Wonder Woman: The Never-Ending Milestone

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have delivered an empowered version of Wonder Woman. Take a look at how far she’s come since her comic book beginnings.

The reviews are pouring in for Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman film: the latest iteration of Diana, princess of the Amazons. Film lovers have been pacing for months in wait of the first blockbuster level superhero film with a female star.

Speaking of blockbusting…

Audiences see Diana literally bust through blocks, bricks, bullets, bad guys and just about everything else in her path. The film itself has proven worthy of the hype, grossing over $100 million during its first weekend alone (this fan saw it at 9:15 p.m. on a Tuesday night and was amazed to see the theater still mostly full).

It is hard not to gawk at Gal Gadot, who cuts a striking Wonder Woman, but the true marvel of the film is its ability to depict a person who balances the “wonder” of entering a foreign world — Diana had never even seen a man, or a baby, prior to her journey with Steve Trevor — with the strength and courage of an Amazonian guardian of peace.

Yes, there is something childlike about Diana, but whatever naivety she reveals only serves to give her further opportunity to prove herself.

Wonder Woman has always been a symbol of progress in the superhero world — after all, she hails from an island nation of warrior women. She is one of the longest-running heroes, and unlike many other female superheroes that have been cued up for their owns films or shows, she stands alone as a character — Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the CW’s Supergirl are essentially spinoffs of male characters.

Wonder Woman

DC Comics

That said, the character seems to improve with each iteration. Contrasting Gadot’s character with the original Diana illustrates a remarkable metamorphosis.

Debuting in All-Star Comics in October of 1941, Wonder Woman was intended to show a softer side of heroism. Gone was the blatant disregard for destruction, replaced by a concern not just for “good versus evil” but for the impact of violence in and of itself. Along with that mentality, Diana has retained her raven hair and classic wrist cuffs, but some key aspects of her personality have changed dramatically since her early days.

The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, calls this an “unwinnable war.” Lepore highlights several unwinnable wars the film must wage: against violence, against critics and against the challenge of appropriately representing the women of Wonder Woman’s era who were fighting similar battles. That last one, according to Lepore, the film fails to do.

The original Wonder Woman was the brainchild of William Moulton Marson. Despite creating the first female superhero, Marson’s place in the history of the feminist movement falls short of heroic. While he’s known for his deeply entrenched belief that women might be superior to men, he was equally attached to his idea that women enjoyed the role of the submissive. Critics have long been enthralled with analyzing the not-so-subtle S&M undertones of Marson’s comics.

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros.

Wonder Woman’s bracelets — used in the film to deflect bullets, most notably in the “no man’s land” scene that has brought audiences to tears — are in fact the bracelets of submission. Yes, of submission. What’s better, Wonder Woman’s greatest weakness is that she loses her powers if she allows herself to be chained by a man. There might be some attempt at feminism there — a literal take on the advice not to let men chain you down — but what counted as progressive in 1941 sounds pretty misogynistic in 2017. Wonder Woman, a literal goddess, can be undone by simply having her bracelets tied together.

The first female superhero was also the ultimate submissive.

She would say, “Merciful Minerva!”

Let’s be scandalous and go with What the hell?

Moving on from the bracelets to the rest of her ensemble — because the phrase “bracelets of submission” didn’t exactly make the cut for the film — there is another rather glaring issue. It is a little lacking in the actual-body-covering-material department. Let’s be honest here: there is nothing modest about the costume worn by Gal Gadot, and yet there is something practical in the film’s approach to her garb that might just counter the amount of skin it leaves showing.

In the original comics, Diana receives her uniform from her mother and responds, “Why, Mother, it’s lovely!”

Wonder Woman

DC Comics

Prom dresses are lovely. Wedding dresses are lovely. Scented candles and needlepoints and just-the-right-color toenail polishes are lovely.

The armor you wear to save humanity is not “lovely.” While the costume designers who produced this latest version of the iconic leotard have stated they had style in mind, there is a lot more to this costume than a pretty outfit gifted by her mother. First of all, she earns her uniform by scaling the side of a building while literally punching holes in a stone wall.

Second, Gadot’s costume is a far cry from the miniscule satin lingerie worn by Lynda Carter. The costume designers described their design process at length, including the use of authentic Greek styles and a lot of leather. Besides the sturdiness of the material, there are two major differences in the style of Gadot’s costume compared to Carter’s. First: the addition of a — granted, very short — skirt. The second — and it is subtle — is the neckline. Where Carter’s costume was designed with cleavage in mind, Gadot’s is relatively high-cut. She may actually have less of her décolletage on display than any other Wonder Woman in history (save for her white jumpsuit of the ’60s).

These are the sorts of changes that reflect the influence of the female gaze, a catchphrase for the film’s critics who have shown a deep appreciation for a female superhero movie made by a female director, Patty Jenkins. The classic Wonder Woman look is there, and while it’s hardly demure, it’s also not nearly as sexually charged as the classic costume.

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros.

Jenkins even points out the necessity of a somewhat skimpy costume: it lets Diana move freely, thus allowing her to fight. In one of the film’s more lighthearted moments we see Diana trying on fashionable women’s clothing while complaining that it’s uncomfortable and impractical.

In her interview with Fashionista, costume designer Lindy Hemming explains much of her thought process in designing the costume. In doing so, she veers off to discuss another character: General Antiope.

“She was almost like the one who always wears her track suit,” Hemming said, words that convey the opposite of sexualization. This is the woman who is always ready, and that is how the Amazons were meant to look in this film. “Hopefully they looked elegant,” Hemming said, “but elegance was not what they were originally striving for.”

That attention to detail is what changed a challenging narrative. How do you turn a story of beautiful women dressed in revealing garb who are mystified by the presence of a man into a feminist masterpiece?

Wonder Woman

DC Comics

The final piece of the puzzle: Steve Trevor. Jenkins’ iteration of the pilot who pulls Diana from Themyscira is long overdue. Chris Pine’s portrayal removes none of the charm and heroism Steve has always shown, but suddenly he’s in the place he always should have been: a supporting role.

While Wonder Woman has been explaining to Steve since the dawn of her series that she can’t be with him until evil is gone from the world, Jenkins gives audiences something new: a Steve that gets it. He may not believe Ares is roaming the earth corrupting humanity, but if that’s why Diana is fighting, he’s cool with it.

There is romance, for sure, but it’s the kind of romance-by-accident that belongs in a film with a bigger picture. Diana and Steve are focused on that bigger picture.

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros.

This is in contrast to the Steve Trevor of, say, the The Amazon Princess series that began in 1958. While Wonder Woman was suddenly facing robots and aliens — symbols of a new era in human history — a number of the stories centered on Steve trying to convince her to marry him. In the story “Top Secret,” the basis of her secret identity is revealed: a ploy to hide from Trevor who bet her that he could pick her out of a crowd three times and that if he did, she would have to marry him.

That’s right, folks: Diana Prince was born so that Wonder Woman wouldn’t have to marry someone on the basis that he recognized her in a crowd (which, by the way, he cheated at). In Jenkins’ version, feminism isn’t just a girl thing. Wonder Woman is beautiful; men see it, but they get over it when they realize she can flip tanks and level buildings.

She’s not a perfect hero, but this new crew of storytellers seems up to the challenge of helping Wonder Woman continue to grow. end

 

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