No movie is perfect; that’s just a given.
Even those that come will have aspects of it that demand closer scrutiny. Not even great movies are beyond critique. Meanwhile, critiquing a movie doesn’t have to mean you didn’t still enjoy it.
A core tenet of media analysis states that it’s both possible and necessary to enjoy media while simultaneously calling attention to its faults. In that vein, since I previously posted the three things I loved most about Wonder Woman, I’m now sharing (in two parts) the three things I disliked the most.
1) Diana’s first interaction with the Chief
In the movie, Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve Trevor to go on a mission at the WWI battlefront. In order to help them, Steve enlists three comrades-in-arms who each possess special skills. One of these is a Native American man known as the Chief.
Unlike Steve’s other two associates, who are clearly soldiers on the side against the Germans, the Chief is something of a middleman – a procurer of useful items that are difficult to come by in wartime, which he sells to both sides. It is in this way that the Chief makes his living.
The first night the group is together, camping out in the woods with everyone asleep save Diana and the Chief, Diana learns of the Chief’s enterprise and his neutrality in the war and roundly criticizes him for it. “You should choose a side,” she declares, her tone rich with judgement and affront.
This part alone was cringy, watching a white character berate a Native American for doing what’s needed to maintain himself.
Even though Wonder Woman is supposed to be a fantasy movie, it’s being viewed by a contemporary audience. This audience is already bringing enough contemporary bias against Native peoples (largely promulgated by mainstream media) into the theatre with them.
Besides, fantasy or no, with the movie taking place during the WWI era, it’s still making use of our real-world history, and as such has an obligation to be responsible with it for the sake of those still suffering its modern-day impacts.
But Diana doesn’t know about atrocities suffered by Native people at the hands of white settlers, it can be argued, because she grew up on a fantasy paradise island.
Very well. When the Chief sensibly replies that there is no right side for him to choose in the war because everything he and his people had were stolen by ancestors of the still-sleeping Steve, Diana’s reaction is … a complete non-reaction.
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t wake Steve up and ask what that’s all about. She doesn’t wait until later when he wakes up on his own to ask what that’s all about. Nothing.
The scene ends and the matter is never revisited.
Which makes me ask: what was even the point of it?
I’m definitely not saying it shouldn’t have been included, for it was an important recognition of past and ongoing injustice against Native people.
But rather, as moviegoers, what were we supposed to take away from that? It revealed absolutely nothing new about the issue, nor did it do anything to help address it in the present day.
With Diana being a character so obsessed with righting the wrongs humans inflict upon each other, this part of the movie was a real wasted opportunity to make a statement in support of reparations for Native people.
Instead, it came across as just one more example of what already commonly occurs mainstream media: a passing acknowledgement of the situation and then the dismissal of it.
2) The portrayal of Dr. Poison
For a movie so ostensibly pro-woman and about different types of feminine strength (as I discussed in my previous Wonder Woman post), Wonder Woman seriously dropped the ball in its portrayal of Dr. Poison, the female Spanish chemist bent on creating the perfect poison gas to use against the enemy.
To begin with, why a woman chemist at all? I don’t imagine there were many (if any) female scientists involved in the Germans’ WWI war effort. I could be wrong about this. God knows the contributions of women, both virtuous ones and merciless ones, are regularly erased from history.
But to me, the inclusion of this character (however canonical she may be) had a ring of #NotAllMen, as if a movie with a powerful female protagonist to which a man plays second fiddle needs a female villain as well to ensure we don’t forget that women can be evil too.
Fine. Women can be evil too, for all that Dr. Poison doesn’t even get to be the main villain, instead having the male General Ludendorff as her handler.
She also wasn’t a proper villain because she was such a weak-minded character. A proper villain should be as powerful – if not more powerful – than the hero sent to defeat them. Dr. Poison should have revelled in her scientific intellect (yet another possible form of feminine power) and the righteousness (from her perspective) of her evil plan.
Instead, she was kind of pathetic, shown as over-emotional, kind of delicate, needy, jealous of other women’s beauty, and dependent on Ludendorff (who she seemed to be in love with) to help maintain her emotional stability and self-confidence.
In short, she possessed every stereotypically feminine character trait (aside from her fondness for poison gas) that Diana by comparison lacked. Not only did this make Dr. Poison a poor conceptual match for Diana, it depicted a symbolic battle of femininity vs. masculinity, making it very clear which one mainstream society considers most favourable.
The worst part of Dr. Poison’s portrayal was the way her disfigurement was used against her.
Part of her face is misshapen and covered with a flattering, partial mask that matches her skin tone and facial contours almost perfectly. Part of her insecurity seems to derive from this disfigurement. So too does her mask’s subtly compared to those of other supervillains seem like an attempt to forestall negative comments about her appearance.
Is it any wonder, though, given how Ares, the Greek god of war, rips off her mask and calls her hideous while trying to incite Diana to kill her.
To be clear, Dr. Poison is hideous, but not because she is disfigured. She’s hideous because she creates toxic weapons that cause people to die in horrifying agony. Even as a combatant on the opposite side of a war, she is beyond the pale.
She’s terrible enough in her own right without the need to call attention to her disfigurement as further proof of her unsavouriness.
I’m not even sure why she was disfigured (it was never explained in the movie) save another instance of the all-too-common media stereotype that equates disability with evil, ugliness, and a lack of humanity. This harmful messaging seemed especially blatant when taken in contrast to Diana’s superhuman attractiveness and physical fitness.
What did you like about Wonder Woman? Was there anything you didn’t like about it? Let me know in the comments.