Superhero films are 21st century medieval romances. They are exciting amalgamations of various influences, part-period piece and part-adventure. Their subjects are exceptional, standing out from a society that they nevertheless usually rejoin by the end. They speak to their present-day contexts in how they reimagine the origins of established heroes and how they bring formerly marginal heroes to light. The side characters and margins are often as interesting as the heroes.
We are now over a decade into a revival of superhero films. We’ve reached a point where the films cannot help but echo each other, just as they echo their near-exemplars (action films and dramas of the past several decades; superhero storylines in their comic parents) and their more distant cousins (sci-fi and fantasy adventures, epic, noir and procedural narratives, medieval romance).
When I saw Wonder Woman this weekend, I was captivated by the origin story of Diana of Themyscira. The film is a success story of working parts coming together through strands and associations. I prepare this post (with the Wallace Stevens-influenced number “thirteen”) to gather some of the allusions and echoes that make it succeed.
- Wonder Woman the Amazon
The Amazons long captivated medieval and early modern audiences. To some, like Geoffrey Chaucer, the Amazons offered a space to explore female agency and subjectivity. Emily, an Amazon and love-interest to multiple suitors in The Knight’s Tale, resists marriage. As lecturer Roberta Magnani points out in a recent article, Emily evades their advances and flees to a temple. She prays to her goddess Diana to intercede, but Diana says that she has to marry. Amazons frequently appear only to be taken in marriage – Hippolyta in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream fares similarly, with Theseus establishing in the first scene that their nuptials were won by his sword:
Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling. (1.1)
Oberon and Titania in Act 2 Scene 1 discuss their respective former loves Hippolyta and Thesus. Titania describes Hippolyta as “the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love.” Buskined or booted, the warrior side always stands to be paired with love, so restrained by plots that often depict the Amazon existing after her warrior days and put within a domestic role.
In Wonder Woman, that’s the threat that the American spy Steve Trevor poses. He – and the German soldiers chasing him – are conquerors who threaten to take these women away by swordpoint, by gunpoint, and by the potential for romantic love. The filmmakers had to write Steve into and out of the narrative without taming Wonder Woman in the process.
2. Wonder Woman the female knight
In Wonder Woman, there are hints and glimpses of Bradamant and Britomart, female heroes from the 16th century epic romances Orlando Furioso (Lodovico Ariosto) and The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spenser). All three characters leave a home intended to keep them safe, proceed on epic journeys that intercede in already-existing conflicts, and fall in love with a dashing knight-type along the way.
Arms set Wonder Woman apart from the women around her. After Steve and his secretary Etta realize that Diana cannot walk in public wearing body armor and a leather skirt, they take her to a department store and she tries on dresses that restrain her ability to fight. She finally settles on a trenchcoat and hat combination that closely resembles Steve’s own dress (functional, nondescript, not conventionally feminine). Then, as they walk out, she carries her sword and shield in hand. Even in the armor of fashion, her fight-ready habits are hard to break.
Her temporary containment is relieved by her ability to fight in battle. From the front-line trenches, she emerges and reveals the armor that had been hidden, using her bracers and then her shield to block oncoming shots. She proves herself through the arms and armor she prefers to wear, not the various fashions others would prefer for her.
3. Training areas
An influence of contrasts, perhaps. I didn’t recognize Robin Wright at first as the Amazon general Antiope. Her stern, no-nonsense approach to martial training and to preparing the young Diana to fight. Amazons leap, shoot arrows, block, ride horses, and otherwise perform feats of peak athleticism. They take blows with stoic determination.
This fit a mini-genre of training and exercise that has appeared in films since at least Spartacus (1960), with its whirling appartus for training reflexes and its focus on individual combat.
The brave hero often witnesses this as an outsider or beginner. The methods are shown in order to show what the hero will eventually become and exceed. Conan’s wheel of pain, Mulan’s tall pole, Captain America’s boot camp scenes all show development and the potential for growth. Even the recent film King Arthur (2017) featured an arena training area next to young Arthur’s abode in the brothel.
4. Captain America
One of the reasons Wonder Woman may have been moved to World War I rather than World War II may have been to avoid direct comparisons with Marvel’s patriotic counterpart’s film, Captain America (2010). Despite the setting change, the similarities are many: a rogue scientist who defies the wishes of the German military, an ensemble crack team put together to fight that scientist, and a hero who sacrifices himself to destroy a plane loaded with a deadly weapon.
Some of these parallels are between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor, not between the Cap and Wonder Woman. I’ll have to think about why that’s the case. One answer is that the two Steves are consummate soldiers. They want to fight. They recognize the gruesome brutality of war, but come out with an ethos that exceeds either blindly following a bad leader or not doing anything at all. Neither of them are born heroes or having particular powers.
