If there is a bright spot in the great, misshapen mess of absentminded writing, generic spectacle, and spasmodic editing that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is Wonder Woman, a.k.a. one of the most iconic female superheroes in comics, a.k.a. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Israeli actress Gal Gadot. Granted, in a movie this bad (and dark), it’s not that hard to shine in comparison. Just consider that Ben Affleck, he of Gigli and Daredevil, Jersey Girl and Phantoms, emerges as a strong candidate for “best big screen Batman of all time” by the time the film’s credits roll.
All the same, the appearance of the costumed Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an exciting moment, both for the movie and for superhero movies in general. By the time she shows up decked out in full Amazonian regalia, the film is well past the point of needing a revitalizing shot in its shriveled arm, and she delivers. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is fun. In contrast to her brooding and manly co-stars she’s positively energetic, dashing around the makeshift gladiatorial arena in which she does battle with Doomsday, her expression making it clear she’s thrilled to swing a sword into the face of something that deserves it.
The thrill doesn’t last—for her or the audience. Sure, on the surface, she’s a blast to watch, all fire and fury during the climactic bout with Doomsday, but considered in the context of the movie—and the DC universe as a whole—Wonder Woman’s role in Batman v Superman is a shallow, near insulting affair. She serves little purpose in the film beyond defending, supporting and occasionally intriguing its male characters. It’s a poor introduction for the character, whose influence and impact on comic book heroines is felt throughout the medium’s history, to say naught of her status as a feminist idol. (Back in 1972, Gloria Steinem used an image of the Amazing Amazon as the cover for Ms. magazine’s first issue.)
Wonder Woman matters. Seeing her in a live-action production this big should matter, too. After all, she’s one-third of DC’s holy trinity—a preeminence unmatched on Marvel’s side (though arguably Marvel’s overall cast of female characters outperform DC’s). Yet when one separates her role in the film from the rousing screen grab or two Zack Snyder’s so good at creating, her role is seen for what it is—a utilitarian Swiss Army plot-advancing device. She keeps Doomsday at bay as the Caped Crusader stands on the sidelines, mostly helpless in the fracas, and as the Man of Steel himself gets sidetracked by his personal damsel in distress. (Oh, Superman—can’t find your Mom with time to spare, but one muffled scream from Lois and you’re right on it.)
Before the big battle, Wonder Woman’s major contribution to the film is to serve as “mysterious hot chick” and then as the button-pushing audience surrogate for a series of teasers for The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman. As for the fight itself, how frustrating is it to watch a film that insists there’s only one way—and one man—to take down Doomsday. If only there were some other superhero nearby who was able to go toe-to-toe with the monster, immune to kryptonite, and demonstrably proficient with ancient weapons like swords, shields and, oh, spears.
But no. In this version of the multiverse, Wonder Woman’s job is to look good and make the men look better. She is here to maintain the status quo when logic and reason dictate that she should be the one to save the day. In video game terms, Wonder Woman is the meat shield. She tanks the boss, keeping its attention off the squishy one with the bat symbol on his tights, but when it comes to the kill shot? Step aside, lady.
It might be tempting—or at least, easy—to dismiss Wonder Woman’s function in Batman v Superman as the natural by-product of a film that’s not supposed to be about her. (That film, helmed by Patty Jenkins, is coming soon enough.) But her treatment is sadly emblematic of how the film treats its female characters in general. June Finch gets to ponder a jar of piss moments before dying in a blast that also takes the life of Luthor’s own assistant, Mercy Graves. (Worth mentioning: Mercy is Luthor’s bodyguard in the comics as well as his assistant. That’s a pretty rough on-screen demotion.) Martha Kent is good only as Grade A Kal-El bait. (Mmm … that’s the stuff!) And Lois Lane? Well, she gets to do lots of things, no matter how little sense it makes for her to be doing it, but ultimately, she’s just there to perpetually need saving. Much as with Man of Steel, where one could make the case her superpower was convenient teleportation, in Batman v Superman, she just does whatever the scriptwriter needs done at the moment.
Grouped with the other women in the film, Wonder Woman’s treatment in Batman v Superman is par for the course: she may fare marginally better than June, Martha, Mercy or Lois—that Amazonian upbringing has to count for something—but that doesn’t keep her presence in the film from being superficially stirring at best and regressive at worst. If you are eager to see a female superhero on-screen who’s not merely a prop for the boys, well, keep waiting. This wasn’t it.