SPOILERS for WONDER WOMAN
You were warned….
And yet you persisted….
Let’s be clear that I really, really loved this movie, for all its occasional flaws. I could spend literally all the free time I have today listing what I loved about the movie, but there’s one particular point I wanted to address, and so I’m going to do that here. As for my review: I really liked it. You might like it too. Go watch it.
The Pivotal Question: Does the romance subplot undermine Wonder Woman, making it seem like she “needs a man” to succeed?
Kinda, in that well, the optics are that Wonder Woman wouldn’t have succeeded if she hadn’t fallen in love with, had sex with, and then lost Steve Trevor. (Was he fridged–i.e. killed off to motivate her? Kinda?)
But is that really true?
ROMANCE + COMPASSION: DAWN OF EMPATHY
(Caveat that this flows partly from analyzing the movie in a vacuum and partly from my outside knowledge of–and extreme affection for–the character of Wonder Woman. For a viewer who knows nothing of Wonder Woman, that scene might come off a different way, more in line with what I call the “surface” interpretation.)
On the surface, the movie makes it seem like that moment–seen in flashback–where Steve tells Diana that he loves her (just before he heads off to sacrifice himself for humanity) is the moment where she chooses good, rather than the evil Ares is offering. Well, more accurately, she chooses COMPASSION over destruction, which isn’t quite the same thing as good over evil. And that’s a movie formula we’re very used to: love and sex make everything better. We get invested in a romance and we want it either 1) to work out so we can convince ourselves the heroes live happily ever after, or 2) one character to die and the other character to honor them with some great and epic feat, demonstrating that True Love Wins (TM).
But was that what happened here?
I don’t think so.
Look at the context going into that scene. Look at Wonder Woman standing poised to hurl a truck at Dr. Poison–a woman damaged by Man’s World and twisted into something monstrous by her service to the war machine. Dr. Maru is at least as important to the story as Steve Trevor is. And WW sees the value in her–feels sympathy toward her–even when the movie has spent two hours convincing us not to. That is her victory: compassion in the dark and difficult moments.
Diana’s romance with Steve is incidental. The intimacy of their relationship isn’t just between two people. It’s between her and Man’s World, because he is her connection to that world. I think he initially sort of saw himself as pursuing her as a romantic partner, but she never saw them that way. And when he understood how she felt about him and the world (the same way), they became more than romantic. They achieved a level of intimacy beyond–a toxic masculinity shattering thing.
Steve didn’t teach her compassion–she taught it to him. I mean, he already cared about people, but it was in an abstract sense. “I have this mission to do. I have to save all these people.” But in the end, that’s when he understood what it really meant to care about the whole world, because that’s what she did. It was a new level of intimacy he hadn’t been able to achieve–until he met her.
How can you not love someone who teaches you that?
In turn, he served as Diana’s reference point with the world–allowed her to see Men as worthy of her compassion as well as her sisters. Isn’t that how empathy works? In order to feel for people different from you, you need to meet people different from you–get to see them as people–understand their hopes and fears and the scope of their existence?
Spoiler alert: Yes.
And the ascendancy of empathy is not typically something we get in Superhero movies. Especially not DC movies, but all of them. We tend to expect brooding dudes with big muscles who have to blow up or murder a bunch of people and we’re supposed to be ok with it because, well, that’s what was needed to save the world, right?
That’s not what Diana had to do, and she stands above the others for that reason.
We saw a little of it in Captain America and the Winter Soldier–where Cap can only get through to Bucky by not fighting him, but by loving him–but that was very localized between those two people. It didn’t work out between Cap and Iron Man. The relationship between Diana and Steve is painted in similar strokes, but they don’t solve their problems with their fists. They solve it with their hearts.
(And to head off that particular question, no, Steve was not Diana’s introduction to sex and romance. Why would he be? She was living on a whole island of perfectly appropriate romantic partners. They even have a conversation about this on the boat, to hilarious result.)
The interplay between Diana and Steve was pivotal to the movie, because he was her entry point–and ours, in a way. He was the representative of Man’s World: flawed, possessed of both good and evil, partly at fault for what was going on. He was the Good Man–playing a role in the problems of the world without realizing it.
Wonder Woman didn’t come to Man’s World to destroy it or conquer it or even embrace it. She came to fix it–to save it from itself. She couldn’t save Steve–not in body, anyway–but I think she taught him something very important, and vice versa. He would not have given himself for so many others without her example, and she needed him as her access point–but she needed the WORLD to become the hero that she became.
Will it look to a lot of people like the romance subplot undermined Wonder Woman by making her dependent on a man? Yeah, it will, and it has. You can read lots of articles about that. They muddied the waters–relied over much on this trusted formula about “True Love” and all that.
But I don’t think it was romantic love that won the day.
In order for her compassion to transcend–to know no bounds–she had to know and experience it all. She had to see the destroyed hopes, dreams, and lives of thousands to understand the true horror of war, but instead of breaking, she rose above it. She became more.