Wonder Woman is born a demigod who sees nothing wrong with leaping off ledges. She is noble and compelling, but not down-to-earth.
5. Otherworldly Heroes
Wonder Woman is in a long line of heroes who know little or nothing about the world they’re entering. They’re outsiders, aliens whose incredulity speaks volumes to the depravity and absurdity of present circumstances.
Her naivete mollifies the rebuke she offers present social structures. On the one hand, Wonder Woman seems naive about human relationships, including why Steve might be reluctant to sleep next too her. On the other hand, she’s read a twelve-book study which concludes that men are necessary for reproduction but unnecessary for sexual pleasure, a point with which sexologists today may agree but which many men would find uncomfortable to acknowledge.
There are glimpses of the 1980s rom-com Splash or its 1990s cousin Kate and Leopold. Perhaps closer to Wonder Woman’s type are stories about powerful outsider beings who prove to hold their own, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who frequently saves the day while also providing opportunities to expound on common human relationships. (See also Eleven from Stranger Things.) Thor also fits this pattern somewhat.
6. Scenes featuring soldiers et. al. at train stations
People are milling about at a train station in wartime. Who’s there? Traveling soldiers? Nuns? Bureaucrats? Children? These scenes are standard in war films: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) begins with one version of this, featuring kids gathered during the evacuation of places likely to be bombed in World War II:
The Great Escape (1963) features a similar station on the German side in World War II, this time with the escapees of a German prison trying hard to fit in. It is possible to go darker, focusing on Jews and other prisoners of the Nazis being sent to concentration camps. It is also possible to go lighter or more comedic, like trying to find a platform 9 3/4s.
Wonder Woman made at least one notable choice in their depiction of the train platform. The film showed Sikh soldiers, conspicuous in their turbans and facial hair. They are extensions of the British Empire, at once insider and outsider, at once serving their country and put in a second-class station within it.
7. The sniper in the tower
A sniper in a tower is a common war motif. They are often a dangerous element because they hold the high ground and are difficult to take out. Often they get the drop on heroes. Saving Private Ryan (1998) shows this in action:
Oftentimes getting the sniper requires one to have a countersniper or to spend a long sequence trying to get behind the sniper (Full Metal Jacket does this latter option). Wonder Woman tweaks the motif to her benefit. Like Indiana Jones pulling a gun on a swordsman, she jumps directly into the bell-tower, collapsing it and the sniper inside. Crisis averted.
8. Falling in love in a forbidden place
In Wonder Woman, Diana chooses to leave Themyscira once German soldiers kill her aunt Antiope and several of her countrypeople. Steve promises that, if she helps him escape the island, he will bring her to Ares so that she can stop humans from warring. Good deal, right? She chooses this against the wishes of her mother Hippolyta.
The film does not rely explicitly on love. Instead, it sets up some witty repartee before and after leaving the island that show early promises of chemistry. Diana is not seduced away, but rather convinced by an appeal to her convictions.
All of this is in the shadow of narratives where men enter forbidden spaces and fall in love with women, who they either convince to come with them or eventually run into again. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, the titular knight travels in an uncontrollable boat to a garden where a lady is kept by her jealous husband. They fall in love but eventually Guigemar is discovered by her lord’s chamberlain. They exchange tokens of love and depart, to be reunited later on when those tokens are revealed publicly at a tournament put on by Guigemar’s lord Meriaduc, who has seized this lady.
Convoluted, right? Yet the basic pattern persists in many a familiar story and fairy tale. Jealous fathers, husbands, and witches frequently control access to women, and are freed by the efforts of an outsider hero against a guardian’s wishes. I’ve just described a fair number of Disney films, as well as a few fairy tale types, like Rapunzel.
However, Diana frees Steve, and not the other way around. By subverting that motif, Diana becomes the hero. Nor is she reduced to a damsel in distress after that moment; as partners, she more than holds her own.
9. Defeating the enemy through the power they exert
In the climactic fight of the film, Ares attacks Wonder Woman, using the implements of war and their fragments against her. Several times Wonder Woman goes flying, only to get up again and try to attack back. The tables turn when Ares begins blasting her with lightning. Wonder Woman grimaces as she is blasted by wave after wave. Perhaps Ares’s words about human futility begin to sink in.
Then she sees the plane loaded with bombs flying in the sky. She remembers Steve’s words to her, and his need to sacrifice himself. The plane explodes. She rises. Then Diana uses the lightning against Ares.
The scene works at several levels at once. Ares is Zeus’s son; Diana is Zeus’s daughter. The lightning could only work if Diana remained out of her own element, if she failed to realize her status as Zeus’s heir and as a believer in human potential. Once she gets it, all the pieces click into place, and she can deflect the lightning back at them.
