Spoilers for Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984.
A week or two has gone by since Wonder Woman 1984 debuted in the United States…and a bit longer than that abroad…so I think enough time has elapsed to go into the pitfalls of a franchise that has already been greenlit for a third entry, despite its chasm sized problems with writing Diana, the Amazons, and its female villains. As the credits rolled and Diana soared off into the sunset, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) aka Cheetah was left on a craggy outcrop looking into the distance looking sullen and forlorn. As I saw her crumpled figure, I thought this imagery looked uncannily familiar. Oh, that’s right! This is precisely how the first Wonder Woman film ended with its female villain devastated, tears running down her face, fleeing into the night and out of the film.
The biggest disappointment with these paltry conclusions is the juxtaposition of Diana and other women, especially those that are positioned as her opposite or antagonist. In the comics and other media, Diana is renowned for her empathetic abilities, diplomacy, and utilization of combat (to disarm, not kill) oftentimes as a last resort. In these films, however, she’s pitted against other female characters — like they are ‘fallen women’ — just because they are villainous or have become so, with no deeper reflection or introspection as to how ‘man’s world’ has shaped these women with little to no options of recourse or survival. To include, the women that we have been introduced to in these films thus far are very traumatized individuals that seized their moments of power by any means necessary.
It should be noted that the films try to assert the narrative that because these women have been hurt they, in turn, hurt others, and that works at the 101 level of storytelling but this is supposed to be the pantheon, and we’re getting the dusty remnants of motion picture past. There’s no interiority to the female characters that we are shown throughout the franchise, whereas the men, villain or no, are given far more attention to detail and gravitas. Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) aka Dr. Poison is an incredibly compelling character rife for unpacking and could/should have been the primary focus of the first film, with General Ludendorff as a tertiary character or who could have been written to exist in the background.
I understand that oftentimes Diana faces and has faced many a foe of man’s world that is regularly male, but she has an incredibly diverse rogues’ gallery for a reason and a large number of them are women, sometimes even other Amazons. The comics and animated films are not afraid to challenge Diana as a person and a character with the moral quandaries of the infinite capabilities of women, including the propensity for darkness, so why are the films comfortable with operating at a basic subpar surface level of storytelling? Is it the studio’s fault, the director’s fault, or the screenwriter’s fault? Who knows and who cares, because we have these head-scratching middling movies as a result.
Writing with complexity takes time, effort, and multiple rewrites to pin down properly. Leaning on tired well-trodden tropes is easy to mass-produce while utilizing the iconography of the character as a buffer from criticism. There’s less you have to put on the page and far less for the actors to perform on the screen. However, what happens when your actors care, and I mean wholeheartedly care about the women they’re playing and want to give them some kind of depth? Well, It should be noted that the actresses for Dr. Barbara Minerva and Dr. Isabel Maru worked exceedingly hard with the material that they were given to make their characters impactful.
They are doing the sort of heavy lifting in acting that women oftentimes have to do to remain bankable and stretch their craft, but in this case with them walking the same tightrope as another male lead/villain chewing the scenery alongside them; moreover, they have to go beyond the comic book trappings of cackles and mustache-twirling and produce performances that keep people enchanted years later like Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation of Catwoman. It most certainly doesn’t help that Director Patty Jenkins is tethered to male screenwriters with these films and Warner Bros. Studios who’ve been bankrolling and calling a lot of the shots in regards to these films. Men can write amazing and groundbreaking female characters to be sure, but that’s not what we got in the first Wonder Woman or its sequel.
I’ve been excoriating the female vilenesses and their lack of character arc enough, now it’s time to talk about the Amazons. Woah, where do we start with them? Great costumes, beautiful costumes. Muscular, glistening, gorgeous. And truly, that’s all we know about these Amazons is their exterior. We don’t know their names, we don’t see their day-to-day lives, and we don’t see them as Diana’s sisters, family, or safe haven. They get one big opening scene at the start of these films and that’s it. No flashbacks to them, no reminiscing about pivotal moments in their shared history (beyond the Asteria armor), and no moments of shared laughter even. I just realized upon typing this that the Amazons don’t laugh, joke, or banter with each other at all in these films. They hardly even smile and I don’t think them doing so in the background, semi-blurry, and far away counts either.
