Well, overall, the movie was about the level of bad I expected, I guess. I pretty much agree with everything in Chris’s review. The violence and sex seems calculated to go just so far and not farther in a way that ends up reading as smarmy and not much else. Exploitation can be fun if it’s either explored or used to push stories in odd directions. Here, though, it’s all controlled without much curiosity; the exploitation elements seem ladled out with a spoon, and the rest of the story doesn’t have enough thematic coherence or adventurousness to go anywhere. The twin goals (tell a typical Wonder Woman story; throw in (limited) gore and (limited) sex)) lead to paralysis rather than energetic frisson. As just a for instance, if you’re going to do WW exploitation, it seems like one of the more interesting ways would be to explore lesbian themes — but that would be R, and besides we’re not really willing to do that with a DC property — and so the only lesbian suggestion is done in the most banal way possible; set up as a sexual fantasy for Steve (who sees some Amazons cavorting in a pool) rather than as a real possible female alternative to dealing with man’s world. Thus, the only real love is love between men and women, which philosophically stacks the cards against Paradise Island as a viable community. The “moral” of the movie ends up being that Hippolyta must learn reach out to men in order to learn to love. In this (as in just about every other) way, the film is less adventurous than the source material; Marston did suggest implicit lesbianism in various ways, and while he had Diana fall in love with Steve, I don’t think he suggested that that love vitiated the Amazon’s community.
Indeed, when William Moulton Marston created WW, the whole point of the Amazons was that they were going to teach man’s world love — not vice versa. This, I think, points to the film’s central failure of imagination. The filmmakers just can’t figure out a way to admire femininity. They can admire women — but pretty much only insofar as the women are tough, violent, self-sufficient — masculine, in other words. You see this again and again throughout the film; the librarian is mocked for not being tough enough in the opening battle scene; then she gets brutally offed, essentially because she’s too girly to live. Wonder Woman herself taunts femininity at various points, mocking Ares for getting beaten by a girl, or teasing Steve for expressing his emotions like a girl. The end tries to walk this back a little, with Hippolyta rebuked for rejecting children and love — hallmarks of femininity. But the only way to get those back is supposed to be by opening themselves up to men.
Marston, on the other hand, had a vision of a femininity which was both strong and self-sufficient. For him, the Amazons weren’t unloving because they’d cut themselves off from men; on the contrary, cutting themselves off from the masculine was what made them embody love. In the film, being strong (masculine) precludes love (feminine); for Marston, being feminine is what creates strength (and submission and lots of bondage.)
The point here is that the movie’s vision of gender is just much, much more clearly designed of, by, and for men. The Amazons are essentially pictured *as* men. The reason their cool is their masculine attributes (kicking ass) and their problems are masculine problems — they’ve gone off into their cave, cutting themselves off from emotional attachments to be safe. The “message” could have been written by Robert Bly — trust your emotions! don’t be afraid to love! It’s focusing on male anxieties around castration and being tough and not wanting to be vulnerable.
In Marston, though, what’s glorified is not only strength, but female bonds…and, indeed, bonds in general. Marston’s emphasis on submission as a form of love and strength is decidedly kinky…but it also allows femininity to be something other than just opening yourself to a man. It can be opening yourself to a woman, for example. “Obedience to loving authority” (as he puts it) is, in Marston’s vision, not actually about patriarchy first, but about femininity first; after all, the loving authority doesn’t have to be male, and, in those old Wonder Woman comics, often isn’t. For Marston, femininity is an archetype that can exist entirely without reference to men.
A female community built around mutual submission and love is the ultimate source of strength in Marston’s world. For him, women are going to save man’s world. Whereas, for the filmmakers, the Amazons need men to save them.
Which is why the movie, with a kind of tedious inevitability, finds itself morphing into “Steve Trevor: The Animated Film.” Trevor gets a ton of screen time, and we actually learn more about his inner life than about Diana’s; it’s quite clear at the end why he kisses her, but it’s way less clear why she kisses him. The fact is, the filmmakers are more interested in the entirely pedestrian horniness and self-pity of this banal frat boy who find the girl of her dreams than they are in the journey of their putative star. In the end, her objections to man’s world are shown to be hollow feminist propaganda; all she really needs to cure her restlessness is a good man…or even a mediocre one.
Or, to put it more briefly: Marston’s Wonder Woman was a male fantasy that cared deeply about women and girls. And while that’s not ideal in every way, I would argue that this film is good evidence that a male fantasy which cares about women and girls is, overall, and in almost every way, better than a male fantasy that doesn’t.
Update: And a follow up post on the animated movie vs. George Perez