Poker Face: Wonder Woman’s Invulnerabilities and Kryptonites

There’s an image in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road that’s become the indelible image of progress in women-centered action films to me:

ggrraaaghhh

The blood on the teeth, the skin bunched at the brow, the dirt so much a part of the skin that it looks like you could plant grass on her. I’d like to resist the temptation to compare every female-led action movie to Mad Max: Fury Road, but the movie makes that difficult, because Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa gives us this face, and a shitload of others just as uncontrolled, gross, and — yeah, sorry — furious as the one above. This is startlingly unprecedented. I say “startling” because one should look gross when one is beating the ever-living hell out of somebody in order to ensure one’s survival, yes?

the spider-man of my heart
me during lifetouch school photo shoots

Yes. Give me ugly and exhausted-looking superheroes, that they might battle their way back to unreasonable attractiveness by the restoration of the status quo. Amen.

I entered Friday’s screening of Wonder Woman with so much anticipation it felt like exhilaration. Much of that high stayed with me until the end credits. Wonder Woman is paced and plotted with refreshing competence. It’s a just-plain-entertaining movie that doesn’t feel like an origin-story cash grab, and it doesn’t feel a minute over 1:45 despite its 2:21 running time. My favorite element is Diana’s earnestness, which feels like a panacea for the wave of second-rate nihilism unfortunately unleashed by Heath Ledger’s phenomenal turn in The Dark Knight. Friends, DC’s return to form is so welcome that I could weep. This is a great-looking movie with performances that make up for an occasionally stilted script.

Skip the next two paragraphs if you haven’t seen the movie, or if you haven’t seen Iron Man 3.

The role of the male lead in the plot is contentious. I’m seeing pushback over the structural choice to give Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)’s arc so much focus. That’s a fair position. Love interests simply don’t get this much heft in the plots of most superhero movies, with one exception: Iron Man 3, the second (arguably third; still, disappointing) MCU movie to pass the Bechdel test, which also hands the final showdown to its thoughtfully written female lead, Pepper Potts. Frankly, this is something I’d love to see far more often: action movies that feature non-title characters who are rounded and purposeful human beings, instead of props to toss around for tension. I don’t want fewer Steve Trevors, in other words; I want more Pepper Pottses.

Does Steve’s role hamstring Diana’s victory, steal her limelight? I’m not convinced. “I love you,” Steve says before heroically dying and such, and Diana spits this back at Ares in battle — “I believe in love.” This felt corny on first watch, but feels subversive in retrospect. It’s not the micro, her Feeling of Lurve for Steve, but the macro, a demonstration of humankind’s capacity for compassion, that restores her faith in our goodness rather than evil. Steve’s statement that he can save the day, but Diana can save the world, also feels thematically significant: she will last, she will endure, she is progress embodied. He is a casualty. In both situations, I’d argue he’s foremost a vehicle for her development, rather than a plot engine. I don’t think there’s any question where the power lies in that dynamic. Also, your mileage may vary with this, but the plane thing never distracted me from the Ares/Diana showdown for a second. The plane thing felt all but perfunctory.

That said, I think much of Wonder Woman’s importance lies outside the contents of the film. The DCEU and the MCU are massive generators for memorabilia and spinoff films and star-making roles. For almost 10 years, they’ve been a direct IV into our cultural vein. Diana’s title role is the first step toward evening out a gross numerical imbalance of male to female stars, and her performance at the box office will hopefully do more legwork toward this end.

Wonder Woman even has something Mad Max does not — a woman’s name as the title of the movie. In women’s action, this has been preceded, I believe, twice, by Tomb Raider and Salt, and ‘Salt’ dodges the subject a little, as it is also a delicious household substance and not immediately recognizable as a human person. Compare to John Wick and Beowulf and Spider-Man and Thor and Captain America and Jason Bourne etc. etc. ad infinitum.

This movie is a tentpole, an achievement, a thing we have now that we can point to forever. Every data point helps. Every blockbuster movie starring women gives more credence to future women’s films. This cannot be taken away, and the actual movie aside, this is a massive impact.

But an unapologetic title deserves an unapologetic movie, and if Wonder Woman has a fatal flaw, it’s self-consciousness. Diana as played by Gal Gadot is delightfully unaware of social norms, to amusing fish-out-of-water end, but the filmmakers are hyperaware of what audiences expect in their leading lady, and their influence appears in uncomfortable glimpses. Diana lampoons the restrictive clothing she’s forced into for her disguise, but somehow this universe’s Themyscira has the Amazons shaving their legs and armpits, as if that isn’t an equally irritating cosmetic burden. With almost evangelical devotion, Diana trumpets the virtue of embracing deep feelings— so why isn’t she allowed the simplest courtesy of showing the full spectrum of emotion? In virtually everything from initial training sequences to final battle, Gal Gadot smolders, hair stylishly cast back, face perfectly balanced and bizarrely immobilized. Mad Max’s Furiosa shows more facial emotion in one scene than Black Widow and Wonder Woman in their complete filmography combined. Where is the struggle for these women, where is the furor, where are the ugly forces of conflict, where is the visible demonstration of hardship so that these heroines’ ultimate victory can feel like a blessed relief rather than a foregone conclusion?

