Feminist anti-war fable, or just another piece of cinematic propaganda enlisting feminism to sustain violent imperialism? Dennis Broe reviews the newly-released Wonder Woman.
'Pure entertainment' is the handle of one twitter hashtag about the film which is now on its way to grossing 600 million worldwide, and is being hailed by critics as an unmitigated triumph. A feminist antiwar fable about equality both on the battlefield and in the superhero genre? That’s how the film is being billed. Would that it were truly so and that in the world of late capitalism it was possible to concoct something called pure entertainment. Unfortunately in the world we live in, that is hardly the case and the film equally can be read as a pro-war extravaganza that enlists and subverts its feminist cause in the service of a imperialist project, that unfortunately brings many of the evils and aggression of capitalism to the forefront of the superhero genre.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a memorable intervention into a genre – the superhero film – which has up this point been entirely male focused. So that when women intervene, in say the pretty good Marvel Series Agent Carter, on ABC which is basically a women’s channel, and cancelled after two seasons, they originate as spin-offs of a male series, as Carter was spun off from Captain America.
Diana, princess of the Amazons brought up in an all-female world, though one in which she has a black nanny who is called her teacher, relates that in her reading of ancient texts she has learned that “Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure unnecessary,” giving the lie to Christian dogma which for so long forbid women’s pleasure. On the battlefield Diana is a marvel, in low-angle shots stressing her prowess as she destroys the World War I Germans, looking a lot like World War II Nazis, to an anthem that in the DC comic universe previously had only resounded for its male heroes.
Unfortunately, not everyone is cheering. Lebanon, still officially at war after Israel’s invasion in 2006, its fifth invasion of the country, has banned the film and Jordan and Tunisia are trying to figure out whether to follow suit. Its star, Gail Godot, who in the film fits that ultimate Hollywood moniker “fresh-faced” and who seems innocent in the film, served in the Israeli army around the time of one of its bloodier 2004 interventions into the Gaza strip.
Unlike some Israeli voices of peace, detailed in Amoz Gitai’s new film West of the Jordan River, Godot, a military trainer in the army, came out more gung-ho than when she entered and claimed she traded on her weapons use in the army to secure a role in the Fast and Furious franchise. Most notoriously, at the time of the 2014 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip – which in comic book terms given the might and the money behind that army is a little like Superman versus Bambi – as Palestinian women and children were being slaughtered, she posted on Facebook “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,…risking their lives protecting my country…We shall overcome!!!"
Godot’s Diana is revealed in her full splendor as Wonder Woman, the first time we see the costume in its entirety, as she takes the battlefield against the Germans. She is surprised at any lack of equality for women – as when she tells the secretary of the American spy she has befriended, who says her job is to go where he tells her to go and do what he tells her to do, that where she comes from that is called slavery. And indeed in the Israeli army, where the real Godot merges with the cinematic Diana, there is female equality, with mandatory military service for women such that by 2011 33 percent of all the army and an astounding 51 percent of officers were women. while a 2000 law granted women equality in serving.
This is echoed in the film with the opening sequence of the Amazon’s warrior training, with this all-female island seemingly engaged in nothing but battle and claiming this preoccupation it is for self-defense. Not only Godot but all of the Amazons seem to speak with an Israeli accent which fosters the claim that the Israeli army itself, perhaps the most aggressive army in the world in terms of invasions of its neighbor’s territories, itself acts out of self-defence as both societies seem devoted to warfare. It’s a country which after being awarded 38 billion dollars in arms aid by Obama, the largest military aid deal in history, criticized the award as too little.
The feminism in Wonder Woman seems to be a very battle-ready one. As individual male aggression accelerates in more warlike and broken societies this makes a certain amount of sense, but the film utterly jettisons the idea that a feminist intervention might stand for pacifism and a way of compelling men to put down their weapons. Diana half-heartedly stands for peace but even she concludes by the end of the film that “ending war and bringing peace to mankind..is impossible… so I stay and fight.”
This may be the reality of the uneven world late capitalism has created, but if so it’s a fairly depressing one. In a midpoint scene, Diana unwittingly scrambles into an all-male British Parliamentary war debate and is ushered out, the point seeming to be not that war is wrong but that women should be included in making war.
If one of the feelgood stories of late capitalism, where inequality is surging, is supposedly women’s rights, here that platform is refashioned to simply be the right to die on the battlefield. It’s a misdirection for the movement, and somewhat akin to the African-American deception in being co-opted by the military in 1948, in a way that has led to a cleavage in that community, where it is necessary to continually raise consciousness over the role of an imperial army in maintaining global order and killing one’s brothers. Now we can add killing one’s sisters as well!
The male side of the film, involving the spy Steve Trevor, has him enlisting a band of minorities to fight: an Arab, a Native American and a Scotsman all enrolled under the banner of the white patron and risking themselves for him. There is also an interesting way in which the Marvel and DC “universes” intersect. Steve Trevor’s act of heroism at the end of the film is very close to Steve Rogers’ act in the Marvel Universe in defeating the Nazi Baron Zemo in Captain America, as the two corporations collide in parallel universes distinguished for their lack of imagination.
In Captain America’s male-oriented origin though, ultimately the frozen Captain America returns to life while all those around him die. Here, Diana the woman is the one living and looking back on fallen comrades. That change may be miniscule though, and one wag praised the success of Wonder Woman as scoring a badly needed victory for a franchise under siege – an attempt to enlist us to root for Warner Brothers-DC which through its generally inept films and characters has played second fiddle to Disney-Marvel. It’s a bit hard to call a multimillion dollar conglomerate an underdog but perhaps that’s what an underdog has come to be, in the era of all companies melding into one, with the other Amazon about to move into produce distribution after buying Whole Foods
Finally, there is the ultimate reveal of the villain, not the German, Nazi-like and later in reality actual Nazi General Ludendorff, but the genteel Britisher whose civilized ways conceals the demon and god of war Aries. This is an accurate depiction of the British empire which has continued to make colonial mischief after the Nazis were long gone. but in the film the implication is glided over in favor of a simple reveal and is obliterated with the special effects barrage that follows.
In the context of the 24/7 warlike nature of the film, Wonder Woman’s answer to Aries, “humans are everything you say but so much more” sounds simply like a rationale and plea for understanding the atrocities of the Israeli army. And not only that, but a plea for sustaining the capitalist and imperialist wars of dispossession which this film unfortunately is more than just lightly engaged in boosting.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.