Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. First of a series.

It’s been an interesting last little while in the SFF genre, notably for those of us keeping a watching brief on gender issues alongside our uncomplicated enjoyment of superheroes and the fantastic. But rather than demand your time and attention for an extended read on them all at once, here’s the first in a series of related (and hopefully not too spoilery) posts.

Wonder Woman was good fun. I most definitely appreciated seeing strong, athletic women taking charge of their own destiny on Themiscyra, and wearing costumes that drew far more on classical Mediterranean leather armour than on lingerie. Putting Diana into Great War London and seeing the clash of cultures that followed worked well, both in terms of the film, and incidentally to highlight today’s obdurate misogyny. Lucy Davis as Etta Candy gives a performance that’s central to exploring those particular themes all the more effectively through humour. I thought Chris Pine gives a good account of himself, and personally I didn’t feel his presence turned the film into All About Steve. Mind you, there really should be a law against anyone called Steve flying off alone a plane in a superhero movie now. There’s no telling what will follow…

Is this an particularly feminist movie? Not to my mind. Let’s not forget, Diana’s plot ultimately revolves around a response to male aggression. So far, so predictably defining a woman’s role as reactive to a man’s. On the other hand, there are some thoughtful asides on the causes of war and no over-soft-pedalling the dire practical and psychological consequences for men and women alike. Having a female villain in Doctor Poison was a good choice, though let’s not forget she is subservient to a man. But then again, this is set in 1918 … so … would a female villain with more overt agency have been anachronistic? There are arguments on both sides. Not least because a more overtly feminist movie would have offered endless ammunition to those primed to attack it as ‘message fiction’ long before they’d seen the opening credits.

All told, I felt Sameer and Napi were badly underused which meant their contribution ended up as primarily ‘see how prejudice extends to race as well as gender?’ rather than having that assuredly valid point made incidentally to more rounded roles for those particular characters. That said, making such roles meatier would mean extending a film with a run time that’s already well over two hours. Oh, here’s a thought? Maybe dial back the extended CGI-spectacular scenes just a bit here and there? Use those saved minutes for more interesting character exploration?

The film did drive a galloping coach and horses through established Greek myth, as I observed as we left the cinema. ‘I thought Greek myths had all sorts of variations?’ remarked one son. ‘That’s your biggest problem with a story set in a universe where a man dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime?’ queried the other. Well, yes, fair comment, both. The unexpected appearance of Spud from Trainspotting did also distract me. Just like my flashback to Renton’s toilet-dive when I watched Obi Wan Kenobi et al visit the underwater city in The Phantom Menace. But that’s probably just me…

So overall I thought it was a good, fun film rather than a great, deeply-meaningful one. I mean, compared to … oh, wait, there are no other female-led superhero movies to compare it to, are there? So let’s not get hypercritical here. As a foundation to build on, and as a film that proves that a female superhero can light up the box office with a good, fun, adventure story that everyone can enjoy, it’s exactly what we need at the moment.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

4 thoughts on “Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. First of a series.

  1. Exactly this. It wasn’t perfect, everyone had bits they would have changed and certainly there were parts I wanted to see so much more of. But as a starting point and as a needed successful female led superhero film it hit all the right spots including financial success. And it was fun.

  2. I agree with nearly all of this, though to add a bit of history, Wonder Woman was created to be a ‘feminist’ icon (the inverted commas being because this is by no means feminist in the modern sense.

    With a character who has been around as long as Wonder Woman (and given at least four universe changing reboots in the comics) choices have to be made as to which features to use. (My own favourite Wonder Woman arc uses Greek myth pretty accurately (and contains, incidentally, a wonderful retelling, to two children, of a bowdlerised version of the story of Perseus and Medusa, with interruptions from a Minotaur on Diana’s embassy staff – but I digress.) The Great War setting was changed from WW2 to distance it from ‘Captain America: the First Avenger’ but was not entirely effective.

    The other thing is that there have been a number of female superhero led films (Electra, Tank Girl, Catwoman, Barb Wire, to name four) but the problem is that all of them have tanked (forgive the pun), not because the leads were women, but because they were, quite simply, bad. Wonder Woman is, as far as I am aware, the first female led superhero film that was, you know, good. Not utterly brilliant and Oscar material but good.

    Marvel will bring out ‘Captain Marvel’ in a couple of years, after a long fight between the production staff at Marvel Studios (pro) and the CEO of Marvel Entertainment (anti.) Oddly enough, it is the move to the control from Marvel Entertainment to the films division of Disney, home of the Princesses, that has allowed them to finally spotlight a female superhero. They could have gone with the male version of Captain Marvel, which would have tied in with elements of Guardians of the Galaxy, but they went with Carol Danvers who currently wears the mantle. They could have been even bolder and gone with the African-American female version, but they went for the popular version. On the other hand, they are bigging up many of the female characters in Black Panther…

    1. thanks for this, and yes, I am very interested to see what happens with Captain Marvel, and with the Black Panther movie. We live in interesting times! 🙂

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