When this week started, I didn’t think I’d be writing about the Holocaust. In the current political climate with actual Nazis walking the streets of our country with impunity, it seems to be coming up more and more. Still, I didn’t think when I sat down to watch four of my favorite TV shows do their yearly crossover that I’d be confronting this particular historical nightmare.DCTV-Crossover_CVR-FNL_9215b15d-600x923

I should have realized. I should have been prepared. For weeks now, the CW’s four DC Universe superhero shows – Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow – have been advertising their once a year, four-episode crossover. I’d seen the commercials where commandos in uniforms reminiscent of the old SS of yore crashed the wedding of Barry Allen and Iris West, with all their superhero friends in attendance. “I hate Nazis,” said Arrow, Supergirl, and Flash in the commercials, before the epic ass-kicking began. I knew the crossover was going to feature Earth X, an alternate reality where the Nazis won and subjugated the entire world. I just didn’t know how far the show would go, or how much it would affect me.

Hi, I’m Shoshana, and I’m the granddaughter of a survivor of Auschwitz. And this is how Crisis on Earth X gave me an epic anxiety attack.

[[Please note: This article will include spoilers for all four episodes of Crisis on Earth X, as well as have discussions about the Holocaust and its atrocities that may be triggering. Read on with this warning in mind.]]


Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge comic book fan, so it’s no surprise I’m an avid follower of all four of DC’s CW shows. I’m a firm believer that in an age of grim-dark reinterpretations of superheroes, the DC TV shows have retained the joyous, adventurous flavor of the original comics while still being innovative for a new modern TV audience. It stands as a nuanced set of shows that go from light-hearted and fun (Legends of Tomorrow) to often dark and brooding (Arrow) and even politically conscious and reactive to today’s real-world issues (Supergirl). Flash is the show I turn to on my worst weeks to find a ray of humorous, heartfelt hope, bolstered by the camaraderie of Team Flash and the exuberant performance of Grant Gustin as Barry Allen.

Yet when I heard this year’s massive crossover would handle the Nazi-focused Crisis on Earth X story arch, I was hesitant. For years, Nazis were the ubiquitous punching bags of media, right alongside zombies. Hell, I think people felt more emotional connection and empathy for the undead, who truly had no say in their unfortunate plight. Nazis are a representation of everything corrupt in the world, the choices made by portions of mankind to sink to depravity through fascism, bigotry and disregard for empathy and human life. The cookie-cutter, two-dimensional Nazi became an easy punching bag in comics, movies, and video games, an easy antagonist to point to as the ultimate evil so no consumer would have difficulty with blasting them out of existence. Or punching them in the jaw.

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In today’s political climate, however, it seems the sentiment of ‘punch a Nazi’ has become a controversial one for some reason. With the rise of fascist thought in America, the struggle to embrace a ‘live and let live’ mentality has brought some to talk about Nazism as if it was an acceptable philosophy rather than an abhorrent one. Articles like the recent on in the New York Times profiling the everyday Nazi have been steps, inadvertently or otherwise, towards normalizing fascists living in America today. When ‘alt-right’ leader Richard Spencer was decked in the face on live television by a masked anti-fascist activist, beneath the cries of support there was an undercurrent of actual sympathy. Nazis have become, to some part of the population, sympathetic. (By the way, if you’re having a bad day, just watch this gif a few times, it always gives me some joy).

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Now I trusted the progressive writer teams of the DC shows to take on the issue of Nazis well. Of every show on television right now, Supergirl has come out as the most reactive to the horrors of the regressive Trump America, going so far as to almost directly referencing issues going on (such as taking up the term “nasty woman” with a stare-into-the-camera defiance I love) and include more inclusive, progressive storylines with gusto. I wasn’t worried about their handling of the material.

I was worried about me, as a viewer. I was worried it might be too much.


As a little girl, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. It was almost impossible to miss them in the Orthodox Jewish community where I grew up. Everyone was only one or two steps removed from a Holocaust survivor. They are our neighbors, our family members, people in our synagogues, working in businesses. They are grandparents, just like mine were. My grandmother Nora survived Auschwitz while my grandfather, who died before I was born, survived Treblinka. And in our community, there is a saying: never forget. To us, it isn’t a slogan, but a way of life.

And so from an early age, I heard stories, unimaginable stories, impossibly horrific stories. I saw films. I read books. I went to museums and saw evidence first-hand of the nightmares. I read first-hand accounts. And I met survivors. I talked to my own grandmother and watched her have nightmares. I learned about the twenty or so family members she lost, the life she left behind. She tried to shelter me from the worst of it, but it was impossible to avoid.

