I went to see the film Wonder Woman last night when Midsummer Night’s Dream got rained out. It was a very entertaining movie, and like many people, I left the theatre feeling very emotional, but not for the same reasons.
First of all, I emerged from the theater thinking of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and was a bit upset that Wonder Woman did not come close to capturing the atrocities of the war like that novel did. I have not read the DC comics, but I wonder if the choice by screenplay writer Allan Heinberg (a man, I point out) to set it in WWI was driven by the fact that there are no more veterans of that war to criticize the portrayal of the war. It has a brief scene in the trenches but does not depict the depraved inhumanity of trench warfare or the bravery of the soldiers who endured it graphically enough. The bombing of a village with mustard gas happens off screen, and it is up to our imaginations to picture the carnage. Also, as horrible as that war was, ultimately we humans did find a way to end it; we didn’t need a demi-god to fly through a time warp and do it for us.
I enjoyed the scenes from the pre-lapsarian island of the Amazons at the start of the film, though saccharine Disney themes kept popping up (Mulan, Hercules, Nemo, Little Mermaid), and though there were no plus-sized women. I especially liked the fight scenes (though I have seen equally entertaining female histrionics before, as in Kill Bill). This was another emotional moment for me, because the martial scenes made me long for my fencing days, when I really did fight with a sword (pulling out my golden Kolobkov blade only for the really tough bouts), and when I wore pretty much everything Diana wears: breast plate, gauntlets, shin guards—and even had additional armor: thigh guards which I had made for myself out of fiberglass…and a mask.
Which brings me to my strongest reaction, which was to Dr. Poison.
This character provided a golden opportunity for the movie to transcend the superhero-movie prototype which has been constructed by men, and move into a new kind of (female?) superhero movie that explores a conflict between two human (or humanoid) characters with histories and passions and choices—and the ideas they represent. But Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins fell short of lassoing that opportunity.
Dr. Poison (or Dr. Isabel Maru—the character’s real name) was a genius, an inventor, a do-er who made her invention a reality, a woman who was able to find a way to fulfill her career dream (being a scientist—a typically male role) in a patriarchal and prejudiced society. And she was ugly. Her face was probably disfigured when practicing her passion—chemistry—and I would guess most women of that period whose faces had been dismembered would probably have worn a veil. But Dr. Poison knew that she would not be able to practice her craft and be employed by the military if she had to walk around with her mouth blocked by a veil (imagine Sen. Kamala Harris in a veil). So she fashioned a mask for herself. As Teresa Jusio remarked in an insightful article about Dr. Poison (and I don’t agree with all of her conclusions): “…patriarchy doesn’t value intelligence from women on its own. Not unless they also make some attempt to be pretty.” Dr. Maru is the real feminist in this movie. First of all, she is a human being, not a demi-god Amazon, and we can identify with her more completely. She has “made it” in a male-dominated society. She is practicing her passion with outstanding success. Yet she has a major flaw, and if Diana (via Heinberg and Jenkins) had brought her “bridge of understanding” to Maru, then we would have had a movie that offered a more realistic and wholesome role model for women.
But then, would it have been a blockbuster?
Luckily, Diana, in a godlike act of mercy, spared the life of Dr. Maru (after which point the film devolved into the same old violent, sensationalistic digital pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect in superhero movies), and actor Elena Anaya, who played Maru, is contracted for the sequel. This will be Heinberg and Jenkins’ opportunity to bring a stronger and more viable feminist message to movie-goers, by allowing Diana Prince to bring her “I believe in love” message to Isabel Maru. Dr. Maru is smart, successful, accomplished, and ugly. Morally and physically ugly. By introducing a pathway for the goddess Diana to help the human Dr. Maru replace her moral ugliness with sympathy and altruism, then I will feel like I’ve seen a true feminist film.
I take that back. One more thing. Feminism is the belief in the dignity, power, and promise of all women, and the practice of actualizing it. All women. In the sequel, there needs to be women of color in hero roles, or I’m not buying a ticket.