If you haven’t seen the news yet on every single social media geek page, Warner Brothers’ latest DC Comics film Wonder Woman has and continues to perform successfully in the box office and among critics. Last Thursday night prior to its opening weekend, it earned over $11 million alone. During its opening weekend, it earned over $100 million, ranking it in the top fifteen superhero films with the highest weekend grossing box office. On Rotten Tomatoes, it stands at a 93% with both critics and audiences. With all of this, the film has received an amount of praise as the DC Extended Universe’s first female origin film, let alone the first female origin film out of all the extended universes, from Marvel to X-Men. By this point, there have been countless fantastic articles on the feminist critique of Wonder Woman and its representation of women being the minority during a time when they never had rights to begin with.
Despite all this praise of a strong female lead, people still continue to ask the ‘So what?’ type of question such as, “What difference does it make from other superhero origin films?” or, “What does it matter Wonder Woman has a female director? Just make a good comic book movie.” or, “What is so important about having feminism in the movie? It’s a superhero movie.” Indeed it is, but it is more than that and that is what I am focusing on in this article, why Wonder Woman matters in the comic book film world and comic book literature.
Before I get into this article, I want to personalize this area for a moment. I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from Biola University, emphasizing on Rhetorical Theory and Interpersonal Relationships. This Degree has served me well as my love for film analysis has grown over the past few years. During the fall semester of my senior year, I took a course under Dr. Molloy titled, “Research for Communication Methods,” where the primary course objective was writing and researching a qualitative or quantitative research proposal. The topic could be anything that we wanted as long as it was something we could prove. The great part about Dr. Molloy was the fact that she was and is a comic book fan, from movies to shows and to the books themselves.
When it came to choose a topic, I chose what meant the most to me, comic books. My thesis? The stereotypical and sexist portrayals of female superheroes in comic book literature. As I went over on how I would research this topic, she gave me the stamp of approval. While this research paper was long and enduring and at times very difficult, it is a research proposal that I am absolutely proud of and hope to submit to conferences. Many comic book characters, including Wonder Woman, played a heavy hand in my research from physical representation to dialogue and feminism representation. Why do I bring this up? I bring it up because this research changed a large portion of my view not just on female superhero representation, but female representation as a whole in stories, from novels and comics to television and film.
The Bar Was Low to Begin With
For nearly two decades, superhero films have grown and evolved in the film industry, all of them starting with 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise in the year 2000. From then on, we have had two Spider-Man series, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the set up for the Avengers and the MCU, a new superman that began the DCEU, a franchise saving “reboot” of the X-Men, and so much more. Yet, throughout these past seventeen years, only two female superhero origin films were put into action until Wonder Woman this year. The films were Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005), which resulted in major box office flops and very low reviews among critics and audience alike. Elektra failed to connect to the previous film Daredevil (2003) while Catwoman failed to represent anything about the actual comic book character herself with the exception of her alias name. What these films had in common besides their flops was that they failed to standout significantly as female leads due to their stereotypical and sexist portrayals, from clothing to dialogue.
While there have been some female leads that have been strong in other superhero films such as Halle Barry’s Storm and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the X-Men franchise, their accomplishments are small compared to other lead male characters. Even Marvel Studios Black Widow, the only lead female character from 2012-2015, is not as significant compared to the other male leads. Not only that, but her portrayal as an unnecessary love interest with Bruce Banner in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) came off as stereotypical and in ways sexist. Along with that, it is only her and Hawkeye who have not received their own origin or solo films in the MCU. Before we get into how and why Wonder Woman is a game changer and is an important topic in the area of feminism and comics, we need to also look at her comic book history.
Misrepresentation of Feminism in Comics
For those that are unaware, Wonder Woman is a primary character of DC Comic’s Justice League team, ranking between three and two and sometimes one next to Superman and Batman. Created by William M. Marston and H.G. Peter in 1941, Wonder Woman has stood out significantly both as a superhero and a female icon. Today, she is one of the many faces of comic book heroes as she ranks #5 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Superheroes. Though she has stood the test of time, she has stumbled along the way in female representation and feminism.
In the early 1940’s, DC had a team prior to the Justice League titled, the Justice Society of America. In All-Star Comics #14, Wonder Woman joined the team…as their secretary. Made by the decision of JSA member Hawkman, Wonder Woman was not only the secretary of the team, but also did not fight against the Nazis as did the rest of the male team. Of all the writers that created this for her, it was in fact her creator William M. Marston. During this time period, he was already writing three other stories on Wonder Woman as he had trouble balancing out a fourth. While this comes off as a mistake and difficulty for Marston, it still stands out. Luckily, later on in 1947, Wonder Woman had a more important role in the Justice League along with other female superheroes such as Black Canary.
In the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, her writing and portrayal represented the wrong type of feminism where she came off as a man-hater as her physical appearance still catered to young male readers. Examples can be found in series such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001-2002) and even in the graphic novel Wonder Woman: Earth One (2016), where she is also known for body shaming other woman and blaming it on men deceiving them. According to Michael R. Lavin,
“Many of the comics which do portray strong, interesting heroines nevertheless still pander to young male readers. Despite all their admirable qualities, such characters…are still drawn in skimpy outfits and sexy poses.”
While this has been an unfortunate factor in comics since their birth in the 1930’s and 1940’s, this act of physical distortion skyrocketed in the 1980’s and 1990’s with Wonder Woman and still does to this day even in DC’s latest Rebirth series since 2016.
True Feminism Representation
Despite the complications of the character, improvements continue to be made as the superhero comic book world continues to grow in popularity due to films. In Renae De Liz’s 2016 nine-issue story, The Legend of Wonder Woman, readers are brought back to the origins of Princess Diana, her relationship with her protective Mother, and the backstory on their relationships with the gods. When you read the series, one can find certain connections to the Wonder Woman film itself as Diana continues to find herself in a world of hatred. A big factor about this story is in how Diana and the other Amazon’s physiques are drawn, as they are not over sexualized in obvious or noticeable ways.
In an interview with Nerdist about her Wonder Woman series, De Liz goes on to discuss how she struck a balance of Wonder Woman being a feminist icon and making her “too perfect” as she says,
“Wonder Woman is an icon of so many important purposes and messages, creators must toe a lot of boundaries with heightened precaution because of the potentially volatile situation surrounding feminism. This can easily overshadow Diana’s character and personality and cause her to be written as absolutely perfect, or an avenue to push messages in a way that (I feel) lessens the potency of the good Wonder Woman can do with her stories.”