I started having nightmares after seeing Holocaust films the first time I saw Schindler’s List. I was staying at a friend’s house and went to bed after the film only to wake up screaming. I had those nightmares after seeing several other movies, and after going to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel. After watching the first episode of The Man In The High Castle I couldn’t sleep properly for three days. Though the show seemed well done, there was no chance I could watch. I avoided ads for it. I grew furious when someone in their promotional department thought decorating an entire New York train car with the Nazi symbols to advertise the show was a good idea. I wasn’t avoiding the issue of the Holocaust. Far from it. The stories lived so far under my skin they’d rooted in and become a haunting I couldn’t shake.

There is an idea when discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder called secondary trauma, which is defined as “when an individual is exposed to people who have been traumatized themselves, disturbing descriptions of a traumatic events by a survivor or being exposed to others inflicting cruelty on one another” (Source: Wikipedia). There have been discussions of how the horrors of WWII have continued to pass down their traumas to the next generation and how many people are carrying these secondary traumas into their lives. So it’s no surprise when I mentioned these nightmares to a therapist that she told me this was a form of secondary trauma, one I carried from my family’s history.

And in a way, strangely, I was okay with it. I believe forgetting the past means we can’t help but repeat them, and as our political climate has shown, we’ve got to be vigilant. Sure I’d love to avoid waking up shouting, but it isn’t a consistent problem. I’ve taken my joy at shooting the hell out of Nazis in the last few Wolfenstein games, and love seeing Indiana Jones punch the hell outta Nazis in his movies. But every once in a while, something comes along and pushes the wrong button. And then there’s a tightness in my chest and an anxiety rolling through me I can’t deny.

I sat down to watch Crisis on Earth X and suddenly, I was having a serious problem.


The first two episodes of the crossover, Supergirl and Arrow, went off pretty well. The wedding of Barry and Iris (FINALLY) was something I’d been looking forward to for a while. Seeing all my favorite characters coming together and even talking about their problems (Felicity and Oliver’s relationship drama, Alex’s recent break-up with her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer, and Kara’s loss of her boyfriend Mon-El) were all awesome. Supergirl herself Melissa Benoit flexing her fantastic singing voice during the ceremony scene was a brilliant call-back not only to her time as a Glee star but to the Flash/Supergirl crossover musical episode from earlier this year.

Then, of course, the Nazi’s attacked and it was time for some super-hero ass kicking. And make no mistake. The fight scenes were incredible. The shows really blew out their special effects budget to make every single character have a moment to shine, even taking special time to highlight the non-powered characters using their talents to add to the fights. But as time went on, something started to creep into my skin, especially when the super-powered Nazis showed up. It turned out the general of the Nazi armies, Overgirl, was none other than an alternate world version of Supergirl, and the Fuehrer himself, inherited after Hitler died in 1994 on Earth X, was none other than the doppelganger Oliver Queen himself. Both fought our heroes, emblazoned proudly with the SS emblem on their chests, and that’s when my stomach started to clench. Hearing actors I adored playing evil versions of themselves spouting horrible bigoted, ethnic-cleansing level shit was difficult.

But nothing was as hard as the end of the episode of Arrow and episode 3 of the four-parter, where our heroes were transported to Earth X.

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There are images that haunt me from the Holocaust, images people seem intent on resurrecting in every movie and even on memes across the internet. The image of people behind barbed wire, their hair shorn down, skinny and starving and wearing those striped uniforms with those horrifying Stars of David on their chests. And in the episode of Flash, our heroes end up inside one of those very pens alongside emaciated, terrified people. They stand in their super-suits alongside people being held for cleansing in a concentration camp, large as day on my TV screen.

And that’s when I started to panic. My chest got tight. My face got warm. And I really, really wanted to turn off the TV.

 

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Screenshot from Crisis on Earth X episode 3

 

The show does nothing to hide the horror of the plight of the prisoners. Jackson (one half of Firestorm from the Legends) asks a prisoner what the pink triangle on his clothing was all for. The prisoner (later discovered to be freedom fighter The Ray) replies, “I loved the wrong person,” intimating the pink triangles marked queer prisoners. Stars, not shown on TV until later in the episode (presumably for effect), indicated Jews. All held together, all in those damned striped uniforms.

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I paused the episode three times before I could get through those scenes. As the heroes talked glibly about escaping, the doppelganger of Detective Lance, now a high ranking SS officer, comes in and confronts White Canary, his daughter from another earth. When he asks her why she’s in the camp when she is the epitome of blonde hair/blue eyed perfection, she tells him she is gay. He says he cleansed his own daughter for just the same “deviance” before ordering the heroes taken out, presumably to their deaths.

There are some images like I said. One is the mass graves of Europe, the pits where prisoners were lined up and shot and left for dead by the hundreds. And this doppelganger SS Lance led the heroes to the edge of the same kind of pit and lined them up to face their end. This is about when I had to nope out for a few more minutes once more. Because this was a scene out of my nightmares, and it was happening to characters I loved in a comic book TV show.

