Last night, PBS’ “Independent Lens” documentary series aired Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of American Superheroines, a film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan. I’ve been looking forward to the films since it premiered last year to rave reviews at the SXSW film festival, and after more than a year of waiting to check it out I’m very glad to say that it didn’t disappoint. I was really impressed with it.
The history of Wonder Woman is often told in reductive and somewhat inaccurate ways. Particularly with the original Golden Age Wonder Woman, people tend to see the character through their own modern lens, and her message of superiority is swapped for equality while the more problematic aspects of the character, like her pervasive bondage imagery, are simply brushed aside. Wonder Women! does an excellent job of portraying every side of each incarnation of Wonder Woman, avoiding the idealization that so often simplifies the character. For a brief rundown of a lengthy career, it touches on all of the major facets of Wonder Woman over the decades and presents a very accurate and engaging version of her history.
There are a few bits where Wonder Woman! could have delved a little deeper, but this was essentially Wonder Woman 101. More on Marston’s psychological theories would have been interesting, and they missed an excellent opportunity to dig into the lesbian subtext of the Golden AND Silver Age Wonder Woman (“Suffering Sappho!”), but that level of detail wasn’t the purpose of the documentary. It’s a well rounded introduction to Wonder Woman’s history that serves as a launching pad into a discussion of female heroes generally.
This was an interesting transition, because after the heavy focus on Wonder Woman in the first half of the film, she disappears almost entirely after the TV show is examined. The focus turns to Ripley, riot grrrls, and Buffy as we move toward the modern day. It’s a somewhat jarring change, and the viewer is left to wonder “Hey, where did Wonder Woman go?” but I think that might’ve been the point. After the TV show in the 1970s, Wonder Woman disappeared as anything other than an iconic figure. She had her monthly comic book, a perennial poor seller, but didn’t do much else while other heroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man had multiple film franchises and TV shows. Wonder Woman was a forerunner who paved the way for modern female heroes like Charlie’s Angels and Xena, but Wonder Woman herself has fallen by the wayside. Wonder Women! later addresses this, taking the entertainment industry to task for its lack of strong heroines in movies and TV, particularly its lack of Wonder Woman.
The film is well put together from a technical standpoint, with lots of great visuals, a good score, and a very clear style and tone. While I’m sure it was edited down to fit the one-hour time slot, it moved along smoothly, with one topic naturally leading into the next. There were some great interviews, including big names like Lynda Carter, Gloria Steinem, and Lindsay Wagner. Comic creators Trina Robbins and Gail Simone also appeared, as well as noted Wonder Woman fan Andy Mangels and writers like Mike Madrid. To me, the star of the interviews was Jennifer K. Stuller, the author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, who went through many of the more complex components of Wonder Woman’s history with ease and clarity.
All together, I really enjoyed it. It was a great runthrough of the history of Wonder Woman, and also a very inspiring and impactful story of the importance of female characters and role models generally. I think the most affecting part of the film was when the many accomplished women interviewed for the movie talked about their own heroines, in that it really hammered home how valuable strong women, real and fictional, are for young girls as they grow up. Wonder Women! is a blatantly feminist film without ever having to say it’s a blatantly feminist film. There are no discussions of the patriarchy and the need for equality and the like; that’s all just assumed. It’s a movie about strong women inspiring future generations of strong women, and how that is an incredibly good and important thing. I thought it was great, and I hope that even more people are able to see it soon on DVD and other platforms.
Tags: Andy Mangels, Gail Simone, Gloria Steinem, Independent Lens, Jennifer K. Stuller, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Lynda Carter, Mike Madrid, PBS, Trina Robbins, Wonder Woman, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines