One aspect of Warner Bros’ DC Entertainment heroes is a godliness that has proven difficult to translate on screen as of late, a problem that Marvel Entertainment hasn’t had to the same level. Man of Steel’s critics lament over its lack of lightness to this day, Batman v. Superman fell to weakness on the cutting room floor, and Suicide Squad found itself plagued by similar editing issues. It started to look like the DC cinematic universe was never going to find its footing through the jaded tone of its films.
When Wonder Woman‘s eponymous superhero makes her debut, pushed to fighting on behalf of the fallen village of Veld, you believe with all your heart that she is a goddess. At this point, Gal Gadot has already sold you Diana, with her infectious delight and steel-strong optimism. She’s the type of woman who would laugh upon discovering her super strength and would sacrifice the most important things to her–including her Amazon family–to steal a weapon called the Godkiller and set off to end World War I. She is unable to ignore the cries for help from any man or animal and holds fast to her pure morals even when agents of this strange world, such as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), try to deter her from going further into German territory. She grew up hearing about war in the form of Ares’ downfall and still has the incorruptible belief that everything will return to good if she brings him down again.
Combined with director Patty Jenkins’ talent at shooting slicing, crushing action scenes, Wonder Woman emerges as a relentless force of nature with a golden heart at her center. It’s the moment that most of the audience has come for and it’s the best of the movie that they get. Other parts are convincing enough, particularly the downtrodden parts of WWI-era Europe. Others, like Diana and Steve’s romance, are not so convincing. Overall, screenwriter Allan Heinberg’s script is tightly structured (if rarely unpredictable) and has plenty of levity—a nice change of pace from DC’s previous junctures’ lack of humor. It incorporates all of the important parts of the Wonder Woman mythos, from a long spiel about the foundation of Themyscira to innovative uses of the Lasso of Truth to a new kind of version of the famous bracelets.
Wonder Woman was never going to be a movie that had it all, however, and that’s where it lets down any feminist who plans to see it. To start, despite promos that suggest the contrary, there is no strong female villain in this film. Even before her male boss is revealed as a ruse, Dr. Poison (played by Elena Anaya) is shown to have little agency and susceptible to manipulation. Despite vaguely interesting facial prosthetics, she has no backstory nor time on screen to develop as a formidable character with any emotional effectiveness. She is rendered a hollow, hard-to-track metaphor, her role quickly subsuming to Ludendorff (played by Danny Huston) and then a strangely white Ares (played by David Thewlis).
In fact, as soon as Diana leaves Themyscira, there are no impressive female roles that she comes into contact with. Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) has her charm, but spends much less time on screen than anticipated. Steve eventually gathers around them a group of all-male sidekicks who play into stereotypes. There’s Charlie (Ewen Bremner), the drunken sharpshooter with PTSD. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Middle Eastern actor who in one scene plays on time period-centered stereotypes to get Steve into a German gala. And finally, Chief—yes, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock)—who trades with both sides of the war in stereotypical Native American garb and uses smoke signals to help Diana find her way toward the Germans.
Combined with Amazons whose only Black members were used as props for Diana’s training, it’s not a very self-aware set up. It anticipates a very white and–based on interviews with Gadot and Jenkins as well as how much screen time men got in this movie in comparison to women–very male audience and not much else. This audience is what Warner Brothers is desperately trying to woo back from its last failures, based on how Ares basically embodies the cynicism that the studio held so dear two movies ago. Diana’s countering conclusion at the end of the film, “only love can truly save the world,” comes quite forced, especially from a studio all-too-knowing that it has everything to lose.
Of course, Warner Bros’ aim was never feminism, never mind intersectional feminism. Its goal was to make a film far more enjoyable than the slop they’ve mostly put out nowadays. And as far as filmmaking goes, Wonder Woman is a good film—in its best scenes, worth some reverence. But it’s not the feminist dream nor the ideal work of art that any of us wished for.