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The Current Debate: A 21st-Century "Wonder Woman"

Is the new Wonder Woman an effective political hero?
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has received a much warmer critical reception than its predecessors in the “DC Extended Universe” series, which began last year with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. Unlike those films, which seemed to wallow in one-note gloom, Wonder Woman proves to be far more adept at mixing commonplace human emotion with the epic stakes of its superhero story. As Tasha Robinson writes at The Verge, the new film effectively balances the mythic and the mundane:
Wonder Woman represents a number of delicate balancing acts: between humor and gravitas; angst and adventure; full-blown, unvarnished superhero fantasy and the DCEU's usual unpacking of what those fantasies mean. But its most impressive balancing routine may be the one that plays out between Steve and Diana over whether the Ares myth is real, and whether the histories of gods, Amazons, and magical hidden islands have any place in the modern world. The movie's opening act on Themyscira is outsized and mythic, but once the story returns to Steve's familiar, grubby world, Wonder Woman seems like a surreal figure, a children's story brought to life. The people who see Diana seem to recognize that she's larger than life, no less startling than a unicorn walking through 1918 London. "I'm both frightened and aroused," Steve's buddy Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) grumbles, watching her casually respond to a bar fight.
The success of this balancing act is owed in no small part to the film’s star, Gal Gadot, who, as Ann Hornaday writes at The Washington Post, seems perfectly cast for the part:
None of this would work at all without the proper actress at "Wonder Woman's" core, and Gadot acquits herself with distinction, expressing power not merely as a display of cool moves and physical derring-do, but quiet focus and almost nonchalant self-possession. Cool, solemn, her eyes often welling with tears at the human waste and destruction she witnesses, Gadot's Diana is the very opposite of a cartoon character: She's soulful and utterly credible, even when she comes out bracelets blazing, effortlessly scaling a tower that might have imprisoned a princess like her in another story, at least until the right hero came along. As a young woman just coming into her superhuman powers, Gadot finds the right balance between doelike naivete and determination. Constantly told that she can't stop all war, she tries to ignore the instincts that tell her otherwise: Still, she's persistent.
In comparison to the character originally created by William Moulton Marston in 1941, however, Gadot’s Wonder Woman may be less outspoken than could be hoped for. Jill Lepore, who wrote a book titled “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” argues at The New Yorker that the movie unfortunately dampens of the original comic’s unambiguous politics:
Gadot’s Wonder Woman is fleet and lithe and fierce and tender. “A baby!” she cries out the first time she sees one, lurching toward it with a rush of love (they don’t have them where she comes from). That said, the Women’s March “Wonder Woman” is not. The filmmakers, citing a desire for the movie to have “universal” appeal, have disavowed both the character’s American commitments and her feminist cause. “Bullets never solved a human problem yet!” the original Wonder Woman liked to say, and that’s the kind of thing this new Wonder Woman would say, too. But, if Superman set out to defend the planet and Batman to fight organized crime, the original Wonder Woman, as explained in her début, in 1941, set about to fight for “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!” Gadot’s Wonder Woman doesn’t fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero.
Lepore’s not wrong: Gadot’s Wonder Woman isn’t particularly interested in political feminism, and she doesn’t make any speeches about America-the-citadel. But Alison Willmore, writing at Buzzfeed, accurately points out that this iteration of the character nevertheless seems to owe something to American ideals, if you can call interventionism an ideal:
Diana, with her fantastical Hellenic backstory, has less explicitly patriotic roots than the military-created Captain America, but in Wonder Woman she serves as an affecting riff on American ideology anyway: She's a well-intended but naive interventionist, an outsider crashing into a political quagmire she doesn't really understand but is certain she can fix anyway, sure the solution is as simple as the correct baddie getting killed off.
That's why, perhaps, her first appearance on the battlefield is so moving (while her climactic conflict is bigger but comparatively underwhelming): Stepping out onto no-man's-land in full regalia and facing down enemy machine guns in order to free an occupied village, she could be a fantasy of the US as we'd like to imagine ourselves - larger than life, always able to ascertain the truth, and driven by a desire to help that is pure and conveniently unambiguous (no endless counterinsurgency campaigns for her!).
This idea that the movie presents Wonder Woman as conveniently unambiguous also affords a more generous reading of its feminism than the one offered by Lepore. In this formulation, described by Amy Nicholson at MTV News, Wonder Woman is less aloof than simply unaware of any possibility other than equality:
Yet what interests Jenkins isn't Diana's might. It's her mindset. Wonder Woman is a straightforward action-adventure that doesn't screech to a halt to deliver big speeches about feminism. It wouldn't occur to Diana that the world needs to hear the obvious, at least not yet. In her first days in civilized society, she walks through sexism the way most people walk through flu season. What's the use of swatting invisible germs?
When even allies like Steve tell her to dress modestly, stay down, stay back, she ignores him as though she's not fluent in every language from Sumerian to ancient Greek. At times, Wonder Woman feels like watching Splash with a shield - another babelicious naïf breaking all the rules. Yet the joke isn't on her. It's on all the men mistaking unsophistication for weakness. To be uncultured is to be mentally free; no one's put on a yoke. That's what makes Wonder Woman a knockout. Power doesn't demand superhuman strength or a magic lasso. It comes from changing the culture, and everyone in the audience - Amazon or mortal man - can join that fight.
It seems likely that this new Wonder Woman will in fact remain an uncertain combination of all these things: equal-rights activist, defender of Western ideals, and whatever the studio’s bottom line requires her to be. But the last doesn’t necessarily negate the first, even if it waters it down. In short, as Willow Maclay writes at Curtsies and Hand Grenades, there should be enough here for anyone to be hopeful:
It is not merely the role of one person to save the world, but the duty of all of us. It is a moral obligation of such smouldering effervescent purity. That this statement can exist in a Hollywood production in 2017, and not only a film from a line of studio products that consistently undercut any artistic qualities or statements, but one that could have real cultural impact within the lives of folks, especially girls, everywhere is quite simply Wondrous.
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The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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