Wonder Woman’s titular character, the princess-warrior Diana (Gal Gadot), raised by Amazons on an island away from men, is only half of a warrior. Her other half is pure Hollywood ingenue. This combination, which is supposed to empower her and us, is the film’s internal contradiction.
As a determined Amazonian girl, Diana insists on receiving military training against the wishes of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). All the young Diana wants to do is fight. But it is not clear that she has ever shown the signs of a fighting spirit by, for example, actually fighting others. Diana does not test authority, nor does she play sports or hunt. One wonders if young Diana has seen violence of any kind outside of her training. Training is a kind of violence without consequence, one could say; Wonder Woman is a kind of warrior without rivalry or heat. Later in the film, she sees horses being whipped on the WWI battlefront and exclaims, “There must be a better way!” Her pacifist compassion does not discriminate between warring human beings—that is, between good and evil—and neither can it really discriminate between man and animal.
The evil human being, for Diana, is simply the one that will do the most damage. She sides with the allied forces against the Germans because the Germans are developing chemical weapons— not because they are, say, seeking to dominate Europe. The logic of the film may or may not make sense of the details of WWI, but Diana’s mind emphatically does not. For her, the difference between mustard gas and the whip of a coachman is quantitative; both bring suffering to innocents. Those innocents, in her understanding, are not just innocent, but pure and good at heart like herself. She is, like the people she saves, a true innocent, “never guilty” rather than “not guilty.”
The movie’s fight scenes, which are occasionally elegant, looking like slow-motion Caravaggios in their definition of monumental bodies, are not why the film will be so compelling. The reason is Gal Gadot. Diana’s stature, weapons, and outfit give her the air of a warrior, but Gadot’s luminous face and big eyes give her the air of a girl who never grew up. She is perfectly cast for a role that looks like it demands fierceness but really demands an indiscriminate and immature empathy. Gadot’s fierceness comes across as willfulness, her sexuality as mere curiosity. Diana does not flirt with men, but one could say that she flirts, through her wide-eyed interest, with everything else in the film. She also flirts with the audience outside watching the film: the wide-eyed woman is a stock character, of course, and one that is irresistible.
It doesn’t help that Diana is a beautiful woman. The film never shows the realism of what great beauty can inflict on a person: the deathblows to maturity that are attention, flattery, and unearned affection, and the self-complacency and mistrust of others that can follow. Just as she is unaware of her superpowers, Diana is unaware of her womanly powers. She attempts to undress in public, oblivious to the effect it might have on those watching. She doesn’t understand the concept of partner dancing, complaining that it’s “just swaying.” When she tries it for herself she remarks, with the sterility of a doctor, that the bodies of men and women are very close in this kind of dance.
The movie attributes this unawareness to cultural barriers, and it is true that Diana grew up in a land without men. But what Diana “learns” in the movie is not how to act toward this new creature man—biologically and psychologically foreign yet incomprehensibly attractive—but that she has self-contained, un-relational powers. She learns that she can shoot lightning bolts, not that her sensuality holds an even stronger power. Diana has entered a new world that brings new longings and new problems, and all she learns is who she was all along: a demigoddess. She does not change but actualizes, into a fantasy of omnipotence. It is fitting that the last power she discovers in the movie’s final scenes is flight. Diana flies away from self-knowledge in this origin story.
Likewise, the fact that no male character makes a smarmy pass at Diana is most significant. This writer will not defend smarmy passes, but it is enough to say that an aggressive or ill-mannered man would be a threat to a solipsistic beauty that expects its admirers to be captivated by it yet keep their distance, lest that beauty turn out to be shallow and incomplete. In a contest of erudition, Diana claims that she can “recite Socrates in ancient Greek,” but she does not appear to have learned Plato’s lesson on bodily beauty. The beauties of the soul and body do not correspond.
There has been a recent trend of mainstream movies putting attractive men and women in sexually charged situations and pretending that nothing will happen: no “unwanted advances,” no complications, no threats to one’s composure and comfort (see 2013’s Gravity for an egregious yet subtle example). At an early point in her romance with Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Diana invites him to sleep in the same bed with her, and apparently has no idea that this could be seen as something other than an act of kindness. When he finally gets in the bed, Trevor just lies there. The movie wants us to believe he’s a gentleman.
Just as Wonder Woman gets to be omnipotent through a sham self-knowledge, her counterpart Steve Trevor gets to be impotent through a sham chivalry. The virtues of these characters are part of a con game of a film that wants you to find them to be good, honest, and refreshing. Diana and Trevor are honest and good, but they have the goodness and honesty of children, and children are, after all, refreshing. Unless they stay that way forever.
The post-war Hollywood taste for naiveté in sexy women, which kept American women bored at home as much as any glass ceiling did, comes full circle in this film. It is not going away in a feminist triumph, it is coming back to haunt those who might read the film that way. Americans still want their women to be doe-eyed and dumb; the difference is that now they want them to be their saviors at the same time. Such responsibility would seem to require the omnipotence of a Wonder Woman. The lesson of the film is that you can purchase that omnipotence at a high price: at the cost of knowing yourself.
Bobby Vogel studies political theory at Baylor University. He welcomes comments at [email protected].