Film Analysis: The Themes of Wonder Woman
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
I know I pretty much never deviate from SU but I really loved the latest Wonder Woman film. I just wanted to do a brief analysis because I feel like there are so many themes to unpack in the film (so there’ll be spoilers) and I was pleasantly surprised by the way things turned out.
I’ll be using images only from the official trailer WB posted on their YouTube channel though, in case you happen to scroll past and don’t want to see anything yet.
This post doesn’t feel like the appropriate avenue to talk about the cast, the sets, music, and colours, so I’ll be focusing on the film itself, particularly on the story. I enjoyed all the other things about the movie but won’t go into them here.
1. Diana of Themyscira
Before any other character in DC and now the DCEU, I read and watched Wonder Woman. One thing I’d like to point out is how the story doesn’t shy away from her god-heritage and how that dictates her interactions with others. In fact, one pertinent lens to view this film is that of self-discovery.
Diana doesn’t know she’s god. Throughout the story she believes that she is as capable as any other Amazon (I really liked the Amazons, but maybe another post). She believes she’s equal in capacity and potential. I think this is an important thing to note. Diana didn’t go into war, looking for Ares, certain she was stronger than any other member of Themyscira. She left her home not because of a conviction that only she could do the task but because she believed it was the right thing to do. In her eyes, her mother and the other Amazons just didn’t see the value in entering human affairs the way she did. That was all.
What I appreciated was that she went on her “hero’s journey” not out of a sense of duty as the only one who could do it, but precisely because anyone could go and help put a stop to the fighting. It then was not a question of who was most worthy, which is a question that excludes, but a question of who believed in this cause.
That agency is important in the story, as many heroes’ journeys often begin with a powerful force that pushes the hero to step up. In this case, she could have remained in her insular life, but she decided to step out of the comfort of the island and into a world she’s repeatedly been told does not deserve her.
In that regard, Diana knows what’s waiting for her will be difficult and fulfilling her objective will be a struggle. That struggle extends beyond the fighting, as even walking down the street is an issue for her.
And these “issues” are laden with our concept of heteronormativity. We’re talking about the early 1900s and perceptions of women at the time were brought up again and again. How she should act, speak, and dress are all moments that were presented with a tension that rubs up against our current understanding of equality. For instance, that a session could no longer be held because a woman entered the room is the kind of dissonance that I feel was intended to come off as laughable, because decades later the idea of perpetuating the same attitude is absurd (and very inefficient). In the same way, I feel it calls to attention present and more subtle forms of bias that the film hopes we grow to see as equally absurd to perpetuate.
Diana is presented as a character of depth. She is exceptionally strong, learned, and yet feels like a believable character because she is also prideful, flawed, funny, and naive. It’s a good proof as to why realistic movies don’t have to be “gritty” per se. Grit isn’t the magical ingredient; it’s grounding. And in her struggles to understand those around her as well as understand herself, the movements of the micro story are embedded and woven into a huge historical narrative, that of the Great War.
And I think that’s where we feel all our individual stories are. We are at once absorbed in the primacy of our own lives while living in the tumult of the world at large. Navigating both the personal and the global is the daily struggle.
Despite all of these struggles, both the physical fighting and the social tension, Diana stays true to her convictions about who she is and what she aims to do. Those beliefs can change, especially in light of new knowledge, which is what does happen in the film as she learns more about Sameer, Charlie, and Chief, but there is a Diana who remains.
“I am Diana, Princess of Themyscira,” she says in the film. Her commitment to an identity of which she isn’t even fully aware is striking, and that message is empowering to any viewer.
Because of this, the “reveal” of her godhood does not seem like an upheaval of her character. It is a part of Diana, but it doesn’t exclusively define her. In fact, as she knows more about herself, of which being a god is only a part, the more she is able to succeed. At the climax of the film, it is when Diana declares she fights for love and peace that she is able to muster up the strength to defeat Ares.
2. Her relationship with Steve
From the onset, Diana is presented as the protagonist of the film. There is no question. Her first interaction with Steve is her saving him from drowning. Then, she walks in on him immediately after he bathes. Then after they leave the island, she makes it clear that she knows about “the pleasures of the flesh” and just doesn’t believe that having two people sleep beside each other is going to lead to anything if they don’t want it to.
In the earlier parts of the film, their interactions were presented with vulnerability on Steve’s part (danger, nakedness, fear), but we begin to see it in all the characters as the movie progresses. Moreover, we see how they deal with their vulnerability. Steve is a cynic, and this underlies the way he acts.
Steve isn’t a one-note character though. He is complex and has stories implied about him. He is able to think quickly and hold his own in all the situations they’ve been placed. And his occupation as a spy does seem to hit very close to the theme of self-discovery taken by Diana’s character. As a spy, Steve holds on to his core identity and plays with the characters he assumes, never losing sight of who he is. As such, we have two characters very different, but also very similar.
On the other hand, Diana isn’t presented as a character with gaps to fill (in the form of Steve). Rather, she’s a complete individual on her own, which is what makes her decision to love Steve more significant. It isn’t a decision of necessity, but similar to her deciding on taking the hero’s journey, it is a matter of choice.
The romance in the film feels organic in progression. I think it should be noted that the threat of death and the war ahead may have provided an adrenaline rush that propelled their romance forward, but even without taking it into consideration, they had a very intimate platonic relationship prior that could have believably developed towards the romantic. And again, for Steve’s character as well, it was a choice.
I enjoyed the contrast of Diana’s frankness and Steve’s truly trying to be inconspicuous and subtle in all his affairs. By the end of the film, both had begun to take up the better traits in the other. It is especially marked in Steve as he’d begun to trust Diana and open up about himself a little more.
