As this trailer for a Wonder Woman movie, made by Jesse V. Johnson, a stuntman who is trying to transition to directing, has circulated over the past couple of days, much of the focus has been on how awesome it is to see Diana laying some serious smackdown on Nazis:
My reaction to it was somewhat different. What struck me as the most interesting part of the trailer was the way said Nazis treated their captive, and the things they assumed about her because she was a woman. There was the implication of sexual torture, the idea that one of her captors and Diana would have “fun.” There was the treatment of her ambitions to protect innocent people as if they were delusional or pathetic. And then there was the assumption that she was physically vulnerable, which is part of what makes watching her turn the tables so entertaining.
But it also suggested a direction that a Wonder Woman could take that might both allow her character to fit into the established superhero arc while also allowing her to be distinct. In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s narcissism and self-regard are his greatest weakness: he keeps having to acknowledge that he both needs and is attached to other people in order to defeat his enemies. In The Avengers, he has to face up to the possibility that destroying himself might be the best thing to do for everybody else. The Hulk has to learn that anger can’t be permanently contained, it can only be managed and channeled. So why not make Wonder Woman’s big struggle against the expectations that come along with being a female superhero? Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s opponents kept coming at her even as her Big Bad count piled up, you could get some comedy and irritation out of the constant underestimation of Wonder Woman, especially in comparison to other members of the Justice League. Leavening villains’ threats with a tinge of sexual nastiness could be a creative way of commenting on the double standards for superheroes and superheroines—James Bond may be sexually threatened, but not so much Batman or Superman, and nipples on the Batsuit or a bulge on the Man of Steel’s suit aside, neither of DC’s other franchise players would ever end up in hotpants and a strapless top.
In other words, why not make the point that superwomen, just like high-achieving women in the real world, have to work through obstacles that their male counterparts couldn’t imagine. And just because Diana can do everything Batman can do backwards and in heeled boots doesn’t mean that it’s fun that she has to. This would be a lot less depressing than David E. Kelley’s attempt to recast Wonder Woman as a stressed-out single gal in the city, which thankfully never made it onto the air. And it doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the Nazi-punching, but it’s always nice when badassery actually conveys something other than the fact that the Amazons apparently offer rigorous machine-gun marksmanship training.