There have been many great things about Wonder Woman over the years, from her daring rescues of Air Force officer Steve Trevor to her spinning costume changes in the 1970s TV show. But one of the best things about her is that her superpower is rooted in sisterhood. In the 1940s comics created by writer William Marston and artist Harry Peter, Wonder Woman is raised on Paradise Island—a mystical land where sister Amazons live, love, and train without men. The Amazons in the original comics are untouched by man’s wars, and encourage each other to achieve feats of strength and skill. As comics creator and scholar Trina Robbins said of reading the Marston/Peter stories, ” An island full of women in pretty little dresses and they were all beautiful. It was just a wonderful thing to me…. as a kid I just thought, how wonderful. How wonderful, a woman’s world.”
Today, the vision of an empowered female community remains radical—so radical, in fact, that the new Wonder Woman film largely abandons it.
The new film begins on Paradise Island, and there are great scenes of the Amazons fighting together with amazing CGI leaps and spectacular archery. But even early on, the idea of sisterhood on the island is subtly undermined. The Amazons in the film owe their blessed island and their creation not to Aphrodite and Athena, as in the original comics, but to Zeus. And the relationship between Diana (Gal Godot) and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is defined almost entirely through conflict. Hippolyta first tries to keep Wonder Woman from learning to be a warrior, and then wants to prevent her from pursuing the evil Ares in a man’s world. The film doesn’t portray the bonds between women as a source of power and adventure; rather, it defaults to a more traditional Freudian narrative structure, in which the rebellious hero must separate from the mother and home in order to come into her own.
Wonder Woman, in this reading, is exceptional because she leaves Paradise Island and its female community, rather than because she came from there. That interpretation is generally validated by the remainder of the film, in which Diana spends virtually all of her time with men. Her main contact in man’s world, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) gathers together a motley group of specialists to join a mission to stop World War I and defeat Ares. Wonder Woman does save some women who are being oppressed by the Germans, but once she leaves Paradise Island, she fights alongside men exclusively.
Wonder Woman’s singular status is underscored by two other minor female characters: Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya.) The Etta of the original Marston/Peter comics is the head of a sorority who teams up with Wonder Woman on numerous adventures, along with her sorority sisters. This version of the character is fearless and effective, flirting with Wonder Woman shamelessly. But in the film, Etta is downgraded to Steve’s secretary. She helps Diana shop for clothes and then gets to clunk one bad guy with a sword. Alas, she’s then relegated to answering phones while Wonder Woman and the boys head for the front.
Dr. Maru, or Dr. Poison, is an evil scientist loosely based on a couple of characters from the original Wonder Woman run. The most obvious is a scientist named Dr. Poison—but Maru also echoes Paula von Gunther, a Nazi genius who battled Wonder Woman in early comics.
Paula was a dangerous antagonist—but only for a while. Wonder Woman eventually brought Paula to Paradise Island for spiritual renewal and reeducation, and the scientist became one of Diana’s most important allies. In the film, Wonder Woman compassionately refuses to kill Maru, but she doesn’t convert her or fight with her. On the contrary, it is Steve who shares a meaningful moment in which he almost seems to bring her over to his side. She changes her mind about forming an alliance with him when she notices he is attracted to Diana. Wonder Woman, in this case, inspires jealousy rather than love and solidarity.
This isn’t to say that the film rejects relationships between women. Obviously, one of the main goals of the movie is to encourage women to identify with and cheer for Wonder Woman. Simply having a movie about Wonder Woman—by a woman director, no less—is an occasion for women’s community, as the all-women screenings of the film amply demonstrate. Nonetheless, it’s telling that the movie is only able to imagine community among women happening in a distant, fantastic location. As Diana learns the truth about herself, war, Ares, and violence, she leaves female community behind. The movie presents the image of men fighting together for a common cause as realistic; women fighting together, on the other hand, is a kind of dream.
The end of the movie shows Diana emailing with Bruce Wayne in preparation for the Justice League film, in which she will once more be the only woman in on a male-dominated team. It’s great that Wonder Woman has been such a success, and that it may pave the way for other movies about women superheroes. A whole team of wonderful women, though, may take a little longer.