Diana’s an Amazon, you say. She has an inhuman quality. I hear you. But then also:

superman, literal alien, in man of steel
even thor, also literal alien, and by far the most objectified male hero, looks like this at the end

Whereas the vast majority of Wonder Woman is a montage of this:

mild consternation in the face of machine gun fire
u too can look like this when u are electrocuted
im really hot and gonna kill u

I hesitate to attribute this to Gal Gadot’s performance because we get tiny glimpses of real-looking expression. Those are the spine-tingling moments. They startled out at me: the moment she screams and throws a car, the moment she hunches behind her shield to push off heavy fire. But I spent much of the final battle wondering why it felt so much like a Maybelline commercial.

she’s supposedly born with it

These little details — the shaved legs, the facial stillness — discomfit me deeply because they’re part of the trap of “natural beauty.” Over the course of my lifetime, people have become increasingly uncomfortable with artifice in attraction. It seems like romantic morality has shifted toward naturalism; in other words, somewhere along the line we realized that expecting women to wear makeup was asshole behavior, which is a great step. Unfortunately, beauty standards didn’t actually change with that realization. Herein lies the trap. The trap tells women to wear makeup that creates the illusion of makeuplessness (language is ever-changing and this is now a word; incredible). The trap tells women to be conventionally beautiful, and if you’re not conventionally beautiful and you use makeup to try and achieve that ideal, you’re suddenly shallow, appearance-obsessed, a tryhard. The trap focuses on redefining the boundaries of beauty, rather than de-emphasizing its importance. Maybe most poisonously, the trap is supposed to be invisible. Women are expected to maintain a charming ignorance around the issue of appearance: “You don’t know you’re beautiful, and that’s what makes you beautiful.” And all of it revolves around the central expectation of beauty, this seemingly unshakable locus.

This, I think, is why Diana has such a stock selection of facial expressions. Gal Gadot performs so well, yet I could all but feel the hand behind the camera snipping away the shots where she looks anything less than catwalk-ready. This is why Diana’s startlingly hairless body and immaculately curled hair feel unnerving to me. These elements are almost uncanny, something unnatural presented as natural, something externally imposed presented as innate. Every frame of this character’s presentation is by nature something carefully selected, just as models on billboards are selected, and advertisement photos are selected and curated, and young actresses are selected by casting directors, and this serves a purpose: the job of film, as with all art, is to show truth with these selections, to encapsulate something of reality. Instead we see a distorted representation of how human beings look, presented to us as if it were our own world. Can the argument be made that “escapism” is the reason? Yeah, absolutely. Does this biased curation have a history in cinema? Yes, a long one (for both men and women, really, although average-looking male actors are basically dime-a-dozen now). Would it be exciting to see those standards challenged more often, in the way Mad Max challenges them? I think so.

I’m happy that Wonder Woman exists, because it’s a fun movie, and now that it’s performing both critically and financially, the pressure is eased a bit. This film had a burden to bear, namely the entire future of women’s superhero movies. The future always rides on these tentpoles, because of the pressure imposed on female or minority-led cinema and television — the constant need to prove itself worthy of space and time, whereas we can have as many Thor 2-type mediocrities as we like and there will be no dip in projects starring hot white guys.

I’m happy that Wonder Woman exists, because it does a great job of setting us firmly enough in Themyscira that we can feel the strangeness of moving into a patriarchal world — thereby tacitly recognizing and emphasizing how patriarchal our world is, a step that’s still crucial to progress. I do wish the foreignness of male dominance had lingered, that the film didn’t capitulate so willingly into handing vast portions of plot and dialogue back to all-male casts, but that would be a different movie, one with less camp and a slower pace. The World Of Men is so much an entity in the movie as to be its own character.

I’m happy that Wonder Woman exists, because it gave me such a thrill to see Diana punch her fingers into solid rock, destroy half a building on sheer impact, bound fifty feet in the air, and have the bodily strength inexplicably denied female characters in speculative films so far. As an incrementalist in most things, I’m genuinely really happy that we have this step forward, and at the same time, I still want a more accurate slice of reality. Most big-name actresses are preemptively curated down to the narrowest demographic, willowy big-eyed white women, and even they aren’t allowed the privilege of full expression. Stop hamstringing your actresses. Let them be all types of people. Let them look like people do.