I had no idea what to expect from Wonder Woman. I’ve never read superhero comics in sequence, and I’ve never read DC comic books at all. As it turned out, the movie was a blast to watch, and the historical setting was astonishingly apt in a number of ways. The first two thirds of the movie played like an episode of the British television farce ‘Allo ‘Allo, which was the perfect set-up for the finale. As I left the theater and began to digest and reflect, however, Wonder Woman lost its shine. The more I thought, the less happy the memory of the movie made me. Diana herself epitomizes what left me troubled–for the very reasons that I enjoyed watching her so much.
The movie has the bones of a good adventure story. We can check off the components as they appear in order: Our heroine discovers her mission and motivation, she builds her team, she experiences an initial triumph followed by crushing defeat, she faces the big bad boss, love conquers all, and we’re done. Unfortunately, it has only the bones. We never see the flesh, the heart, the breath of a story that really lives: growth of character, strength out of weakness, the hope that can come only after a soul struggles and despairs of its own power. We don’t sigh at the end with the cathartic satisfaction of being broken and remade with our protagonist.
Little Girls are Selfish
The writers tried to contrive a few ways in which we could see Diana grow. Unfortunately, these were completely inconsistent with her character as established in the movie’s first act and the Wonder Woman brand overall. For instance, the writers gave her clumsiness to overcome, as a recluse entering the wider world for the first time. Social clumsiness would make sense, but that’s not what we’re shown: when she tries to navigate the streets of London, Diana is physically clumsy. Seriously? The Amazon warrior can flip herself off a cliff and kill three people with arrows to their hearts before she hits the ground with grace and elegance, but she can’t get through a revolving door? It’s a bald-faced gimmick, and it doesn’t work. That’s not who Wonder Woman is.
These scenes give us an inconsistent character because they reach beyond what the character’s brand can accommodate: Wonder Woman herself is built to appeal, not to grow. She’s a simple idea: everything a little girl wants to be, turned up to eleven. She’s not just a princess; she’s a goddess too. She’s not just strong; she’s by nature the fiercest warrior the world could ever see. She’s not just pretty; she’s irresistible to men (but she’s doing just fine without them, thank you very much). She delights the feminine ego –delights, but never challenges, never breaks…and therefore never inspires.
The trouble is that little girls are selfish. I know. I was one. Now I’m a selfish woman. By identifying with Diana, I give my imagination everything my selfish heart desires. I want to be the best, and I want no competition. I want to be right, and I want everyone else to be wrong. I want to be desired, and I want to need nobody. I don’t ever want to be confronted with my own failure: Blame must lie elsewhere. Those are the circumstances that my sin nature desires, and those are the only circumstances in which we ever see Diana.
Peers are Competition
For instance, Diana has no female peer among the Amazons, from her independent childhood training to the moment she leaves the island–because peers are competition. She must stand alone in the right. She must have no occasion for humility. On the contrary: she must be exhorted to all confidence in herself. After she enters the world of men, the only other women we see outside of a crowd are a decidedly frumpy secretary, a bourgeois gala-goer past her prime, and Doctor Poison, who might have been the perfect foil for Wonder Woman had not her unfortunate facial imperfection limited her screen time and again left Diana without peer–because what are peers? Competition. We must never see Wonder Woman compete with other women. If we did, we’d see her bullying cattiness. Her confidence plays as spunk if and only if she competes only with men. Heroes must have confidence, yes; where there’s only self-doubt, there can be only inaction. Even so, a character can have all the confidence in the world, and all the reason for confidence, and yet never win our hearts.
Effective, endearing heroes have humility as well as assurance. They know their weakness, and their strength flows from more than themselves. Typically, they learn to rely on their friends. Diana, in contrast, makes a point of choosing a companion with skills that will be no help to her: Charlie, the “sharpshooter” who never fires a single round, but gets to tag along because Diana likes his singing. Don’t get me wrong: I like Charlie’s singing, too. The use of social music and dance to represent the aims of a peaceful humanity is a genuinely beautiful point in the movie. To follow through on that point, Diana should leave Charlie with the townsfolk to whom his gifts can be of service. Instead, she brings him into danger and ignores the additional liability of an extra squad member without battle skills. She counts on her own strength to win the day, and it’s sufficient every time. On the few occasions when we see her disappointed, it’s never because she falls short, but because something outside of her prevents her taking control. She relies on herself, because she knows she never fails.
The self-reliant hero of Wonder Woman portrays a world in which catastrophe is unrelated to our failure–but that’s not the world in which we live. We rejoice to follow heroes through failure, because we live through failure ourselves. Victory through agony, especially when the agony results in deeper bonds of love, draws characters into our affections and offers hope for our own struggling souls.