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What Wonder Woman Saw

The feminization of the war movie

Wonder Woman is a genuine breakthrough. Effortlessly outclassing horrid dreck like Catwoman, Elektra, and Suicide Squad, the Patty Jenkins film deftly melds heroism and womanhood in a way that reams of otherwise successful comic book adaptations—the X-Men series, Kick-Ass, Wanted—have never managed, or, in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, never really tried. In terms of translating the iconic character to the big screen without compromising her feminist origins or comic-book cool, the film is a win. Less victorious are its ideas about women and warfare, which perpetuate a recent trope of inserting women into war but not immersing them in its intricacies.  

Set at the dusk of World War I, the film follows Amazon princess Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) as she pursues Ares, the god of war, who she believes is responsible for the Great War’s staggering atrocities. Escorted to the front by a motley crew of spies and profiteers, Wonder Woman, who comes from the mystical island of Themyscira, is nauseated by the brutalities of warfare and patriarchy. The movie is propelled by this nausea, using Wonder Woman’s disgust to magnify the horrors of the twentieth century, from hoop skirts, to trench warfare, to London’s sulphurous skyline. Scowling, grinning, and charging, she mocks and confronts the world and its war at every turn, a fish out of water, but never out of breath. Jenkins frames her as a singularity, dwelling on her shimmering armor and radiant skin, which flare against the drab miasma that drifts through every scene. If the dark cloud hanging over Europe is embodied by Dr. Poison, one of the main villains, Wonder Woman is the antidote.

It’s utterly inane for a senior FBI agent to be written as if she’s unfamiliar with the Patriot Act.

Wonder Woman joins the ranks of movies like Sicario, Unthinkable, Zero Dark Thirty, and Camp X-Ray, films that depict women as directly involved in the business of war. These soldiers, analysts, agents, and interrogators are more Clarice Starling than G.I. Jane, experts in action rather than the collateral damage, love interests, and warzone props of past war movies. Competent and uncompromising, they are more concerned with doing their jobs than being ambassadors for their sex.

Strangely though, their expertise is flattened to make room for generic statements about war. In Sicario, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent and the film’s only woman of note, is recruited into an interagency task force run by the CIA. Her missions take her across the border into Mexico, a jurisdictional shake-up that betrays her border-respecting sense of justice. She was invited to the task force precisely because her job investigating drug-related kidnappings had shown her how ineffective borders are for managing crime, but the movie emphasizes her inability to accept that reality, the camera lingering on Blunt’s bewildered eyes and pale skin. It’s as if the movie’s entire mission is to disqualify her from the action.

It’s striking how these movies so consistently feature such knowledgeable women and then render their knowledge moot. In Unthinkable, FBI agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) attempts to secure a nuke from a detained terrorist. The film follows Brody’s reluctant greenlighting of torture as the timer ticks away, using her to highlight the savagery that counterterrorism can justify. Her dialog with her colleagues is a series of flustered declarations and rhetorical questions. “This is not what we talked about.” “This is illegal.” “How could you?” she says, as if she’s a peeved driving instructor. Moss brings gravitas to the role, but it’s utterly inane for a senior FBI agent to be written as if she’s unfamiliar with the Patriot Act.

Men in war films experience war. Women in these films watch war, present but absent.

Camp X-Ray is driven by the tension between Private Amy Cole’s (Kristen Stewart) sense of duty and the reality of her position as guard at Guantanamo Bay. Daily, Cole monitors tetchy prisoners, feeding them, accosting them, and watching them idle in their cells. Unable to grow close to her fellow soldiers, she finds herself becoming attached to one of the inmates and learns firsthand that the U.S. government’s pursuit of terrorist suspects lacks the simplicity she expected. Cole’s empathy is contrasted by the indifference of her peers, and the film paints it as a skill that gives her unique access to Gitmo’s moral bankruptcy. It’s a basic point, but the film fully commits, using Stewart’s elastic face as a constant counterpoint to the stiffened jaws around her. The film depicts forced feedings, attacks on guards, and suicide attempts, but these horrors are experienced indirectly, refracted through Cole’s sunken brow and drained cheeks. Like Wonder Woman, she is the antidote to war, but Cole is a witness, not a warrior.

