But Tell Me More About This Doctor Poison
In the past year I’ve stumbled into a social circle that is primarily comprised of ferocious, thoughtful, hilarious females. A handful of these very ladies accompanied me to see Wonder Woman and shared their thoughts with me afterwards. I’d like to thank Athena, Pauline, Sonja, Angela, and Elena for contributing to this review.
Shortly after its release, GP’s Elana Levin hosted an episode of Graphic Policy Radio devoted to the film with a focus on race and sex, in which she stated, “I really liked the movie, but not unreservedly” and I can’t put it any better myself. Despite an outpouring of support from women on the Internet, friends and strangers alike, loving it with hesitation seemed to be the consensus amongst my little tribe. We had a hell of a time and there was a lot to celebrate, but the chinks in the armor didn’t go unnoticed.
Let me quickly disclaim that my friends and I are all limited in our exposure to Wonder Woman comics. We each know her primarily as a beloved pop culture icon, and have vague memories of the show. I would be hard-pressed to tell you I can remember anything about it beyond its spectacular theme song. But we’re also feminists, critical thinkers, and various flavors of badass; lawyer, veterinarian, fire dancer, pole dancer, performance artist, personal caregiver, writer, and cartoonist are all things that describe our combined professions and hobbies. Wonder Woman is a pop culture icon many women hold dear, readers of the comic or not.
We were all enamoured by the opening scenes on the island of Themyscira. Robin Wright killed it as Diana’s aunt, Amazonian warrior Antiope (aka Princess Fuckin’ Buttercup). Watching a passionate young Diana grow into an ass-kicking grown woman was powerful and refreshing. Unfortunately, we were all let down by how quickly Steve Trevor showed up and how fast Diana was to trust him. I do give the writers props, however, for keeping him out of mansplaining territory throughout the course of the film, despite the born sexy yesterday-ness of their relationship. (H/T to Athena, for introducing me to the trope!) Despite being a man with a lot to explain to her, he consistently managed to avoid condescension even when exasperated. The biggest problem with Steve wasn’t so much the character himself, but the role he played in motivating Diana to find her true powers. For a flick about feminine strength, the amount of influence given to a hetero-normative fling was a bitter disappointment.
But the biggest disservice, in my opinion, was the glossing-over of Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison. Again, I’m naive to what her actual background and development is in the comics universe, but from what I saw in the movie she’s someone all-too-relatable; an intelligent, capable woman whose personal traumas have left her wanting to burn the world. Tell me more women in any given audience won’t find that more relatable than Diana’s physical prowess and principle-fueled optimism. There was a shared disappointment amongst my friends and me regarding the good doctor’s position as a subordinate to General Ludendorff. While yes, it makes sense for a movie about fighting the patriarchy to pit Wonder Woman against a man, the stakes would have felt higher to me if Diana were up against a woman whose pain and anger matched the strength of Diana’s happiness and hope. It’s an internal struggle too many women carry, and playing it out as Diana vs. Maru would have been more meaningful than Diana vs. any man. And while we all smirked when Maru rebuffed an undercover Steve Trevor for shifting his attention away from her as soon as Diana entered the room, I don’t think any of us cared much for the overall implication that “beautiful = good, deformed = evil,” though it was suggested to me that this is a common device for DC. (And even if it is, it doesn’t make it any more forgivable.)
Again, there were a lot of good things happening throughout, and the impact the film has had on women has been largely positive; I don’t want to detract from that. I just hope that future installments continue to raise the bar to tell a compelling story about a powerful woman (or better yet, powerful women) without having to center around a romantic interest or minimize compelling adversaries.