Tomorrow, June 2, 2017, one of the most recognizable superheroes is hitting the big screen for the first time with her own feature-length, live-action summer blockbuster: Wonder Woman is finally here. While her male caped crusader counterparts — Superman and Batman — have together had 15 movies hit major screens within four decades, Wonder Woman has only ever graced the silver screen as a side character in Zach Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) for a total of seven relatively wordless minutes. Her blockbuster debut, however, is making more than just Wonder Woman history; as the first female superhero movie since the 1984 Supergirl starring Faye Dunaway, Wonder Woman is making history for female superheroes, characters, movie makers, and fans everywhere.
Despite this, the press and marketing surrounding Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, has been lackluster and un-revolutionary at best. Most of the magazine and news site articles that have been published in the week leading up to the film’s release have used the same schtick: The covers and articles are all plastered with bold bubble letters shouting repeatedly, “Finally!” And while it is true that, for the first time since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman is finally getting her first film debut, there is more to this movie and this character than the journey to the big screen most media outlets are using repetitively. With that in mind, I’ve ventured beyond Entertainment Weekly‘s less-than-unique celebration and Hollywood Reporter‘s questioning of a female-led movie and production and instead returned to Wonder Woman’s roots in feminist history and the graphic novel genre to uncover the importance, significance, and meaning of the Amazon princess’s summer blockbuster debut.
Seventy-six years ago, All Star Comics introduced Wonder Woman as the United States was preparing to enter World War II. Superman, Batman, and Captain America had already come before her, alternately defending the American people at home and at war. According to her creator, failed academic and power dynamic-obsessed psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was more than a crime-fighter: She was to be the embodiment of female power and the strength of love. In The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) by historian Jill Lepore, analysis and study of Marston’s personal documents shows a character in debt primarily to “the fictional feminist utopia and the struggle for women’s rights” (xiii) that reigned in the United States during Marston’s formative years at college. The inspiration for Wonder Woman, according to Lepore’s Secret History, came from his female-heavy childhood home; a connection to and interest in birth control and women’s rights champion Margaret Sanger; and his deep life-long love for three different women. Wonder Woman was to be a strong and independent and loving woman who would be “as powerful as Superman, as sexy as Miss Fury, as scantily clad as Sheena the jungle queen, and as patriotic as Captain America” (Lepore 196). Her powers stemmed from love, submission, and her Amazonian roots.
Prior to Wonder Woman’s first publication, Marston held a press release in 1937 to declare that women would one day rule the world. Newspapers across the country read, “Women Will Rule 1,000 Years Hence!” (169) In 1941, he and Sensation Comics would introduce the Amazonian feminist utopia Themyscira and its princess, Diana. For Marston, the story of Wonder Woman was about women — their strength and their power — and Diana served as a symbol for “a great movement … under way” in both his fictional superhero world and the real world. As such, Marston wanted her to embody the power of women “in the way [she] carried herself, how she dressed, and what powers she wielded” (196). While this declaration sounds good and empowering, Marston and his editors and artists at Sensation Comics consistently undermined its feminist potential: Marston reveled in portraying Wonder Woman in submissive and fetishistic bondage while his editor William Gaines insisted she be as “naked as he could get away with” (196) to sell more magazines. Later, following Marston’s death and Wonder Woman’s inclusion in the Justice League, she became not a fellow hero but the League’s archetypal secretary and in the 1950s, mirroring the predicament of American women when the soldiers returned home from war, became a babysitter, a fashion model, a movie star, a Dear Diana freelancer. It wouldn’t be until the 1970 Ms. cover trumpeting “Wonder Woman for President” across the cover — followed closely by the fan favorite TV show starring Lynda Carter that ran from 1975 to 1979 — that Diana would once again embody a great movement.
While Marston’s comics often served only to portray his own morals and ideas or played out his psychological experiments, more recent graphic novel publications have served to solidify Wonder Woman’s own character and meaning. She is a woman, above all, who believes in and exercises love, kindness, compassion, and equality. This makes her utterly unique in a world of superheroes who resort to violence, destruction, anger, and punishment (you saw Batman v. Superman last summer, right?) to subdue and sometimes destroy their opponents. Superman is ultimate perfect power and Batman is ultimate vengeance. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is neither; she is her own brand of heroism that combines altruism, hope, and reason to not destroy but to protect. Her goals, even when violence must used, are always to protect and love others, even her opponents.
In the recent DC Comics release, Her Greatest Battles (2017), a compilation spanning from 1987 to 2016, we see Diana averting the chaos of Ares, God of War; subduing a brainwashed Superman; and returning other women like Cheetah and Power Girl to their senses. Her greatest skill is never combat; it is reason and kindness. In “Power Play” from 1987, Wonder Woman uses cunning to talk Ares down from worldwide destruction while in “A Murder of Crows: Part 2 — Throwdown” from 2010, she speaks to remind Power Girl who she is. In “In the Forest of the Night” from 1997, Wonder Woman declares, “I am trained as a warrior … but I am trained also to think of those skills as a last resort. There is no human conflict which cannot be served better with words than with a sword.” She believes in choice and reason, though she is not above violence for the sake of the greater good. Her strengths are instincts, resilience, and faith in destiny and others. She embodies Marston’s ideal of free and empowering love. Her trump card in her fight against Hades in Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, Volume 2: Guts is the declaration “I love everyone.” With debates and statements like this, Diana brings battles to a stop and gods to their knees. Wonder Woman shows love and respect to not just those close to her, but her opponents as well.
