modern battlefield, Diana leads by example, leaving an allied trench to run through gunfire across no man’s land to the German trench, in order to save the people in a German-occupied Belgian village, like the mythical Angel of Mons.

What’s in it for feminists?

The scantily-clad superhero has had a chequered history as a feminist role model, such that last year, on her seventy-fifth birthday, she was announced and then quickly removed as the UN ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, amidst protests. Recently, a colleague’s seven-year-old daughter wanted to dress up as Wonder Woman for a party, but he wasn’t sure whether the character was a suitable role model for a young girl. I told my colleague that his daughter should read Renae De Liz’s beautifully drawn family-friendly comic series from 2015-16, The Legend of Wonder Woman. I would also now suggest she should watch Wonder Woman, when she is a little older (the film is rated 12A in the UK). Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a mix of charming innocence and strong self-belief. For her, there is no question that she must go to the front to battle the forces of evil, as she “cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost”. And, of course, she can kick ass. She also looks the part, whether disguised as dowdy Diana Prince in a dark coat and skirt, plus glasses; in an elegant long blue dress, infiltrating a party held by drug-enhanced German villain Ludendorff (Danny Huston); or in her Wonder Woman costume, fighting in numerous exciting slo-mo action sequences.

That said, Wonder Woman is a mainstream and heteronormative film and not a specifically feminist retelling of the Wonder Woman story.  Diana’s all-male band of assorted followers are really Steve Trevor’s team, and Diana is mostly seen to be a lone warrior, out in front on the battlefield without sisters to support her. The only female characters of note outside Themyscira are Doctor Maru, AKA Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), both characters reinvented from the comics. Maru is one-dimensional and without a back story when compared with glamorous Nazi villainess Paula Von Gunther (Christine Belford) in the 1970s series, and Etta brings warmth and comedy, but she is underutilised. Diana herself thinks that life as Steve’s secretary “sounds like slavery”, but the film doesn’t allow Diana the space to take part in contemporary women’s politics, such as the suffrage movement. And Diana’s love life is strictly heterosexual, with Trevor as her only prospective love interest (albeit a convincing one). After the revelation from comic writer Greg Rucka that Wonder Woman has been in lesbian relationships, any viewers hoping to find Diana in a romantic relationship with a fellow Amazon, or falling into bed with Etta, will be sorely disappointed.

On balance, an entertaining superhero film with a female protagonist has to be good news for feminist viewers. The film is clear who the hero is, and Steve Trevor complements, rather than undermines, Wonder Woman, so that he can “save the day” while allowing Diana to “save the world”. However, after watching this film, I recommend revisiting the pilot episode from the 1970s series, whose tone appears radically feminist today.

Why is Wonder Woman a hero for our times?

“I used to want to save the world,” says Diana Prince, in the voiceover that both starts and ends Wonder Woman. The primary question underpinning the film is therefore whether the world, or more specifically mankind, is still worth saving? Diana decides that the answer is yes, though a qualified one, as “the closer you get the more you see the great darkness within.”  Diana learns that humanity has a propensity for darkness as well as light, but through “love” then the light can prevail. Director Patty Jenkins describes Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as a “hero” who is “vulnerable and loving and warm.”

My own personal reaction to Wonder Woman is now coloured by its proximity to the terrorist attack on London Bridge on the night of 3 June. As Diana sees first-hand the terrible effects of what men and women can do to each other, as wounded soldiers cross a bridge in London, so I went home from the cinema that night to see on the news what we can do to each other on London Bridge today. Diana’s belief that the Greek god of War, Ares, is at the heart of the “war to end all wars”, and that the fighting would stop should he be destroyed, proves to be false. However, she can still see hope for humanity. Her mother’s parting words on Themyscira are that “they [mankind] do not deserve you”. Perhaps we don’t. But we certainly need a superhero who can save the world with love, as a counter to all the hate. It’s therefore Wonder Woman’s propensity for love, more than her superhero fighting skills, speed and strength, that makes her into the hero that we need today.

Amanda is a Visiting Fellow with the Open University, where she was awarded her PhD in 2014 for her thesis on Viewer Reception of Greek Myth on Television, in Xena: Warrior Princess and Charmed.  Amanda has published on Xena, Charmed, Doctor Who, Torchwood, HBO-BBC Rome and Starz Spartacus.  

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