It’s long been rumoured that the Justice League movie will see a reinvigorated Bruce Wayne gathering the titular team of crime-fighters. Recent release footage confirms that the grizzled billionaire - along with co-captain Diana Prince - is indeed trotting the globe in search of warriors to stand against an as-of-yet unnamed ‘big bad’. There’s only a glimpse of Gal Gadot in the trailer, but she retains the abruptness that characterised her interactions with the male protagonists in BVS: Dawn of Justice.
In their early encounters, Diana Prince breezes through Wayne’s advances with a superhuman tolerance for chauvinism and arrogance. We don’t see Lois Lane, although thus far she’s needed the Man of Steel to save her from literally every single situation she’s found herself in. She’s stumbled through the previous two movies begging the question; how did she ever function as an investigative journalist before Clark Kent came along? So, Diana Prince steps seamlessly in as DC’s new leading-lady.
Short of staring gloomily at each other from across a hallway, a crowded room, and a driveway, Wayne and Prince first properly meet at a fancy gala in a museum. He attempts to impress her with his intricate knowledge of black market antiques’ dealing, but she finishes his sentence in an amusing parody of that age-old lover’s cliché. This isn’t a meet-cute. It’s a threat thinly-veiled with sexual overtones. Bruce Wayne physically takes hold of Diana Prince, who allows a small look of affront before stepping in time with him.
He whispers in her ear and makes vague suggestions about her dress, while she gets to end the scene with a wonderful dismissal: ‘I don’t think you’ve ever known a woman like me’. This line coupled with her only genuine smile in the scene renders his threats and flirtations impotent. Diana’s confidence here has nothing to do with sexuality. It comes from real power, without male bravado or postulating. At Lex Luthor’s fundraiser, Clarke Kent and Bruce Wayne meet in a similar scene which oozes machismo. Wayne emasculates Kent by calling him ‘boy’, and Diana Prince turns that phrase on Bruce himself. It hints at a maturity belied by her apparent age, one that has been through begrudging toleration of unwanted touches in public and creepy attention, like those ‘WHO ARE YOU??’ emails which Bruce sends late in the movie.
There’s an odd dichotomy to Diana Prince thus far in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe): strength reined in by tolerance and masked with sexuality. It’s visually present when she arrives as Wonder Woman, meting out more damage to the catastrophic Doomsday than Batman could ever achieve. Yet she does so in shorts so short that they’re lost beneath her corset. Her costume in the graphic novels isn’t exactly modest, but this latest iteration of the Amazons’ armour is utterly gratuitous. It harbours a toxic suggestion that women can be strong, as long as they look sexy while they’re doing it.
The first trailer for the standalone movie Wonder Woman compounds this complaint: the Amazons are a core of empowered women who fight in decoratively revealing armour. It might seem unusual that a martial community would leave so much shoulder, throat, and leg bare when designing their combat gear - we have to take it as a given. These films are driven towards the male gaze, even under the guise of feminism.
The trailer delivers on every strong-front presented by the character thus far, however. Love-interest Chris Pine grasps towards her through a culture completely devoid of men. She’s seen fighting in some incredibly gritty scenes: trenches, street battles, bar brawls. And she gets to dismiss Pine’s attempts to control her: ‘What I do is not up to you’. She even offers a candid appraisal of the subservient secretary in a post-title sting that seems to set up the feminist values of the film.
The sad realisation, however, is that this origin tale goes back nearly a century before even the events of Man of Steel. By the time she listens to the prattling of the museum curator (BVS: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition) and stoically endures the awkward flirtations of Bruce Wayne, Prince has come to learn what to expect from men and what society requires of women in response: subservience. This tempers her apparent autonomy within her very gender. Lex Luthor praises the strength of Clark Kent’s handshake in that same stand-off between Kent and Wayne, alluding to the physical strength beneath his veneer. Diana Prince isn’t offered that same courtesy.
It’s been made painfully clear in the marketing campaign of the upcoming Suicide Squad, where Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and a band of DC baddies are teaming up to tackle something even worse than themselves. Yet, while Will Smith’s Deadshot is busy punching mattresses, and Jared Leto’s Joker is driving fast cars; Margot Robbie is mostly picture dancing in cages, bending over, and undressing. Several moments in a single trailer riff off the humour surrounding Harley’s sexuality. Her female teammates have relatively eluded that spotlight thus far, but their outfits have been pared back in ways that are similarly as incongruous as Wonder Woman’s. It makes you wonder, would these women would be fighting naked if the female nipple wasn’t considered so offensive?
Time will tell if the DCEU will grant justice to its women. When all is said and done, Wonder Woman will be the first female-fronted superhero movie in the current clash of cinematic universes. In 13 Blockbuster movies, Marvel has yet to produce a single movie fronted by a woman. Maybe one day these studios will strike a balance between showing too much and showing nothing at all.
Suicide Squad will be showing at FACT from Friday 5 August - book tickets for 2D and 3D screenings now.