I wrote a review for Newsroom that focused on the main theme I want to talk about here, but I’d like to expand on it a little. Obviously this is something of a spoiler, so read no further if you want to know nothing about the film before you go (although I suggest you don’t).
For me, the first Wonder Woman film was a real success. It stayed true to the ethos of the character and comics in many ways, and Patty Jenkins did a great job realising a coherent story. As you will no doubt know, though, the film cemented a change to Wonder Woman’s origin story that I thought was terrible and have written about here and elsewhere. This change came in 2012 when Brian Azzarello was given licence to make Zeus Diana’s father.
When William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman he not only gave us a superhero from an all-female, warrior society, but one created by her mother from clay and animated by the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite. There was no man in sight.
To understand the significance of this origin we need to know that Marston’s ‘mistress’, Olive Byrne, who lived with Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (and remained with Elizabeth after Marston’s death), was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood in the US. Margaret had once saved her sister and Olive’s mother, Ethel, from hunger strike in prison where she had been locked up for distributing leaflets to women about contraception.
So, women’s reproductive health and rights over their bodies was, along with women’s suffrage, a major issue in the politics of the Marston household in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. From this perspective the very deliberate creation of a child by Wonder Woman’s mother, Hyppolyte, is a clear and rather radical statement about women’s bodily autonomy.
This origin story survived for the next 70 years until the men from DC’s Superman office, which has editorial control of Wonder Woman comics and has itself been embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment, decided to say it was all a lie and Hyppolyte had concealed the fact she had slept with Zeus who was now Wonder Woman’s father. In an instant the matriarchal lineage was broken, and rather than being a deliberate choice Wonder Woman’s birth was now the unexpected and unintended outcome of a quick shag. This destroyed a core aspect of the Wonder Woman mythos in a way that would be unimaginable for Superman or Batman.
As I have said, this became part of the DC cinematic universe in the first Wonder Woman film; a feature that meant the central message of female empowerment was significantly undercut. She could have defeated Ares by employing the powers of the goddesses that gave her life, but, no. She had to rely on daddy’s power. In the new film, however, this issue makes a rather oblique and potentially subversive return and suggests Patty Jenkins (because I can’t imagine it was Geoff Johns) has become a little more sensitive to the problems with the 2012 comics reboot.
In the course of the film, Wonder Woman mentions her father and uses his power over lightning just once and in a rather tangential way, and yet these blue flashes of electricity are central to the major fight scene, at what looks like an electricity sub-station, between Wonder Woman and Barbara Minerva who becomes Cheetah.
In this scene, Wonder Woman is also wearing the winged, golden suit previously worn by Asteria, a fabled Amazon who once used it to protect her people from an army of men seeking to enslave them. We are offered an image of this earlier in the film where we see Asteria wrapped in the wings, and encircled by a horde of violent male soldiers.
In the fight scene with Cheetah that is a significant event towards the end of the film the same image is repeated. This time it is Wonder Woman defending herself against Cheetah who now effectively takes the place of the men. Here, we are reminded that Cheetah’s own descent into violence was in response to the male violence perpetrated against her. We are shown numerous instances where Barbara receives unwelcome attention, and on at least two occasions this is clearly assault. It is in response to these attacks that she asks Maxwell Lord, who has the ability to grant wishes, to give her the ability to be invulnerable to them. Rather than being prey, she asks to have the power of an apex predator.
Is Patty Jenkins offering us her own coded take on the change of origin here? By linking Zeus to the male violence we have seen throughout the film, I believe this becomes a much broader condemnation of the localised sexual violence we see at various points in it, while also being a subtle condemnation of the decision to make him Wonder Woman’s father. If this is the case, I can’t help thinking there was something quite brilliant and precise trying to find its way past all the clutter and cliché that turns this film into a rather incoherent jumble (and it is a real mess of a film, by the way).
This then raises one further question, namely what are we to make of the transformation of Barbara Minerva into Cheetah and the fact that she is ultimately disabled by the electricity in this scene. First, this is not an anti-feminist message about women who stand up to male violence being dangerous. This is a #MeToo movie, at least this part is. Secondly, her being disabled by electricity does not mean Zeus’s power ultimately comes to the aid of Wonder Woman.
In the early part of the film, Barbara is shown as something of an introvert and someone who wants friendship but is socially awkward. Despite Diana’s own understandable desire for privacy it is Diana that offers her that friendship and sorority. However, once Barbara becomes empowered by a narcissistic and authoritarian man, that sorority goes out of the window. Once she has the means to look after herself she abandons any concern for others. Barbara as Cheetah is effectively the “lean in”, post-feminist who thinks that as long as she is OK then everything is OK. She aligns herself with or “leans in” to Maxwell Lord and his authoritarian desire because he gave her power.
When she is ultimately disabled by the electricity it is the power of the father that was her undoing. The very power she thought she could use to her advantage saw her defeated. If the film could have properly developed this storyline and not got caught up in ludicrous and racist portrayals of North Africa, and visions of democratic desire as catastrophic (now a WB/DC convention), this film could have been wonderful. As it is, I believe Patty Jenkins was offering us a significant t critique of post-feminist attitudes that continue to support patriarchy and the clearly patriarchal intervention that turned the great Hippolyte into a liar and a fraud.