I went to see Wonder Woman at the weekend. I had been warned that there were issues around diversity and representation, but not enough to necessitate a boycott. (I did boycott Suffragette for airbrushing out Sophia Duleep Singh and other Black, Asian, and minority ethnic suffragettes.) However, Wonder Woman is fictional, so perhaps less problematic than attempts to airbrush PoC out of actual history. I generally prefer Marvel superhero films to DC ones, but I had been told that Wonder Woman was going to be great, so I went with an open mind. I also refrained from reading anything involving spoilers beforehand. I enjoyed the film, but agree with the critique by Valerie Complex and Robert Jones Jr that it could do better in terms of representation of queer characters and people of colour.
Spoilers (for Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy 2) below the cut – you have been warned.
My biggest problem with DC superheroes in general is that they are mostly not human, and they work alone to save the world (often from supervillains). Wonder Woman is a goddess. Superman is an alien. Spiderman is at least a modified human. Only Batman is actually human and possesses no superpowers, but he is hardly the average Joe. (This is a bit of an over-generalisation, but bear with me.) Even the term superman is an English translation of Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (which actually means super-person, by the way). The first Superman story, The Reign of the Super-Man (1932) was based on Nietzsche’s concept, and cast Superman as a villain.
Compare this with Marvel heroes: the X-men (X-people?) are diverse, work as a team, and are humans with superpowers who have emerged from the general gene-pool. They are flawed, cranky, and have a sense of humour. The Guardians of the Galaxy are ordinary people (not human, but decidedly ordinary) who team up almost accidentally to defeat the bad guys (yes OK so the main character turns out to be part-god, but he loses that power at the end of the second film).
The kind of films and series that I enjoy the most are the ones where a group of ordinary (but diverse) people come together under extraordinary circumstances and do amazing things. These are the stories that inspire ordinary people to believe that we can actually make a difference. Examples include Selma, Hidden Figures, Pride, Made in Dagenham, and in the realm of science fiction, Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Arrival, Laputa: Castle in the Air, Rogue One.
There were loads of things to like about Wonder Woman: a femme woman, presumably bisexual, kicking major ass, not needing the protection of a man, and not being constantly sexually objectified in the process. I also liked the back-up team assembled by Steve Trevor: a First Nations man, a guy from the Middle East, and a Scot with PTSD. Trevor starts out a bit over-protective of Diana, until he realises that she really doesn’t need his protection. And young girls are already finding Diana’s kickass femme persona inspiring.
However, I agree with Complex and Roberts’ critique apart from a couple of plot-related points: I didn’t think that Diana actually had sex with Steve Trevor; and I thought the reason she was able to defeat Ares had nothing to do with her love of Steve Trevor. I also thought her response to the First Nations chief telling her that white people oppressed his people was more of a sort of “colour me unsurprised” eye-roll, but it would have been better if she had actually said something. Complex and Roberts also noticed a few things that I didn’t notice, but their criticisms are still valid.
It also occurred to me that if Dylan Marron edited the movie down to all the dialogue spoken by people of colour, it would become a pretty short film. Not as short as some, but it would still show that PoC are mostly sidekicks in this film.
And surely the women of Themiscyra must have been having loads of lesbian sex, which was only slightly hinted at.
But aside from issues of representation, I still have a problem with superhero movies, because they are manifestly not about real people that I can identify with.
Whereas Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy is an “everyman” character (OK then, every-genetically-modified-raccoon) because he is really just a regular dude. Even Groot is more identifiable-with than most superheroes. Even the Heptapods in Arrival are.
The way to solve problems is not by parachuting-in some larger-than-life hero or leader; it’s by getting ordinary people to work together, using their diverse strengths and weaknesses, to solve a problem. This is also why I mostly prefer folktales to mythology: in folktales, the hero or heroine is an everyman character who bumbles along being kind to animals and strangers, and wins by these virtues. We also need a more collective problem-solving approach to the current state of things: exceedingly tempting though it is to cast Jeremy Corbyn as Aslan, he couldn’t succeed without ordinary people working tirelessly to get him elected.
At the end of the Wonder Woman movie, Diana says:
I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, for ever.
I like this message, and in a way the whole film was pointing towards this: that killing Ares (the arch-villain) won’t save humanity, or even end the First World War. It removed one of the causes of continuous war, but ultimately the cause lies in human nature: so only human nature can redeem human nature. It’s up to us to choose compassion.
In my view, the plot twist that Ludendorff wasn’t Ares, and that even when Diana does kill Ares, it still doesn’t end the war, was one of the best bits of the movie, because it shows that superheroes might be helpful, but they cannot save us from ourselves. Only we can do that.
But still, I wish someone would make a movie of some of the plots suggested by Tumblr users, like the spy movie which cast Helen Mirren as the lead character, or the LGBTQIA islands one (which has even been translated into French, which is just as well, as the English original seems to have disappeared).
I want to see more disabled, fat, Black, transgender, and geeky heroes, please: and I want them to be people.
UPDATE: I found the English version of the LGBTQIA islands thread on Tumblr – and I totally want to see this as a movie or a novel.
Postscript: After I had posted this blogpost, it occurred to me that people might think I only want earnest movies about changing the world. I am fine with movies that are just escapist or funny or quirky or whatever, but changing the world is kind of the point of superhero movies, so I think my critique of the lone hero still stands.
Other Pagan perspectives on Wonder Woman:
- How Wonder Woman Both Perpetuates and Challenges Christian Dualism by John Halstead
- Of gods and love: a discussion of DC’s new film Wonder Woman by Heather Greene on The Wild Hunt