When Steve told Diana that he loved her, he wasn’t just saying that he loved her romantically. He loved her the way the Amazons on Themyscira love each other–romantically, platonically, perfectly. He was giving her hope. He was Man’s World, embracing her and conveying to her that her way was right and good and the only hope for ending war (i.e. destroying Ares). And Ares/war was what had just taken Steve from her–that she could still choose love for all people over vengeance for one person was her victory.
That didn’t undermine her. That made her stronger.
A FEW OTHER THINGS
Sex doesn’t threaten Wonder Woman: I do feel that the romantic/sexy-times subplot with Steve wasn’t really necessary. It came off as a hook to get us, the audience, invested in these characters. At least it didn’t have any exploitative/porny scenes. But even if it did, so what? Wonder Woman is allowed to have romantic interests. See = all the Amazons. Love and connection are pivotal to her character. And it’s Chris Pine, I mean, c’mon.
Romantic Supporting Role: Ok, so, Steve was kinda the girlfriend character in this movie. He ranged from kind of adorable to doing some actiony bits to seeming like he might have had a speech impediment when he tried, stutteringly, to talk to Diana or keep his wits about him around the Amazons. And they managed to make him not kind of a misogynist dick, the way he was in the excellent animated version from a few years back. He seemed largely confused about how to say things, even if he very earnestly felt them and cared deeply about his mission. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking “how would this go on, if it were to go on?” Would Diana love him the way he loved her, or would they fall apart the way they did in New 52? I guess we won’t get to see that, but that’s ok. We can move on.
Steve Trevor = Captain America (they’re both named Chris): So, why exactly couldn’t Steve pilot that plane loaded with the weapons of mass destruction into an ice floe, thus ending up in suspended animation for decades, after which he and Diana could be reunited in a long, angst-filled movie where they took down the evil corruption in the government (probably led by Ares, the way he did in THIS MOVIE)? Oh right, there was a timer on those bombs. Oh right, there was a timer.) But hold up, was the timer for only like 20 minutes? Why? Weren’t they planning to fly to London to drop the gas? Don’t they need more than like 20 minutes to fly from Belgium TO LONDON?
Diversity? So, obviously I’m super happy that Diana’s crew wasn’t all white dudes being white and saving the world while white. There was a Middle Eastern dude and a Native American dude and a Scottish dude who, while white, was still dealing with some shit, and Diana helped him in a pretty cool way. That said, WTF with the smoke signals? That was just an odd moment of “heheh, look, Indian does Indian thing.” They didn’t have to do that. In context, I guess it was forgivable, but whose idea was that? (See further reading, below.)
The Oddly Abridged Mythology Stuff: Whose idea was it, exactly, to not mention any of the female Greek gods? I mean, I get that you wanted to simplify it, so you only mentioned Zeus and Ares, but 1) how dumb do you think the audience is that we can’t even handle a couple other names (wait, nevermind, don’t answer that), 2) why kill off the other gods, exactly? Why couldn’t at least Athena survive? I mean c’mon, 3) aren’t the goddesses pivotal parts of Wonder Woman’s backstory? Don’t they give her blessings like the Beauty of Aphrodite, the Wisdom of Athena, that sort of thing? This was a noticeable excision.
The Baby Thing: Until that scene in London, Diana has never seen a baby, and that’s a big deal. That’s why she goes nuts over seeing a baby. But if you’re going to do that, why not make it pay off later in the film? Why not have her, I dunno, talk to Steve about this? Or even see a dead baby in the destroyed village? She is obviously really, really bothered about children being hurt in war, but I feel like this is a missed opportunity to bring things around with a reference to this important piece.
Continuity question: Isn’t Diana in “Supes ❤ Batman: Dawn of Bromance” kind of “retired” from the world? I would have expected that she end up her origin story bitter and sad and removed from public life, but she seems to have been victorious. So why the retreat? Did she go back to Themyscira? Did she go hang out with Etta Candy for the next few decades? What? HURRY UP WITH THAT SECOND MOVIE, PATTY JENKINS!
WW1 = perfect setting for Wonder Woman 1: I was quite skeptical at first, but I feel like this setting perfectly captures the theme and concept. Steve called it at first “The War to End All Wars” (did they call it that at the time?), and WW1 would have seemed truly apocalyptic to the people at the time. This was really, truly WW saving Man’s World from the cycle of war and destruction. Though like all things, it doesn’t *stay* saved and will require constant maintenance. But does this mean Wonder Woman 2 (WW2) will take place during World War 2 (WW2)? And no, that’s not entirely a joke–a bit could be done about Diana attempting to be an ambassador to Man’s World, etc. And I know Batman supposedly only found that one picture of her from WW1, but maybe 1) that was just the *first* picture he found of her, and/or 2) he was just too distracted with lifting all those weights to fight an unbeatable super being (do you even overcompensate, bro?) that he just didn’t notice her appearance during the 40s.
Yes, they did call WWI the “War to End All Wars.”