After ‘Wonder Woman,’ How Should Film Critics Write About Female Heroes?

Wonder Woman
"Wonder Woman" brought in over $100 million domestically in its first weekend in theaters. Warner Bros.

Last weekend was a good one for female superheroes and their admirers alike, as Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, scored more than $100 million at the box office, surpassing Fifty Shades of Grey as the highest opening weekend earner by a female-directed film. Just as impressive was the film's critical response: It garnered a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rating for a DC Comics movie since 2008's The Dark Knight.

Of course, no film is not without its flaws, and there were a few mixed-to-negative reviews sprinkled in among the praise. Only one, however, gained a significant amount of attention. Word of David Edelstein's review in Vulture, published last week, spread quickly via Twitter and the blogosphere, with many calling it poorly written at best and horribly sexist at worst.

The most frequently cited passages of the Edelstein piece included his description of Gabot as "the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness"; his remark that fans of the original comic might be "disappointed" by the movie's lack of "well-documented S&M kinkiness"; and a parenthetical in which, after praising Gadot's accented voice and delivery, Edelstein mused that "Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation." (Gadot is Israeli and served in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Even before Wonder Woman had officially opened, the review was being picked apart online, to the point where it even got its own biting Jezebel parody. Usually, such a story would end there. Movie reviews by male critics that are said to objectify the female characters they're critiquing are nothing new; and they're certainly nothing new for reviews of action films, which as a genre have gained a reputation for depicting women as nothing more than eye candy. As The Daily Dot noted in 2014 with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, even three-dimensional superheroines like the Black Widow have been reduced to just their physical descriptions by certain film critics, who gloss over the complexities of their story arcs or character development in favor of praising how attractive they are. (As one Salon reviewer described the actress who plays Black Widow: "Scarlett Johansson in a catsuit…cocking her head just so as if to acknowledge that she’s the idealized fetish object of the 11-year-old boy within every so-called adult male.")

But this one didn’t die so quickly, because Edelstein decided to respond to his detractors, initially through a Facebook post on Monday (which has since been deleted) and then another feature on Vulture the day after. He addresses the statements that proved to be the most insidious and, while acknowledging that his descriptions of Gadot "weren’t good or nuanced or sensitive enough to their ramifications," defends his intentions behind each one.

"Is [Gadot] amazing to look at?" he asks rhetorically. "I thought that was the whole point. Or maybe not.... Here, I have no choice but to throw up my hands and say that we need more of the female gaze onscreen." Edelstein argues that his primary focus on Wonder Woman's physicality goes hand-in-hand with her strength as a character. Describing her "[stripping] down to her superheroine bodice and shorts" is "meant to celebrate the liberation—the uncorset-ing—of a superheroine."

But the greater uproar around Edelstein's piece has less to do with whether he liked Wonder Woman and more to do with what constitutes praise for a female character—one who is, admittedly, meant to look immortal and divine—and what doesn't. As multiple detractors have noted, Edelstein has come under fire before for his comments on a prepubescent Emma Watson ("absurdly alluring to those of us who always went for bossy girls"), as well as his criticisms of the aging appearances of the women in Sex and the City 2. His reviews point to a bigger problem: the emphasis many male film critics place on female characters' physical qualities, to the detriment of properly critiquing their narrative roles in films.

More importantly, Edelstein's stance shows that he still doesn't see what caused all the negative reactions to his piece in the first place. He quotes a female friend of his who speculated that much of the backlash was because he wasn't taking the film "as seriously" as readers wanted him to. "I didn’t take the film as seriously as others because I didn’t see it as a breakthrough," he writes, citing Kathryn Bigelow's women-led cop drama Blue Steel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But while Wonder Woman may not be a "breakthrough," per se, it is the first female-led comic book movie in over a decade, and by far the most successful one, in both box office and critical measures. No matter what Edelstein's individual opinions of the film are, it's difficult to call it insignificant by any stretch of the imagination.

As women gain more agency in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera, there's become more and more pushback toward critics who praise women solely for how good they look on the silver screen. As Talya Zax writes for The Forward"What he needed was to treat the film with a critical care that would read as equal to any paid to another, male-led film of the same ilk." Especially for a financial and cultural tentpole like Wonder Woman, the time for ignoring a character's cultural impact in favor of discussing how good she looks in a suffragette suit may be over.