In other media properties, we see that the Amazons are Diana’s bedrock and foundation and that she would truly be lost without them and they without her. She is their princess, beyond the title, and she is their beloved sister through and through. Diana’s mother Hippolyta seems like an afterthought in these films, even though she is her closest confidante and source of guidance. When Diana absconds from Themyscira, she doesn’t look back, she doesn’t mourn, grieve, or express sorrow in any meaningful way about leaving all of her friends and entire family behind — but she does for Steve. Whew, one of the biggest missteps in these films is making the Diana-Steve relationship the lynchpin of the entire franchise thus far.
The writing hasn’t moved past him, so in effect neither has Diana, and it’s very limiting to her, the audience, and the greater world that we could have explored in a post World War society. Let alone, they are misleading the audience (intentionally or not) that Diana has never had any sexual or romantic relationships before or since that did not involve men; depending on the medium, she is bisexual, a lesbian, or adheres to a labeling that one would identify as queer, not straight or heterosexual. These films have done everything in their power to erase Diana’s sexual identity and it’s a sadly regressive look.
I truly do not understand how after the reception to the first film, they somehow made all the female characters smaller and all of the male roles larger. How does something like this happen? How did a franchise with such lofty possibilities crank out another calamity like this? Well, I’ll tell you. Let’s look at another iconic DC female character for comparison and contrast, shall we? Harley Quinn, who is a much newer character in comparison, was initially written as a foil for the Joker of the 1990s Batman animated series, has since gone on to have bigger and better adventures written for herself and all who happen to stray into her orbit.
By proxy of her unique solo adventures in comics, this translated marvelously into her animated film appearances, and then eventually her own solo animated series that currently has two seasons and counting. Betwixt and between this time, her first live-action appearance in Suicide Squad (2016) showed promise but still had the trappings of a male-gazey writer’s room touch all over her and it showed in her costuming, fawning over the Joker (who was an afterthought in her comic book run by this point because she was fully committed to Dr. Pamela Isley aka Poison Ivy), and not entrusting her to lead the Squad even though she had done so in the comics as well by this timeframe.
The too-many-male-lead-characters problem showed up similarly and heavily in that film and the saving grace was Margot Robbie’s characterization that allowed her character to rise above the din. Thus, when murmurings of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was announced with direction by Cathy Yan, screenwriting by Christina Hodson, and production by Margot Robbie herself…the fandom overwhelmingly rejoiced. This film unlike any that came before it showed so many natural and unique touches of being made with female agency in mind. The score, soundtrack, set design, costuming, lighting, cinematography, etc. is so adventurous and whimsical.
All hands involved genuinely wanted to make something special and it shows. This film was a huge risk and they stepped up to the challenge. They grit their teeth, swung for the fences, and the cinema-going public got one of the best (comic book) films of all time. Before I go down an extensive diatribe about how great the film was, let me circle back to the point that the Wonder Woman films have not explored whatsoever with their female characters, especially with their titular lead. Flaws, shortcomings, imperfections, and foibles. The Birds of Prey film gave all the women various opportunities to explore the grey-areas of their moral centers, allowed many of them the leeway to be off-kilter or socially awkward, and let them be ‘ugly’, bloody, or messy.
The Wonder Woman films have the opposite problems; they don’t let their women explore the fullness and the breadth of womanhood and all of its gnarled complexities. Even on the beautiful island of Themiscyra, there were squabbles, fights, and bloody noses. There’s just a tad too much polish on the Amazons and Diana to the point of unbelievable perfection. Diana, her sisters, Mother, and so on aren’t given any time or flexibility to be imperfect, and it’s that unwillingness to show the cracks in Diana’s sculpting that carries into the female villains that she’s pitted against. Little to no substance hero, little to no substance villain, and round and round it goes. Absolutely no daring and no risk.
One of the greatest feats of Wonder Woman’s longevity is her constant growth, as she and the world around her have changed. Moreover, the iciness around the island of Themiscyra has thawed to show the island is a place for all women to seek refuge, Amazon, or no. Lastly, the female villains that Diana has faced have grown in complexity to the point that many fall into the categorization of anti-heroes across the expanse of interconnected media. Rarely, if ever is Diana faced with a female foe these days that doesn’t eventually become a friend, ally, or one who just enjoys testing their skills against her. Notice, again and again, that the mediums outside of the films are doing their very best to show that the biggest battles Diana usually faces are internal. She is always working to make herself a better person, leader, and friend. Until the films start writing Diana this way, she’ll be stuck forever on the villain of the week merry-go-round with no fully realized wonder or woman in sight.