Among the many refreshing things about this summer’s Wonder Woman was the way the movie looked at its title character, played by Gal Gadot. As the first blockbuster superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, the film focused on Wonder Woman’s power above all else. It was a small but important counter to Hollywood’s culture of objectification.
Justice League—the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe, in which Wonder Woman teams up with Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—represents a troubling step backwards. There’s a new director (or old, considering Zack Snyder also made Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel) and a notably different attitude toward Gadot’s character. It’s as if the clock turned back and Wonder Woman never happened.
To be fair, Wonder Woman still comes across in Justice League as incredibly powerful, as well as clever, intelligent, and emotionally attuned to the dynamics of this super team in ways that her male counterparts aren’t. Indeed, as this Justice League battles some sort of interdimensional demon who wants to transform Earth into a fiery hellscape, Wonder Woman registers as the most capable of the bunch. She’s fearless, and her acrobatic battles with the demon have an exhilarating electricity and personal touch that the rest of the action scenes can’t match.
But notice how the movie often looks at her, and talks about her. On more than one occasion, camera angles are positioned to draw our attention to one of her physical features (and not her eyes). If Wonder Woman, without obfuscating Gadot’s beauty, emphasized how her body was that of an athletic warrior, Justice League too often sees her as a body, period.
It’s as if the clock turned back and Wonder Woman never happened.
And then there is the matter of how the men in the movie respond to her. For every moment that acknowledges Wonder Woman as a valuable team member, there is another one laced with sexual innuendo. Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who I never thought of as a dirty old butler before, jokes that Bruce Wayne’s interest in her may not be entirely professional. Aquaman, while under the power of her truth-compelling Lasso of Hestia, almost starts drooling while describing how attractive she is. Then there is the unfortunate moment, during a battle scene, where The Flash falls on top of Wonder Woman in a compromising position while she is momentarily unconscious. It’s played for easy laughs.
Am I making too much of these moments, being too politically correct? I’d like to think that I’m holding Justice League to a standard of respect for female characters that should have been in place before Wonder Woman made the distinction so clear. And it’s a biblical standard as well. When we talk about the importance of seeing others as being made in the image of God, that includes the way we see women, in our movies and our everyday lives.
Writing about Wonder Woman for TC, Marilette Sanchez praised the movie for its surprising representation of certain Scriptural truths. She also noted that the film left her feeling “empowered and inspired” as a woman. “I shocked myself when I started to bawl like a baby during a key battle scene in Wonder Woman,” she wrote. “It was literally the act of her fighting that turned on the waterworks.”
My guess is Marilette was also responding to how that act was depicted—with admiration for Wonder Woman’s intrinsic values (bravery, self-assuredness, a willingness to sacrifice), not just her external features. If it is true that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then we should create and appreciate art that honors our commonality in Christ—our imago dei. This doesn’t mean demonizing the good gifts of beauty and sexuality (in Wonder Woman, the character is hardly asexual), but putting those things in their proper place, as God intended as far back as the Garden.
It’s true, there are worse instances of objectification than Justice League. (A Hollywood low point? The Transformers movies.) And the film is, admittedly, an equal-opportunity offender. (A shirtless Aquaman frolics in the surf as if he was posing for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.) But our superheroes, be they Aquaman or Wonder Woman, were made for more than being leered at. Just as our Creator meant more for each of us.