It seemed fitting to begin this blog with a review of the first female superhero film ever made. Unfortunately, that was in fact Elektra, released in 2004 to resoundingly negative critical reviews and a soundtrack boasting one too many Evanescence songs. You can almost hear the mansplainers claiming that it was due to its critical and commercial failure that there hasn’t been another female-led superhero film since.
But whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that in 2017, a year which has seen an unprecedented rise in the public knowledge of transgender issues, racism and the impact of climate change, it seems ridiculous that a successful, female-led superhero film has only just been made. At the time of writing this article, it has just become the 27th film to cross the $400 million mark in North America, and once it inevitably takes over Frozen, it will be the highest grossing film with a female director EVER. With a demand for a female superhero film like these figures point towards, what took Hollywood so long to deliver?
And did it live up to its hefty expectation when they finally did?
Wonder Woman begins in the present day, with the fabulous Gal Gadot as Diana walking through the streets of Paris and receiving an old photograph from an enigmatic Bruce Wayne. This prompts her to begin her voiceover which takes us back in time to her childhood on Themyscira, a mythical island protected from the view of humans with magic. This is where the Amazons live – in a sort of feminist paradise where the sun always shines, everyone gets badass fighting armour and there are absolutely no men to speak of. These women spend their days training in mortal combat, which seems a waste on the patriarchy-less land of Themyscira.
All too soon, after we flash through Diana’s life (with a rather tenuous origin scene involving her gauntlets injuring her fighting trainer) the peace is invaded by a man. And then by some more men.
Never have I seen such a blatant criticism of the male gender in a blockbuster film – the men are soldiers who invade the island and battle the women fighters there, whose literal aim to kill Ares, the god of war, in order to prevent humankind from fighting ever again. The Amazons, despite losing a few of their own along the way, overpower the soldiers easily in what is the first time, possibly ever on screen, but certainly in a superhero film, women are shown fighting from angles that display their technique, not their tits.
And what technique it is.
Ryan Watson at the helm does an impressive job of taking traditional Kung Fu practices intended for women and translating them into a modern-day context. Not once is a move choreographed without respect to the tradition, or to the woman performing it. He has said in interviews that stunt women and female actresses doing stunts are much tougher due to the nature of their skimpy costumes not allowing room for padding, and in this film, it seems like Patty Jenkins is not afraid to show that off.
It seems fitting that things start to go wrong, not only within the film’s plotline, but also in its quality, when the men arrive. With the introduction of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, the script is opened up to the familiar but unwelcome world of Hollywood rom-com cliché, complete with an actual dick joke when Diana points down at Steve as he stands in the bath and asks, “what’s that?” The joke is that she was actually pointing at his watch and not his penis and is cheap and unnecessary, but it still raises a valid point. If Diana had never seen a man before, surely it would take her more than a few days to get comfortable with the notion and fall in love with him? Or (in my wildest feminist dreams) wouldn’t she turn out to be a lesbian, or asexual, and completely defy the blockbuster success rulebook?
But fall in love with him she does, and (MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT) it is her love for him as he dies which enables her to overpower Ares and win the battle at the end of the film. Not gonna lie, this was a let-down for me. It doesn’t matter that there have been other plots with the genders reversed (where the damsel in distress dies and drives the hero on to succeed) – THIS ONE SHOULD HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT. Just for once, can a woman finally achieve her mission on her own terms? And must there always be a romance plot to keep cinema-going audiences entertained?
We obviously can’t expect the cinematic universe to get it all right in one go. As the first successful female superhero film, there was so much riding on this movie to break barriers and defy norms that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it does so by merely existing. It may not be the most ground-breaking of films, but what it does is open the door for future films to do the same and more. We are moving towards a future where films will begin to encompass all the minorities Hollywood overlooked and finally giving a say to unheard voices of actors around the globe.
I for one am incredibly excited to see where Marvel and DC take us next. With Marvel’s Black Panther set for release in 2017 and a Bat Girl project confirmed to be in development by DC, it seems that, albeit slowly, actors from more diverse backgrounds are beginning to trickle their way to the forefront of Hollywood blockbusters. Marvel have also made their mark on the world of television, with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, which include a blind guy, female lead, lesbian couples and an entirely black cast respectively.
What I’m really waiting for is the announcement of a Black Widow origin story, or at least one set in the present day which does away with the appalling sub-plot (does it count as a sub-plot if it makes literally no sense?) of her romance with Banner.
Wonder Woman may not be perfect, but it was successful enough to encourage future film makers to follow in its footsteps. More so than that, girls growing up today will now have a role model to look towards, a superhero film which shows them how tough and brave women can be, something I wish I had had growing up. And it’s worth watching for the fight scenes alone.