“Wonder Woman” is a fantasy, and not only because it’s a superhero movie. The fictional Amazonian island of Themyscira where our hero grows up is a paradise, beautifully rendered with breathtaking cliffs and roiling waterfalls, but the real pillars of this utopia are the Amazons themselves — a race completely made up of women.
However, while the brass bodices and leather gladiator skirts suggest a high-fashion update on Lucy Lawless’ Xena, what’s missing from this feminist utopia is one lick of Sapphic subtext. In her book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” Jill Lepore turned up the character’s rather queer origin story. Her original creator, William Moulton Marston, was an outspoken feminist, swinger, S&M practitioner, and firm believer in the superiority of women. In the early comics, Wonder Woman often ended up in chains before inevitably breaking free. This not only represented Marston’s affinity for bondage, but women’s subjugation, which he roundly rejected.
In the 76 years since her birth (a fittingly patriotic number), Wonder Woman’s subversiveness has been gradually stripped away, but never forgotten. Just last year, her current cartoonist Greg Rucka confirmed that she was queer. “It makes no logical sense otherwise,” he said of Themyscira. While Jenkins is not LGBT-identified, her debut feature, “Monster,” focused on a pair of outlaw lovers played by Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci. As such, it would not have been out of the realm of possibility for Jenkins to sneak in some lesbian overtones.
But not only is this a superhero movie from a major studio, it’s also one that’s expected to rehabilitate the DC Universe’s reputation. By that logic, a gay Wonder Woman just wasn’t going to happen.
While this year has brought minor victories for LGBTQ characters from major studios (“Beauty and the Beast” and “Power Rangers” both had fleeting moments of overblown significance), a recent GLAAD report found only 18.9% of studio films had any LGBTQ characters, half of whom received less than one minute of screen time. When queer characters do appear, they are often the butt of sophomoric jokes, such as in “Zoolander 2.” Similar to whitewashing, a character’s queerness is often rendered invisible in adaptations (“Suicide Squad’s” bisexual Harley Quinn being one recent example). “Wonder Woman” may find herself in that category of GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index next year.
It has already been a learning curve for critics to process a major superhero movie based around an iconic character who happens to be a woman. Vulture’s David Edelstein faced the brunt of the backlash, his prose-laden mixed review coming across as mouth-breathing affront to the film’s feminist significance. How much harder would it be for the world to embrace a queer character in the same context?
But as the seismic success of “Wonder Woman” indicates, the long-exhausted superhero genre is in dire need of more hot takes. As Hollywood churns out dud after dud, forcing ever-younger Peter Parkers and darker Bruce Waynes down our throats, would it kill them to take a gamble on a gay one? For better or worse, identity politics is trendy with young people, and would surely attract new audiences. Besides, with their sidekicks and muscle tights, the superhero’s queer subtext is as old as the genre itself. It makes narrative sense, too — a gay superhero already has a built-in journey and a cause to champion.
Still, there are a few moments early on in “Wonder Woman” sure to tickle any card-carrying sex-positive feminist. Diana’s ignorance about Edwardian England’s restrictive gender roles illuminates their absurdity. Why must she cover her legs, and why isn’t she allowed in a meeting of government officials? There’s something near-historic in hearing Diana talk to American intelligence agent Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) about her research into human sexuality: “When it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasure, not necessary.”
Jenkins also sneaks in a quietly subversive moment when she allows the camera to ogle Pine’s physique in an aquamarine hot spring. He rises from the glowing three-tiered pool like a lumbering Phoebe Cates and sheepishly covers his boy bits, which he assures Diana are “above average.” While it may be a far cry from a radical re-imagining of sexist standards, it’s a minor inversion with progressive implications in a big popcorn movie.
While much has been made of Gadot’s blinding star power — finally, a 2017 alternative to the mousy, doe-eyed girl next door — the former model is undeniably appealing onscreen. Jenkins avoids shooting Gadot with typical male-gaze angles, such as the slow pan up the body. But it would be nearly impossible to film Gadot in a way that obscured her beauty, and why would you try? Sex appeal is neither a prerequisite for nor a barrier to feminism. Young feminists who march in Slut Walks and advocate legal protections for sex workers understand and celebrate it.
“Wonder Woman” cannot be everything to everyone. Much was riding on the first woman-directed superhero movie, and much was gained by its box-office domination. But the movie ends with Wonder Woman’s future wide open — and that includes the details of her personal life.
So it’s not too late: With one big win in her back pocket, one can only hope Jenkins will flex her newly gained superhero muscle as the franchise continues to grow. How fitting would it be if the woman who gave us a disheveled, gay Charlize Theron delivered on the dream of a kinky, queer “Wonder Woman.” Here’s hoping.