‘Wonder Woman’ is More Like a Disney Princess Story Than a Superhero Movie – And That’s a Good Thing
Posted on Tuesday, June 6th, 2017 by Hoai-Tran Bui
(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Patty Jenkins’
It’s astounding that in this day and age, when superheroes are either disillusioned or self-deprecating, that we can have a hero like Wonder Woman. In the bleak DC Cinematic Universe, where nihilism reigns supreme, here we have a hero who champions the ideas of hope, compassion, and goodness.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is not dissimilar from the Disney princesses, who have long been heroes of overwhelming empathy. They are aspirational figures who exist in an elevated reality — fairy tales themselves are metaphorical by nature, and rarely depict anything other than a black and white reality. This is Diana at the beginning of the film, the embodiment of the ultimate Disney princess, for all the gifts and faults that they have — though thankfully without the frequently troublesome depiction of an “evil” mother or stepmother figure commonly seen in fairy tales.
Diana has the inquisitiveness of Ariel, longing to escape the narrow confines of her world. She is as fiercely honorable as Mulan and Moana, believing it her duty to put the world’s conflicts over her own well-being. She has wisdom of Pocahontas, whose knowledge and principles in certain areas far outstrip her ordinary counterpart, Steve Trevor. And, of course, she has the magical hair of Rapunzel in
(not literally, but you get what I’m saying). Her story is almost an exact parallel to
, however, seems posed to strip all those ideas away. It may seem odd to say she lives in a fairy tale world — Themyscira with its battle-ready Amazon warriors looks at first to be the polar opposite of that — but she does indeed hail from a paradise where there is no moral gray area. Diana of Themyscira is a hero who only operates in absolutes, in which there are only people who are inherently good or evil. But
takes place during World War I, which was a war that operated in shades of grey, in which there was no absolute villain. Through Diana’s experiences at the war-torn Belgian front of World War I,
questions and deconstructs the high, aspirational ideals that both Diana, and the Disney princesses she reflects, champion.
tests Diana’s faith in humanity and idealism until she is shaken, unable to reconcile her absolutist principles with the morally gray world that she inhabits. But instead of teaching Diana to conform with reality,
To bring another Disney movie into it: It’s
comics’ history, the secluded Amazonian island of Themyscira was unnamed, known only as Paradise Island. Themyscira was only named in 1987, after the mythological Greek city from which the warrior women tribe of the Amazons hails. In the
comics, the island is an allegory for the security of the home, where women could create their own world apart from the male-dominated workplace. Here, Themyscira acts as the starting point of a fairy tale: Diana’s own gilded, sheltered tower.
The only child on the island, Diana is beloved by all, especially her near-stifling mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). But true to form for any modern Disney princess, Diana is a rabble-rouser, dissatisfied with her station in life and wanting more than anything to become a warrior like her powerful aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Don’t believe in the parallels? Just look at the beginning of
Each of the heroes in these movies want for something more — there’s a reason that Disney has perfected the “I Want” song, in which the heroine expresses the object of her longing: adventure, meaning, freedom.
For Diana, it’s all of these things. There’s even a moment in
that is the perfect moment for Diana’s “I Want” song, when a grown Diana, confused by the sudden flare of power from her bracelets, runs from the wary stares of her fellow Amazonians to a cliff overlooking the sea, gazing out and wondering at her place in this world. It’s a quiet moment, but it speaks volumes — it would have spoken more volumes, of course, if it had been done in song, but who am I to judge?
The Disney parallels are certainly the most obvious in Themyscira. A young Diana is regaled with stories of old battles with the God of War, Ares, in a plot-relevant bedtime story (
); an adult Diana sees Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crash into the ocean and rescues him (
); and a stubborn, noble Diana steals her mother’s sword and armor to wade into war (
What separates Diana from her Disney compatriots is that she is not as isolated as them. Disney heroines always found themselves separated from family and forced to rely on their internal strengths — an extension of fairy tales roots as cautionary tales for women if they separate from their communities. Diana, however, does not have to wage war in stolen armor. As she and Steve prepare to set sail for London, Hippolyta and her guard gallop onto the beach. Sorrowful, Hippolyta sends Diana off with a blessing and a warning: “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
’s answer and fix to the superhero love interest problem. But is it a revelatory performance by Pine with innovative writing that recalls Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve
? Or is he based on a template of believable male love interests in Disney movies who act as incredible support systems for the heroines? Don’t look to the unnamed Prince Charming in early Disney movies, but at Prince Eric, John Smith, and Flynn Rider. Flynn from
especially was created as an equal to Rapunzel, and you can see shades of him in Steve Trevor: as the world-weary companion who acts as the heroine’s unwitting guide outside of her sheltered world.
, not just in his valiant actions or debonair Allied spy gig, but in his story. More so than even the epitome of superhero love interests, Lois Lane, he is an equal to Diana narratively — which is quite a feat in an origin movie that already has to set up and do so much. I’m going to bring up again Flynn Rider, who we’re introduced to as the protagonist in
until the perspective shifts to Rapunzel. As much as this shift away from the Disney princess of the movie reeks of gender-based marketing (Disney at the time was trying to appeal more to boys), it worked. And because it worked,
— in my opinion — provided the basis for the electric, charming scenes we were blessed with between Diana and Steve. Other than the wonderfully frank banter about marriage and sex on the sailboat, the fashion show in which Steve is agape at Diana’s beauty is a standout.
Their equal standing allows for the movie to organically create funny moments out of Diana’s fish-out-of-water reactions to London and Steve’s exasperation at her behavior without putting either of them down for the sake of the joke. We laugh when Diana casually strolls into a men-only meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet led by Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), and Steve tries to push her out, but it’s character-driven comedy: Diana is both ahead and behind the times with her presumption that women have equal footing, and Steve is just trying to get her to blend in.
Steve, like Diana, is flawed. As a foil to her uncompromising nature, he is all compromise, worn down by the horrors he has seen in the long war. Though Diana was unperturbed by his actions at the war cabinet, she is horrified when he gives into his superiors’ commands that he do nothing about the information of the new mustard gas masterminded by General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) — two hammy Disney villains hiding in a DC superhero movie, even accompanied with their own melodramatic entrance scores. Steve’s superiors warn him against disturbing the negotiations of an armistice with Germany, and he concedes.
Before Diana can get the chance to berate him longer, Steve reveals that he plans to stop the mustard gas’ release anyways — the first sign of Diana’s persistent influence on him. In turn, she eases up on her black-and-white view of the world thanks to Steve — uneasily accepting Steve’s less-than-honorable recruits for the mission: the spy Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), the sharpshooter Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and the smuggler Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). To their surprise, they are aided by Sir Patrick and Steve’s assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Punch), and they set off for the Western Front in Belgium.
“A liar, a thief, and a smuggler,” Diana nearly sneers at her new companions, to which Steve points out that he is all of those things. Though Diana is uncompromising yet, this becomes a turning point for both Diana and Steve as they find themselves changed and bettered by each other.
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