I feel like more can be made of this. Superficial comparisons include the conclusion to the Harry Potter series (with Harry withstanding Voldemort) or the second trilogy of Stephen Donaldson’s series about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, where the villain takes the hero’s weapon, tries to use it against him, and dwindles to nothing in his attempted exertions.
10. Rambunctious children of gods
Diana trying to leap off into nothing and causing her caretakers no end of trouble reminds me of the Disney film Hercules and the story of baby Hercules killing snakes sent to kill him.
If there were any doubt that Diana was a child of some god (or Zeus specifically), the similarities between her rambunctiousness and stories of children of gods (Hercules and Achilles both leap to mind) shows who she could be.
11. Slow-motion fighting
One complaint often uttered against action films or superhero films is that the actual action is nearly incomprehensible to the human eye. Blurs of fighting, while seeming grand or visually impressive, may leave people wondering who has the upper hand or what’s going on.
Various action film-makers have approaches for stylizing fighting. Jackie Chan’s action films used relatively simple techniques to put more focus on strikes, blows, and paired movements, giving them more visual oomph without a big effects budget. On the higher-tech end, slow-motion allows one to break down the movements of fighters who are otherwise superhuman in reaction time. The Matrix (1999) is a classic of this method, featuring heroes who fly and pirouette through hails of bullets.
In the best action moments of Wonder Woman, both low-tech sensibility and high-tech slow motion take hold to give clarity and emotional significance to the action. The no-man’s land scene would provide a great study of this. The environment puts her at a disadvantage, and it’s clear that crossing that expanse of land is painful, especially as the machine guns start to fire at Wonder Woman, who is brought to a grimacing standstill under her shield. She’s undertaking and enduring a trial in order to help a town on the other side of the German line.
The grim situational setup is then complemented by slow motion. The first time she deflects a bullet with her bracer has the force of a dawning revelation. The bullet comes. The camera shows the bracer knock the bullet away. Diana’s face in that moment observes and processes. “Oh,” I have the luxury of time to imagine her thinking. She’s ready. She’s becoming the hero that the first half of the film set up.
12. Sergeant York
I refer to the Gary Cooper-led biographical film of the American hero from Tennessee, released in 1941. It is a favorite of mine; York is a hillbilly who is drawn into a war he objects to fighting in due to his religious beliefs. Despite his reluctance to fight, he steps up under extreme duress on the front lines, turning a botched mission into a triumph when he captures a machine gun nest that had pinned his unit down.
There is an arithmetic similarity between Wonder Woman and Sergeant York – they both lead the charge to neutralize a machine gun nest. The actions take place within a month or so of the armistice signing. Both ultimately fight out of a desire for peace.
One is a superhero from a Greek island. The other is an enlisted soldier from Tennessee. Nonetheless, both depictions rely on setting up long odds and a determined stance against war to define a kind of patriotic heroism, where American or otherwise allied heroes defend people against the menaces of war.
Also, one other note – both Gary-Cooper-as-Sergeant-York and Wonder Woman were first released in 1941, in June and October respectively. They were born from the moments before the US joined the Second World War but after the US had decided to lend economic aid to France and the UK. The stars, the red/white/blue color scheme, the off-color uniform or circle setting off the hero – this was consistent patriotic messaging.
13. The band of loyal misfits
What war or adventure film would be complete without a band of loyal misfits who are willing to accompany the heroes out of friendship and allegiance to common views?
In medieval romances, this affiliation might emerge out of familial connections or shared histories. In Le Morte Darthur, Arthur, Lancelot, Tristram, and others attract knights who follow them. Tristram’s group qualifies as a semi-consistent band, consisting of Sirs Gareth, Dinadan, and Palomides, and sometimes guest-starring other knights. Charlemagne’s twelve peers end up being a band of this sort in various gestes and romances. The Song of Roland is the tip of that iceberg.
Modern examples abound, so much so that the veteran soldier who goes on one more mission, the “face” with several languages under his belt, the sharpshooter with some trepidation of his own, and the smuggler are virtually types. For example, the A-Team combines the smuggler/face, has a strongman and pilot instead of a sharpshooter, but otherwise follows this. The Dirty Dozen, the Expendables, and even The Avengers have some version of this team.
Wonder Woman features a multicultural version of this team. None of them fit into conventional English society. There’s the American, the Amerindian, the Scotsman, and the fez-wearer possibly from North Africa. They all work for money. Nonetheless, when the time they were paid for runs out, they continue to serve. Wonder Woman, or the cause she pursues with Steve, earns their respect and affiliance. They are there so that she can bring them together, and perhaps to show that while heroes exist, heroes can’t do everything alone.
There’s more. Far more. Rather than trying to represent the most important echoes, I want to spark reflection on these many echoes and rhizomes. Wonder Woman is great not in isolation, but in the way it resonates with various depictions of heroes, women, and action more generally. Maybe not for the first time but at an opportune time, it brings such a hero into clarion focus.