I can personally guarantee you one thing: Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, premiering tonight on PBS after a successful Kickstarter run, is going to be some major flamebait among the kind of touchy nerd who embarrasses us all. But how is it as a documentary?
Ultimately, it’s solid but a missed opportunity. This is not any sort of “untold story”; this is very much a told story, and the documentary suffers for it.
First things first: This is more of an overview of Wonder Woman from the outside of fandom, how changing cultural forces drove how she was depicted, how cultural critics and feminists have viewed the character over time, and how she fits into how women are perceived in pop culture. As an intellectual overview, it’s solid if nothing we haven’t heard before.
Therein lies the problem: There’s no real depth here, no original intellectual ground broken. Ultimately it’s a Cliff’s Notes of feminist media theory and Wonder Woman’s sometimes-great-sometimes-embarrassing history that feels a little scattered, and too willing to gloss over topics. Even the Wonder Woman angle is largely abandoned at the half-hour mark for a wider survey of heroines in media. It would seem to be a useful lens: Why did Wonder Woman, a character explicitly created as a sort of protofeminist superheroine, seemingly fall behind in the 1980s? But the documentary never explores it.
Secondly, for a documentary about superheroines, it’s painfully short on women who actually make comics. Trina Robbins gets some screen time, Jane Espenson gets to talk about how inspiring Buffy was, and Gail Simone gets, quite literally, a minute.
On one level, it’s unfair to criticize a documentary for who isn’t in it; people get sick, have too much to do, the production crew can’t afford to come to them, the timing never works, it happens. But at the same time, it’s kind of lousy that women in or writing about the comics industry can’t even get name-checked in a documentary about the most prominent superheroine in American pop culture. It’s not like the team at The Mary Sue, DC Women Kicking Ass, or many of the women working in comics don’t have the intellectual chops to talk about the subject. There are too many names chosen for their marquee value, and it hurts the overall thrust of the documentary.
What’s frustrating about this is that it doesn’t come off like a cynical cash-in; if nothing else, Wonder Women! is very much sincere. But it’s not an untold story, and it’s the ultimate unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to tell one, that keeps this from greatness.
I want more like this!
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