I loved Wonder Woman. That’s quite an admission, since the female-directed (Patty Jenkins) fantasy is supposed to be the quintessential feminist movie, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s feminism and its nagging, hectoring, bitterness-infected ontological antagonism toward men. But the critics were all telling me how extremely feminist this comic book-derived tale of Diana (Gal Gadot), the Amazon princess with her magic lasso and bulletproof bracelets, is supposed to be. Here was Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post claiming that the whole point of Wonder Woman is that she’s a role model for prepubescent girls, a kind of “Fearless Girl” avant la statue: “[T]he movie … argues that it’s … little girls all over the world who stand to gain if they can grow up free of the distorting influence of misogyny,” Rosenberg wrote, with a schoolmarm’s didacticism. Not long afterwards, some enterprising feminist duly stuck a Wonder Woman headband onto the arms-akimbo “Fearless Girl” facing down the Wall Street bull.
There were only a few dissenters. One was Slate columnist Christina Cauterucci, who wondered why, if Wonder Woman is supposed to be so feminist, she fights all her battles wearing a “figure-skater dress … sculpted with tiny bumps for her apparently ever-erect nipples.”
Cauterucci turned out to be right. The movie’s opening scenes, set on the mythical all-women island of Themyscira where Diana grows up among the warrior Amazons, made me … laugh. They were a hoot: great-looking supermodel-style women in flattering Greek mini-tunics, knee-high gladiator sandals, fabulous hair, and tons of makeup riding around on horses and banging each other with weapons. What was this—a toga party at the Playboy Mansion? And then, mmm, who should wash up onshore but a man! And it’s blue-eyed, hunky-hunk Chris Pine at that, playing Steve Trevor, downed World War I biplane pilot and behind-German-lines British spy. As you might expect, Wonder Woman falls for him like a ton of bricks—what heterosexual woman wouldn’t? Then, once she has slipped off the island along with Trevor, there's hardly another woman in the movie. She gets to have every woman's actual secret dream job, which is to be the lone female on a team of guys—in this case a samurai-like cadre of unlikely heroes assembled by Trevor to thwart the deployment of an ultra-lethal poison gas by a rogue German commander.
Thanks to her superpowers, Wonder Woman kicks a lot of male butt—it’s a war, after all—but it’s clear from the beginning that she’s a goddess, not a girls-can-do-anything-boys-can-do “role model” (no spoilers here—the film drops hints early on that Diana is of divine parentage). She thus constitutes no threat to the men on her little team. Furthermore, she never does the irritating “feisty” or “sassy” or “uppity” shtick that endeared the all-female Ghostbusters reboot of 2016 to feminist film critics but to no one else. She’s neither Thelma nor Louise. Indeed, and perhaps because Gadot, a former Miss Israel, is so startlingly lovely and gracile, she’s extremely feminine, cooing over babies, shedding tears over starving children and wounded young soldiers. One of Wonder Woman’s ironies is that its actual STEM-major female “role model,” Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), is a homely villainess who knows perfectly well that no man will ever pay attention to her for her looks.
The story of Wonder Woman, far from being a feminist fable, is actually the archetypal tragedy of the goddess who falls in love with a mortal man who must die while she lives on immortally. It’s a version of Eos and Tithonus in classical mythology—and of Arwen and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. There is also, dare I say, a Christian theme. “They do not deserve you,” Diana’s Amazon mother warns her daughter before she goes off with Trevor to save mankind from more ghastly slaughter than even the historical World War I entailed. The film’s arch-villain, the war-god Ares, dueling with words with Diana in a fashion that can remind readers of the Gospels of Jesus’s verbal duels with Satan in the desert, reminds her that while he is the powerful tempter, it is human beings themselves, with their weakness, greed, vanity, and murderousness, who have brought on their own self-destruction. Like Christ, Diana makes the choice for humankind anyway. She sees that men and women, despite their capacity for monstrousness, are also capable of selfless love. Her own human lover, Trevor, sets the example: He sacrifices his life to bring at least a temporary end to the destruction.
It was an ending that brought tears to my own eyes as I watched Diana, both blessed and cursed with immortality, realize that she will mourn Trevor literally forever as she takes on the noble but never-ending task of rescuing mortals from their own appalling pickles. The theme of Wonder Woman is “she persisted,” but, thankfully, not in the sense that feminists give those words these days.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.