Zero Dark Thirty tells the long story of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, trailing the CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she spends the decade after 9/11 chasing leads across the Middle East. Maya is introduced as a greenhorn that squirms in the face of detainee abuse and torture, but as the movie proceeds she becomes singularly focused on finding Bin Laden, foregoing friendships, professional courtesies, and fear as she pursues her mark. The direction paints this transformation as tragic, isolating her in lunchrooms and bars and grinding her dialog down to profanities, redirections, and sneers. Her job strips her down into a being of pure ambition. The film is based on a true story, of course, but the focus on Maya doesn’t just ground the sprawling narrative. Framing the pursuit through her transformation gives the film a palpable intensity that turns the global hunt into a tale of personal reckoning. As the world turns and Maya’s colleagues change jobs, get killed on duty, and pursue other leads, her fixation with Bin Laden becomes her defining trait, giving her work-related skirmishes with her male superiors and colleagues a feminist edge. The film feeds on this conflation of woman and duty, using Maya’s confidence to mock her male peers. “I know certainty freaks you guys out,” she sneers in a meeting where she’s the only woman. Maya is based on real people, but in Zero Dark Thirty she becomes a symbol. 

I do wonder how Wonder Woman could have rendered war and womanhood if it had conceived of her experiences on the Western Front as more than a power fantasy.

In Sicario, Unthinkable, Zero Dark Thirty, and Camp X-Ray, womanhood is a naivete that must be purged or preserved to either endure or end war. These films posit that women play various roles in modern warfare, but have no insights about how those roles alter or complicate womanhood, or how women’s participation in conflict potentially alters war. In Wonder Woman, womanhood is power and heritage, but its function in war is just as circumscribed. Despite gaining real battlefield experience that teaches her about self-sacrifice and mercy and teamwork, Wonder Woman ultimately duels the god of war because she’s revealed to be Themyscira’s famed “god killer,” all her battles and losses trumped by fate.

Collectively these movies hint at enduring anxieties regarding women and warfare. Despite the U.S. military recently becoming more inclusive and formally eliminating restrictions on women’s roles, and this change now being reflected on film, the old status quo remains intact. Men in war films are courageous and dutiful and conflicted; they experience war. Women in these films watch war, present but absent. Hence the recurring emphasis on what they see rather than what they know or feel. These movies know that women go to war, or endure life in warzones, and that each woman brings a unique skillset and worldview, but they still inevitably assign them the same post, using women’s contrived distance from the action to offer easy outs, like love, or an end to war altogether. Science fiction films (Edge of Tomorrow, Aliens, and The Hunger Games series) tend to bypass this double standard by leaping into the future and depicting women’s participation in war as mundane, and spy films (Nikita, Haywire, and Salt) tend to overcome it by using global conflicts as mere staging. Films about conventional warfare seem committed to it.

It’s a shame not only because of the characters we never see in full bloom, but because of the dimensions of war that remain untouched. I read Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust last year and I was stirred by how many women’s voices entered and exited as Borri darted through Aleppo’s shellacked homes. Each of these women had different stories to tell, of gains, of losses, of needs, of wants. They weren’t just there, they were participants: mothers and caretakers and fighters and snipers and activists. I wouldn’t expect Wonder Woman to represent all these women, but I do wonder how the movie could have rendered war and womanhood if it had conceived of her experiences on the Western Front as more than a power fantasy. Her body count is staggering, and watching her rack it up is fun, but she’s ultimately little more than an avatar. Essentially, Wonder Woman takes the heroine to one of history’s ugliest battlefields and photographs her. And that’s all we’re really left with: she was there.