Wonder Woman’s success isn’t just a win for female directors — it’s a victory for those who have yearned to see complex portrayals of females on film, and for viewers who have wanted to see characters of color as more than a one-note caricature.
Redefining the strong female character
Wonder Woman gives us nuanced portrayals of women that we don’t often see on film.
For one, Hollywood seems awfully fond of giving us female characters who generally have only one major defining trait: they are naive or emotional or seductive or strong.
Of course there is nothing wrong with any of these individual traits. But female characters are almost never all these things. Far too often, movie audiences see female characters who are emotional but fragile or who are strong to the point of complete callousness.
Enter Wonder Woman.
Diana has badass scenes galore -– No Man’s Land in particular will surely join the pantheon of great superhero film sequences. However, her strength is not her only trait. In this film, it may not even be her defining trait.
Diana is a powerful woman who embraces love as a source of strength. After decades of having to be wary about romantic plotlines for our female characters — plotlines that are either the only arc for a woman or completely derail a woman’s arc altogether — Patty Jenkins uses a love story that actually strengthens Diana’s storyline and supports her greater character arc. It gives Wonder Woman what every other director has given to every other male superhero: the ability to be a hero and the chance to fall in love.
More than that, this film has given an entire generation a female superhero who is more than just one trait. A female superhero who is strong and vulnerable, vengeful and loving — just like all the women we’ve ever known in our own lives.
Attention Hollywood: Women over 50 exist
And on the topic of realistic women, the film likewise portrays women who have been allowed to age while maintaining their physical prowess and competence. In many ways, it seems as though 35 is the new 78 for women in Hollywood — meaning that once an actress turns 35, they are as good as dead to casting directors and movie studios.
Indeed, it might have been easy to explain casting Hippolyta and Antiope as barely older than Diana. After all, this is a comic book movie set on a fictional island inhabited by women who don’t seem to age over thousands of years.
Instead, the film cast 51 year old actresses Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. They are the extraordinary mothers and aunts whom we have all seen in our own lives, but rarely see portrayed on film. These women are scarred, with lined faces and wearied expressions. They are also not solely defined by their age or their role on the island.
We are given a fearless warrior who is also a loving sister and aunt, a doting mother who is also a fearsome queen. They are complex women who have their own hopes and fears.
And, yes, they kick a whole lot of ass, too.
Minor characters don’t have to be forgettable
Once Diana strikes out for the front, she’s joined by a band of odd fellows, two of whom are men of color. Sameer, played by Moroccan descended French actor Said Taghmaoui, and Chief, played by Eugene Brave Rock of the Kainai First Nation, highlight that secondary characters of color don’t have to be one-note or forgettable (or dead by the movie’s end!).
Despite being minor characters, both men have arcs which are interesting and contribute to the movie’s themes.
We learn that Sameer is an aspiring actor who is the “wrong color” for his passion, and therefore turned his talents to becoming a wartime profiteer. Yet when the money runs out, he sticks with Diana and Steve because it’s the right thing to do.
We also meet Chief, who says he’s solely involved in the war for profit — only for Diana to later witness him refusing payment from the townspeople of Veld.
One of the most deeply affecting moments for me personally was Chief explaining that it was Steve’s people who had taken his land and stolen from his people. It’s a small but powerful moment that highlights the duality present in mankind and contributes to Diana’s thematic journey.
These moments, coupled with the fact that Eugene Brave Rock both spoke his native tongue and was given complete latitude in creating his character’s costume, provide a kind of diversity that authentically builds the characters and enriches the story.
Wanted: Women of color
Yet for all that the movie does in terms of developing female characters and men of color, there’s still that all-too-familiar sense of disappointment in its treatment of women of color.
Of course, I recognize that the island of Themyscira features a markedly diverse population. It’s easy to imagine the film portraying a more homogenous population, followed by the justifications that “they’re descended from the Greeks!” or “it’s fictional!”
The women of color in the film, however, remain background players, with only one or two lines if any. They don’t have the complex lives of their white counterparts or men of the film. This is a missed opportunity at best; at worst, it deliberately ignores the voices of women of color while elevating whiteness and maleness.
In the sequel, I hope that women of color are more than background pieces, written with the same complexity as the men of color in the first film. This movie demonstrates that nuance and diversity are not just good for their own sake but also can enrich the narrative experience by adding new textures and depths to otherwise familiar storylines.
So what might the sequel do?
One potential place to start could be with Artemis, here played by boxer Ann Wolfe, who has quite a prominent history in the comics.
Since the movie already paid tribute to one of my favorite parts from the 2009 animated film with the ice cream scene (also seen in 2011’s Justice League: Origin), I’d love to see Patty continue the tradition with another iconic scene from the animated film that features Artemis:
Of course, I hope the sequel allows for more than just these few lines from its women of color. But even a small scene like this could show that the strongest fighter in Themyscira is far from the humorless strong female character stereotype we often see.
Patty Jenkins stated that she’d like the sequel to take place in modern day America, which would give the movie ample opportunity for greater depth from women of color, characters with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. Viewers would delight in the exploring these particular issues with Diana, whose own experience with prejudice is unique in a way that is special to superhero movies.