Wonder Woman has always been more than just a comic book character. Since her DC Comics inception in 1941, she’s been a prism through which to view popular culture’s relationship to womanhood and feminism. She’s been part of the national imagination for over 75 years now, and the moments in which she looms largest in the culture are telling.
For such an iconic character, it’s somewhat surprising that Wonder Woman hasn’t been brought to the screen more frequently: it wasn’t until 1974 that an actress first portrayed her, and this pilot TV movie performance from Cathy Lee Crosby, incongruously blonde and clad in a rather demure variation on the red, white, and blue uniform, didn’t have nearly the cultural impact of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Carter’s TV show began the next year and ran through the end of the seventies. The show’s earworm of a theme song features the ultra-seventies couplet “In her satin tights/fighting for her rights” – campy seduction and the guise of feminism neatly paired in a rhyme.
The Wonder Woman TV show was, in some ways, a missed opportunity. It ran from 1975 through 1979, coinciding with the birth of the blockbuster franchise era that still informs Hollywood today. The period saw the release of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978), all famously huge hits. A film spinoff of Wonder Woman would seem to have fit comfortably in such a landscape. The fact that it’s taken over forty years for a film to finally materialize is a testament to Hollywood’s longstanding woman problem. 1984 saw a big screen adaptation of another DC Comics heroine, Supergirl. The film was a box office bomb, squandering a respectable cast including Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, and Mia Farrow. The title character, played by then-newcomer Helen Slater, became little more than a blonde blank slate who gets hit on by sexist rednecks as soon as she lands on earth. This misguided, campy-in-a-bad-way film might’ve yielded a franchise were it a success, and one wonders whether its failure is part of the reason a Wonder Woman film took so long to be made.
So the just released, much anticipated Wonder Woman film marks her first feature length big screen appearance. It’s safe to say the character has undergone a major shift from Carter’s iconic patriotic babe template. There’s no satin to be seen. The new Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, wears a suit of armor. While its shape is feminine, the colors are subdued and it gives the impression of placing utility before sex appeal. Wonder Woman the character has been around for so long now that Wonder Woman the film makes several such pointed choices to resituate her mythology.
The film takes place during World War I, rather than World War II. Besides her costume, which no longer suggests cheesecake patriotism in red, white, and blue, Wonder Woman pointedly refuses to refer to its heroine as such. Gadot is only referred to as Diana. We all know she’s Wonder Woman. Many of the overwhelmingly positive reviews of the film carry with them a sigh of relief. In the past few years there have been so many (some might say too many) superhero movies. These blockbusters have been largely male dominated both on and off camera.
Wonder Woman is not only a milestone of representation for the character, it is also directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins (who previously directed the 2003 true crime drama Monster), something all too rare for a major release. Wonder Woman is an easy movie to root for, and in its opening weekend it has set a box office record for a woman-directed film, pulling in over $100 million and unseating the previous record holder, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The pairing has some amusing symmetry with the conspicuous bondage themes in early Wonder Woman comics. One hopes that Wonder Woman’s resounding success will lead to more opportunities for female directors and more representation of female characters onscreen. That’s more of a hope than a prediction; when Hollywood is still mired in macho conventions.
Hateful, grammatically incorrect tweets from insecure nerd men aside, Wonder Woman’s future looks bright.
The new Wonder Woman, of course, has emerged in a time that is, to put it mildly, ideologically weird. Feminism has been largely coopted as a marketing tool even as a more or less identical group of crusty, aggressive sexists control all meaningful capital and therefore power. Wonder Woman, who first emerged as a more glamorous version of a Rosie the Riveter-like figure, now takes to the screen in the era of “Lean in” and eyeroll-inducing “Nasty woman” and “Nevertheless, she persisted” memes. It feels dangerous to immediately label a multimillion dollar, CGI-laden piece of Hollywood product as a feminist victory – no film can right the countless wrongs of a patriarchal society. At the same time, the film is by and large entertaining and Gadot is suitably heroic. In the ‘70s, Wonder Woman was an affable avatar of women’s lib. Today, she’s largely being taken as a more solemn representation of all the things women can and should be able to do – her onscreen presence holds political disappointments and hope for new female leadership both. It’s a lot to ask for a single character, even one so distinguished.
By the same token, with Wonder Woman’s financial and critical success, more comic book films featuring female characters should be a given. A Wonder Woman sequel seems inevitable. If the last 75 years are any indication, the character will continue to evolve within the national consciousness. Wonder Woman may be an avatar of female heroism, but this begets masculine insecurity in certain quarters. The frustratingly inevitable, wholly ridiculous fanboy backlash to the Alamo Drafthouse theater’s women-only screenings of the film (a film that is released on thousands of screens, and open to all save for a very few shows), shows part of the reason why it was hard to make a Wonder Woman film in the first place.
Hateful, grammatically incorrect tweets from insecure nerd men aside, Wonder Woman’s future looks bright. From sex symbol to fighter, the character has always been a projection of our cultural fantasies – she’s as feminist as we want her to be. In the film, Diana, asked “What are you?” responds boldly, “You will soon find out.” It’s a satisfying moment, but not that simple – the process of finding out just who Wonder Woman can be, be it on the page or the screen, never really ends.