In the new “Wonder Woman” movie, Wonder Woman sets out to end war. Her particular enemy is Ares, the god of war, but, really, her enemy is war itself—bloody and brutal, senseless and dreadful. The film seems eager not to offend. (Who can be opposed to opposing war?) But it’s also remarkably sly, a superhero movie that raises an eyebrow at superhero movies, so bloody and brutal, so senseless and dreadful.
“Wonder Woman” is smart, charming, playful, and glamorous—things not often said of superhero movies. It is also long overdue. And it has a strained relationship with the character’s origins.
Superman appeared in 1938, Batman in 1939, Wonder Woman in 1941. Of the hundreds of comic-book superheroes created in the nineteen-thirties and forties, only these three have lasted, uninterrupted, since they began. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have also been battling evil together since 1942, following a poll that asked readers, “Should Wonder Woman be allowed, even though a woman, to join the Justice Society?” (I once wrote a book called “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” and so it is with the weighty burden of academic authority that I can report, for the record: 1,597 kids said yes and 203 said no; 197 of the naysayers were boys. I cannot fathom what those six girls were thinking.) But, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, Wonder Woman became the Justice Society’s secretary. “Good luck, boys!” she’d call after the men, while she stayed behind, at headquarters, answering mail. Ever since, she’s been the Cinderella of the family: overlooked and neglected, and yet plainly the best of them.
There have been nine movies about the Man of Steel and twelve about the Caped Crusader, not to mention dozens more featuring obscure, lesser, and better-left-forgotten male comic-book characters, including such cut-rate back-benchers as Ant-Man, Meteor Man, Doctor Strange, and Swamp Thing. But this is the first film ever made about the Princess of the Amazons, even though she’s the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. “Suffering Sappho!” as Wonder Woman liked to say. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose credits include the 2003 film “Monster,” which she both wrote and directed, but which do not include any superhero movies, and starring the relatively unknown but terrifically cast Israeli actress Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman” starts off outnumbered by Superman and Batman, twenty-one to one. She is disadvantaged by the impossible standards and fixity of malice that attach to work by women entering fields dominated by men; and vulnerable, too, to the condemnation of women, whose complaints about the film have so far included something to do with armpit hair. Merciful Minerva.
That “Wonder Woman,” the film, has at last been made is a relief. Also, to be honest, it’s a relief to watch a woman fight back. A lot of viewers will come to this film, as I did, after the most ordinary of days, punch-card-punching, office-meeting, kid-raising, news-watching days, days of seeing women being silenced, ignored, dismissed, threatened, undermined, underpaid, and underestimated, and, somehow, taking it. I am not proud that I found comfort in watching a woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots clobber hordes of terrible men. But I did.
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.
Wonder Woman has been controversial from the start, even though she was created to quiet a controversy. In 1940, after critics complained that Superman and Batman were too violent, All-American Comics hired as a consultant a psychologist, lawyer, all-around rascal, and onetime Hollywood P.R. man named William Moulton Marston. Marston lived in a threesome with two women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, who both had graduate degrees in psychology; Holloway was also a lawyer. With their help, he pitched a comic book featuring a female superhero whose enemy is inequality. “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men,” a press release explained, because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.” Within a year, “Wonder Woman” comic books were banned, on account of indecency. During congressional hearings into juvenile delinquency, she was accused of inciting lesbianism.
Jenkins sets her “Wonder Woman” in the First World War instead of the Second, and, in a way, this makes a certain chronological sense, since the Marston family’s models were the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights, and birth control in the nineteen-teens and twenties. In 1911, when Marston was a Harvard freshman, he saw the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst address a crowd in Harvard Square, after she was banned from speaking in Harvard Yard, where women were not allowed to speak. In 1912, Elizabeth Holloway was a sophomore at Mount Holyoke when students paraded for suffrage, wearing buttons that read “Votes for Women!” H. G. Peter, the artist Marston hired to draw Wonder Woman, drew pro-suffrage cartoons for magazines. Marston took Wonder Woman’s origin story straight out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopia, “Herland.” In 1916, Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, and her aunt, Margaret Sanger, opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States; they are the founders of Planned Parenthood. In 1917, Marston was in Washington, D.C., when suffragists held a vigil outside the White House, carrying signs that read, “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait for Liberty?”
The new “Wonder Woman” is set in an extravagantly staged and costumed 1918, driven by an uninteresting plot about the Kaiser and chemical weapons; the film renders invisible—erases—the fights women waged a century ago for representation, contraception, and equality. The real women who fought them called themselves Amazons, figures from myth, because, not knowing much about the history of women, they had to imagine ancestors. Wonder Woman is their daughter. They made her out of clay. She owes them a debt that this movie does not pay.