This is Wonder Woman’s power. She is a warrior but she is a pacifist; she is a tactician but she is kind; she is a healer but she is violent; she fights but she also speaks; she is a demigod but she is altruistic; she is a fighter but she is a lover; she is kind but she is ruthless; she is a woman and she is all of these things. Like her Roman goddess namesake Diana — Greek goddess Artemis, her unspoken and unseen ally in Azzarrello’s New 52 series —, the Amazonian princess represents, as Roberta Magnani suggests, a fluid identity that “makes her an advocate of female empowerment” as she “embodies the numerous identities available to women, beyond the restrictions of traditional gender roles” in both culture and history but also superhero lore and graphic novel tradition. As leading graphic novel historian and academic Tim Hanley insists, Wonder Woman is “a character full of fascinating contradictions” that all serve to empower her. There is an aspect of Diana that can speak to every fan; just as she loves both her opponents and her allies, she also reaches out to other characters as well as to her fans. Diana’s great movement is of love and inclusion and equality for all and reminds us, as she does in “Goddown” from 2016, that “[s]ometimes it’s best not to be who we are … but who we aspire to be.” Diana is not just a super woman, but an every woman.
This is also why Jenkins’ and Gadot’s Wonder Woman is potentially the hero we need and want today. At a time when Wonder Woman’s message of love, empowerment, and equality has come second to her clothing, her actress’s breast size, her fans’ bodies, and her director’s sex, women and men alike need to witness and connect to Diana’s no-nonsense morals and ideas. Jenkins’ and Gadot’s take on the Princess of Themyscira aims to bring these themes to light. In an interview with Sci Fi‘s Ian Spelling, Jenkins praised her heroine and the message she shares with today’s audiences:
I love that [Diana] has a very strong, idealistic belief system and that she goes into the world wanting to bring that to mankind…. I like that she comes here wanting to help mankind and teach them something, and then has to learn about how to best do that. I love that she stands for love, truth, beauty, and that she really does not want to be violent, doesn’t want to fight. She wants to teach love and truth and beauty, but she’s such a badass that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect mankind and save the world.
Jenkins and Gadot are returning both Wonder Woman and her audiences to the great movement, one that is important and significant still to today’s world. This time around, Wonder Woman faces new challenges, but the tune is the same: Superhero comic and movie “buffs” have besmirched Gadot’s body and film critics have questioned Jenkins viability as a director; the production budget was allotted only $100 million, significantly less than other films in the same genre; and it was assumed the film would be another DCEU “discombobulated mess.” The 2017 Wonder Woman still correlates directly with current movements for women and their rights — this time, their representation, their power, their success in film — and fights back.
A week before Wonder Woman was set to release, early critic reviews began rolling in and they are resoundingly unanimous: Jenkins’ and Gadot’s work is amazing. Wonder Woman currently holds the top spot on Rotten Tomatoes with a 93% approval rating and
this glowing consensus review: “Thrilling, earnest, and buoyed by Gal Gadot’s charismatic performance, Wonder Woman succeeds in spectacular fashion.” Business Insider UK‘s Jason Guerrasio has declared Wonder Woman “one of the best superhero movies ever made” while Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty‘s is left gleefully vindictive:
Wonder Woman is smart, slick, and satisfying in all of the ways superhero films ought to be. How deliciously ironic that in a genre where the boys seem to have all the fun, a female hero and a female director are the ones to show the fellas how it’s done.
(Preach, sir!) It’s been predicted resoundingly that Wonder Woman will rescue and buoy Warner Bros.’ ill-fated DCEU — and, by the sound of it, superhero movies in general.
Ultimately, Wonder Woman, released tomorrow, has the potential to provide moviegoers, women, and Wonder Woman fans alike with the hero we need and the hero we want. Gadot’s Diana appears to offer us a woman who believes in love, kindness, and compassion; embodies female strength and power; and demands equality in broad gestures to Marston’s original superhero and correlation with current New 52 canon. At the same time, Wonder Woman promises to deliver exactly what audiences want right now: After a 75-year journey to the big screen, Wonder Woman’s debut stands alone as a female-led film on and off the screen. If Gadot and Jenkins’ work does well, it will serve as resounding proof to filmmakers and production companies that female movies — and female superheroes — do sell.
In the end, as Jenkins herself suggests, Wonder Woman is important because of how she reaches every audience member: “To me, she’s just a universal character. I’m not thinking about her as a woman. I’m thinking about her as a hero. That’s what’s most important.” Wonder Woman is a hero for everyone, and both her actress and her director aim to bring her adventures and her lessons of love, truth, and strength to the silver screen in a way that will appeal to every moviegoer. In her blockbuster debut, Wonder Woman promises to embody, as she has in comics and TV shows in the past, the hero we need and the hero we want. As leading lady Gadot asserts in an interview with Entertainment Weekly‘s Mia McNiece: “I do believe if each and every one of us had a little bit of Wonder Woman’s values, the world would be a better place.”
Warner Bros.’ and DC Entertainment’s Wonder Woman will be released in movie theaters June 2, 2017.