Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of America’s Superheroines review

A new documentary about the real life superheroines fighting for positive role models for girls. Here's our review...

This review contains spoilers for Thelma and Louise, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary jogs through a history of American comics, feminism, and culture, leavening its depressing content with a fundamentally optimistic tone.

While its 79 minute running time doesn’t leave much scope for nuance, Wonder Women certainly provides enough material for the viewer to start pondering the issues it raises. It entertains along the way too, with an impressive array of talking heads ranging from Lynda Carter to Jane Espenson to young fans of the present day. It’s also well made, with simple, effective editing, and the animation of static comic book pages giving it a nice visual aesthetic.

Moving in chronological order, taking in the advent of superhero comics, the Great Depression, the background to Wonder Woman’s creation and World War Two, from the outset Wonder Women ties societal trends and revolutions into the contemporary depictions of Princess Diana, looking at her influence and legacy while addressing the general representation of women in fiction. These fictions tend to be ones that overlap with superhero comics’ general loiterings in the areas of fantasy, science fiction, crime and action genres. Thus we see Ripley and Sarah Connor appear as we enter the 80s, as comic book heroines start to dwindle in impact and influence. It’s notable that we don’t see much of Wonder Woman herself from this time period.

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For those expecting a thorough history of the titular reference character, Wonder Women will be disappointing. While she’s a focal point, it’s as an ideal rather than an in-depth character study. She influences the struggles for gender equality that, in turn, influence her character. That’s not to say there’s no background on her, but anyone looking for detailed scrutiny of the comics should look elsewhere.

Having been given an idol, many women were dismayed when, due to the end of World War Two and the instigation of a conservative comic code, Wonder Woman became a shadow of her former self. This deprived people of an important role model and so influenced her fans to reclaim her as best they could. Thus, in the 60s, Wonder Woman became synonymous with the feminist movement. One of the regular patterns conveyed here is that any influential female character has to ultimately be limited in some respect. There then follows an examination of other important figures, including Lucy Lawless’ eponymous heroine from Xena: Warrior Princess, Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand, or Thelma and Louise, who cannot simply be powerful women and so have to be neutered or killed off. Certainly a worrying trend noted in this is for women who actively rebel from their societal role to die, almost as if there’s no place for them.

One of the areas the film explores is the area of contemporary cinema that female characters tend to dwell in. You’ll not see them as a lead, but as part of an ensemble: as a sex object, romantic interest; a villain or sacrificial aide to a male character. One of Kate Beaton’s ‘Strong Female Characters’, basically, an ass-kicking, disposable set of curves rather than someone whose actions drive the plot (reflected by current Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot’s casting raising more talk of how she looks wrong for the part, rather than any concerns about how she or the character acts).

There’s an excellent illustration of how previously progressive notions such as ‘Strong Female Character’ become staggering clichés where Kathleen Hanna recalls ‘Girl power’ as being a slogan of the Riot Grrl movement (adorning many of their home-made zines) only for it to eventually become marketing rhetoric for The Spice Girls.

While there’s plenty of illustrations of the gender divide, enough to make the interviewees understandably depressed, the tone is overwhelmingly chipper. For every dated or counter-productive aspect of Charlie’s Angels or The Bionic Woman (shows that exist partly because Wonder Woman existed as a TV programme), the outlook is very much on the inspiration these characters provided. Lindsay Wagner observes that, whatever problems are glaringly obvious now; these shows did influence girls in a positive way.

The most impressive aspect of the struggle depicted is the sheer indomitability of the women interviewed. With female role models few and far between, whenever one is found and then compromised or killed off, it’d be enough to sap anyone’s morale, yet they keep on. The Gauls in the Asterix books have nothing on them.

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You see events such as Wonder Woman Day – an event where proceeds go to domestic abuse charities – that have been inspired by the character, and hear geeky girls talk about not minding teasing or bullying because of her, and countless other tales based on merely having a positive female presence in their fiction.

As such, Wonder Women, with enthusiasm and a grin on its face, raises the question of why there aren’t more of these characters around without aggression or forcefulness.

Rent the film via Curzon Cinema.

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4 out of 5