3. The “Villain”
A lot of people I know found the “villain” Ares to be lacklustre, and the ending cheesy. I disagree because systemic issues and human nature are my favourite things to explore in media, particularly media created for popular consumption.
Very explicitly it’s said in the film that we can’t all point our fingers to one “bad guy.” There is no one reason for war, inequality, poverty, and all of the injustice that we see in the world. There are many people who, and entire societies that orchestrate, execute, and then perpetuate the injustices that plague people even today. Tyrants don’t rise overnight (and they hadn’t in history either). This isn’t the first film to show this, and I hope it isn’t the last.
I really liked how the film pointed out that systemic and systematic injustice exists. There are specific people who do things that are deplorable, but there are also systems that enable them, and I think that is the takeaway from this theme.
I also applaud the look that was given Ares. Instead of the stereotypical villain, who is bigger, more violent, and appears more physically powerful than the protagonist, we have someone who looks unassuming but is infinitely powerful. We don’t see the usual male villain who is really muscular and that becomes the focal point of his villainy. Instead, we have someone manipulative and powerful in a different way. Instead of the traditional god of war who brawls, we have someone equally powerful but more tempered in that power, and it’s the mark of someone who really has lost everything and everyone and now just wants to start over.
Striking also is how all of the characters talk about the war as “The war to end all wars.” That was the honest sentiment of people during the First World War. Operative term here being “first.” That there were more wars that followed really speaks of how those systems and ideologies lived on after the people who instigated the conflict. And situated in the context of all those who died and lost everything, it seems callous that we would keep fighting one another and causing more destruction. But it is something that’s been done and is now etched forever in history.
The non-violent message features rather heavily in the film’s climax. When Diana fights Ares, the first thing to go is her sword, the one she believed was the god-killer. The sword is a classic symbol of violence, conflict, and war, and it was destroyed almost immediately. It’s interesting because she clung to that weapon throughout the film, and it gave her faith in her own abilities.
In the end, it is not brute force that will stop the existing brute force. Diana herself put a stop to Ares. It was what emanated from her that destroyed the embodiment of violence.
In that regard, it is the individual who has to decide not to give in to the temptation of furthering violence and injustice. After all, Ares’ main role in the film was to tempt. That was exactly what he did to Diana and she resisted.
4. The role of Dr. Poison
Isabel Maru had such a presence in the film, even though she didn’t feature on the screen as often as did the other characters. Back in London, they deemed her the greatest threat. They were setting out specifically to destroy her laboratory.
I find her character very interesting because we get the faintest sign of a backstory from her and it’s still all very coherent. Her file reveals that she didn’t always have an injury on her face, and based on her interactions with Ludendorff and later, Steve, she’s searching for acceptance and affirmation. There is a subtle manipulation that goes into convincing her to continue creating poisons and chemical weapons.
Even among enemy lines, there is a struggle for her not to be infantilised and patronised, or to be viewed only as a woman in the case of her interaction with Steve. Especially in the latter scene, Isabel is fully aware of this and explicitly tells him she knows. She may not have been pulling all the strings, but she was presented from the beginning as a strong secondary character to the main enemy.
Diana was able to defeat Ludendorff relatively easily, but Maru had survived until the end of the film and was in the climax. What Ares tempted Diana to do was destroy Dr. Poison, and Diana let her go.
In depth: Throughout the movie, Diana was never directly pitted against her. The former’s goal was always to remove Ares in the form of Ludendorff. Then suddenly, close to the end, Ares pits the two women against each other (It’s all a very familiar story). Diana chooses not to perpetuate the cycle of killing and violence that characterises the pasts of so many of the other characters.
5. What it leaves us
One emergent theme from the film that we get is a loss of innocence. At first, Diana is idealistic and feels her beliefs are clear-cut. Liars are bad. Ares is responsible for everything. Being strong is enough to save the day.
Gradually, we see her belief in these things erode, eventually replaced by an understanding that the world is more complex than it was made out to be. At the same time, there are moments when world doesn’t want to be saved.
It culminates when Steve sacrifices himself at the climax of the film. At this point, it appears as though there is no use in fighting Ares, and it seems as though Ares was proven correct all along. Human beings are cruel and violent and selfish. It becomes so easy to assume apathy. What does it matter what one person does if there are all these people and systems that perpetuate injustice? It becomes easy to give up and do nothing or give up and join in.
At the same time, though, Steve’s loss presents the other side of the story. Human beings are empathetic and altruistic; they try to see the good in others and are moved to change by others’ suffering. It is true that a lot of the systemic issues we see in the movie, particularly for equality and peace, are still present today, but we’re making progress.
Diana emerges with a realistic working understanding of human beings. They aren’t perfect, and they are capable of great harm, but also great good. As she said, she’s realised it wasn’t up to her to save the world for them, but she’d be there when they did make the decision.
In our current socio-political climate, it is almost the default to affect the same hopelessness and apathy. But that’s why the message of love, justice, and peace was anything but “cheesy.” It’s precisely what we can do in the environment we’re put in. It’s something that is in our control, and like all things the movie presents, it is a choice.
I really love Wonder Woman. Before there was Harley Quinn in my life, there was and will always be Wonder Woman. I loved the way Jenkins told the story and I really hope for more like it in the DCEU. So much could be written specifically about the character as a woman, and all the imagery that comes with it. And the Amazons. Countless posts could be dedicated only to analysing their social structure, values, and dynamics. The film was great and it did justice to a lot of what made Wonder Woman so appealing when I was growing up.