After watching Wonder Woman, I found myself taking some issues with the movie. Specifically, with how Diana herself came across to me. Still, I enjoyed the movie and I didn’t want these issues to taint my actual write-up about the movie. So, I decided to post them separately.
Hype caused this problem
It’s kind of backwards, but before talking about the problem I wanted to talk about why I think I even had this problem to begin with.
As a character, Wonder Woman has always strongly embodied feminist ideals, whether you would call them that or not. Today, the voice of feminism is as loud or louder than it’s ever been. As an inevitable result of that, there is as was always going to be a connection between this movie and the issues of feminism and female representation in movies.
It’s kind of ironic that a lot of talk about this movie has been “finally, Wonder Woman has arrived” because she’s just now arriving in this medium. However, when it comes to comics, she’s almost always been there. She’s been a consistent presence for the past 75 years. Not many characters, male or female, can make that boast. Even so, this movie is being touted as a victory and a moment for women both because of the characters being portrayed and the people creating the movie behind the scenes.
But why is this hype an issue for me?
I believe the issue is that people, especially young people, are being told that “this is a female role model”. This version of this character has been touted as an icon and a role model before the movie was ever screened. When I hear that, it subconsciously makes me more critical of a character. For better or worse, I found myself watching Wonder Woman and thinking, “Is this character a good role model?”. When watching through that lens, I found myself having one big problem that pervaded my entire view of the character of Diana Prince:
“Diana doesn’t know she’s Wonder Woman”
The movie construct’s Diana’s story in such a way that she is not actually aware of her own power for the majority of the movie. She is a demigod, but she has no idea of that until the final battle. She doesn’t even go by the name “Wonder Woman” in the movie, she’s always Diana.
Her aunt, Antiope tells her that she’s capable of more than she knows, but that’s about it. Diana has no reason to believe that she is anything more than human. Yes, the amazons are capable of doing amazing things, but not some of the things that Diana seems to believe herself capable of later in the movie. Her powers occasionally manifest on their own and Diana seems confused or even ashamed of them. Her mother, who knows Diana’s true nature, refuses to let her in on who/what she really is.
As an audience, we know who Diana is. Because of that, when she’s determined to fight or leap (literally) into danger, we think “stop holding her back, and let her help”. But, for the characters in the movie, there’s a different narrative. They (and this includes Diana) just see her as a strange warrior who has some abilities that they don’t understand. So, I began to think: If Diana only knows that she’s a competent warrior (even a great one) then many of her decisions are, at best, foolishly sacrificial and, at worst, childishly naive.
She’s absolutely convinced that she’s right
Diana is a stranger in a world whose ways and technology she doesn’t understand. Instead of trying to understand how things are done, she acts like a petulant child that insists on everything be done the way that she believes that it should be done. Even when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is trying to help her, she berates him for the manner in which he chooses to do it. From a narrative standpoint, a big part of the reason for this is that we are seeing Diana learn about the ways of the “world of man” and having to come to terms with dealing with it. From a character standpoint, what does that say about Diana? My view of it is that she viewed herself and her morals as being superior to the outside world. If she’s Wonder Woman, a wise and powerful demigod, there might be some validity to that. However, that’s not the case.
It’s kind of like the “Ignorant American” syndrome that people are often accused of having when they go overseas. As the audience, we know that Diana is a “superior being” but, from within the movie I couldn’t find out what reason or right she had to believe that she was entitled to feel or behave this way. Again, this is largely because the movie wanted to show her growth through experiencing war but, early on, it made me not like the character.
Is running into battle brave, stupid or both?
One of the most impactful scenes in the entire movie is Wonder Woman charging through “No Man’s Land” in order to save a village at the behest of a grieving woman. This was a big moment where, again, the way Diana views herself changes how I view this moment.
At face value, this is Diana showing that she’s unafraid to intercede for others when they need help. When Steve says they can’t help. She responds defiantly with “I can“. Then, her ability to take enemy fire galvanizes the troops and allows them to charge.
But, how does she know she can do that? Yes, the bravery is admirable, but she doesn’t know anything about what’s waiting for her on the other side of that trench. She just found out what guns were recently. Yes, she’s figured out that her gauntlets can block the bullets that have fired at her so far, but is that all that’s on the other side? She’s lunging head first into danger with a confidence that seems to be based in…well, nothing. It’s similar to how she threw herself off of a cliff to steal hear weapons on Themyscira. For all she knew, that attempt should’ve ended with her falling to her death. The worst part about this is that it’s a decision that ends up putting not just her, but the team she’s with and the people that they’re trying to save at risk.
It’s really one of the more subtly complicated things that the movie does. It conveys the complexity of war by showing that both sides can simultaneously be right and wrong. Diana was absolutely wrong to endanger the lives of thousands by going to save the village, but she was right to want to help people in need. She was also tactically wrong to rush into a situation like that without understanding it.
Did it need to be this way?
Most of my issues could’ve been fixed if Diana simply understood the extent of her powers and her place in the world. It would’ve justified her decisions and made her character less questionable. But, if she had been that way, this probably wouldn’t have been an origin story. The movie needed to show us the journey that she went on to become the Wonder Woman that we will see in the future.
It’s also worth noting that some of this was an intentional decision on the part of the writers and director. They reference the fact that they wanted to pay homage to Superman with scenes like the one in the alley where Diana surprises Steve with her abilities. They wanted to take advantage of the fact that the audience knows what Diana can do before the other characters find out and use it for a bit of comedy.
Is it that big of a deal?
With respect to this being a quality movie? No. A big part of me having these problems with Diana is actually an affirmation at how the movie did a good job of making her a well developed character.
So, if the movie needed these flaws and it’s not a big deal, why am I focused enough on this to do this write-up? Diana isn’t even the only comic book movie character that has these issues. Captain America has almost all the same hangups, including a lack of a basic sense of self preservation. Granted, Cap’s more docile nature makes these qualities seem less confrontational.
As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s the hype. If I hadn’t gone into this movie being told that this is a character that young people should look up to, and that it’s the character that “we need right now”, a lot of these issues wouldn’t have seemed problematic to me. But that’s not what listening to the buzz around this movie did to me.
Diana of Themyscira is a flawed character. More so at the beginning of the movie than the end of it. I’m not saying that flawed characters can’t or shouldn’t be role models. However, in a movie that excels in blurring the lines of absolute right and wrong, I worry that touting a character like that may end up with people focusing on the wrong parts of their character.