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I got up. I took a walk around. I drank some water. I wanted to get through this episode. I wanted to see how my favorite heroes would kick the hell out of these Nazis and show them just what fascist mass-murderers got. It was vicarious, it was meant to be, and I wanted to see it to the end. But there was an off-note to me, something not sitting well in my stomach – something besides the obvious secondary trauma.

It was the glibness. When put beside these images of ultimate horror that haunt my dreams, the superheroes I love looked tawdry and disrespectful. They seemed oddly unaffected by the horrors around them, disregarding the human suffering by focusing on their own objective. Few moments showed a real connection to the enormity of the nightmare around them in these scenes. The heroes looked uncomfortable, but their dialogue was removed, the lofty pronunciations of writers trying to gloss through an unbelievably traumatic moment with blase pronouncements of how humanity has harmed one another throughout history in the worst ways.

Even Professor Stein, a character who the writers have gone out of their way to show is Jewish, and Sarah and Alex, both queer characters whose sexuality is prominent in the series, only get moments to address the nightmare of what they’re witnessing. And then they’re off to save the day with grim determination and square-jawed heroics, never once truly interacting with the prisoners around them. In their escape, they leave behind a concentration camp full of people surely soon to be murdered who are used as nothing more than props to make a point.

And there, I discovered, was my problem with the episode and with the intended emotional moments. The Holocaust was used as a prop. It felt cheap. It felt out of sync, out of step, out of place, and not nearly as respectful as it was trying to be.

A single moment made the show all the harder to watch. Heroic Oliver Queen pretends to be the Fuehrer to sneak into the Earth X base and is tested by SS Commander Lance for his identity. They bring out a prisoner: Earth X Felicity Smoak, Oliver’s love on Earth 1 and a known Jewish character. And this, folks, is when I finally had to nope for a while. Because seeing one of my favorites Felicity, in the pajamas with the yellow star of JUDE on her chest, on her knees about to be executed by a Nazi, was too much.

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When he called her a “Jewess” I paused to take deep breaths. This was painful. This was triggering. And in my mind, this was over the top. Felicity talks about being taken prisoner for sharing her bread with kids in the camp. “They were starving,” she cries, as the writers ignore the fact that there needs be no excuse for why an SS commander would hold a gun to her head. In reality, she’s a Jew. Nazis needed no excuse to execute Jews. They were missing the point. And they were using a serious trauma to do it.

There were moments of real emotion, real connection. When the rebellion leader, doppelganger of Supergirl’s Wynn, talks about saving his earth, the actor gives a surprisingly emotional performance, hammering home to the heroes who want only to return to save their earth that he must protect and save his earth, where people are dying in the same conflict their grandfather’s fought. And Felicity’s declaration to the Fuehrer on Earth 1 that her grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust to see their world fall to Nazis was, though short, impactful.

Still, it was during the course of the somewhat convoluted storyline that I discovered problem two with the crossover. Because at the end of the day, we know the heroes would win. That’s how these stories go. They’d go home, they’d defeat the Fuehrer and the General (they did), and they would share a wonderful ending (which I won’t spoil because it is great). But once again, Earth X is put in their rearview mirror, while those background characters would continue to be slaughtered while the resistance fights on. The Ray returns to help, but otherwise, our heroes return to their regularly scheduled broadcast. And I was left with a hitch in my chest, some nightmares on the schedule for that night, and an odd taste in my mouth.

Because punch Nazis all you want, but Holocaust victims and their memories are not props to drive home an agenda. And that’s where this episode went.


In the end, I watched the end of the crossover. I crowed when the heroes kicked the hell out of the Nazis with beautiful special effects style. I loved every second of watching the ending. And frankly, the payoff felt strong despite my issues. The fact that the Nazis are annihilated by a team of diverse heroes including people of color, Jews, and queer heroes was not lost on me, and the show worked hard to nail that home over and over. But by the end of the night I came out feeling shakey, and while others I spoke to seemed excited by how thoughtful and well-done the show had taken Nazis in general, I was left unconvinced. Hell, I was left with the need to work off some anxiety. I stayed up late. I wasn’t really okay.

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The message of the Crisis on Earth X crossover is a relevant one and an important one today in our world: Nazis can rise and we must face them no matter the cost. The show does not baulk at the message and instead stands firmly with our heroes united against this unholy threat. But where I’d been concerned about nuance being lost, I found those concerns justified. Did the show need to take the heroes in their lavish costumes to a concentration camp? No. Did they need to put Felicity on her knees and call her Jewess? No. And did they need to leave behind Earth X as an after-thought, left to its perpetual war without regard for closure for the audience? No.

There were, in my eyes, other ways that would have felt more compelling, more complete, and less exploitative. And while I credit the team for trying very, very, hard to get this right, I think they missed the mark by just a little. Or at least it seems that way for me, someone who didn’t sleep well last night.

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Candles hold a special place in my heart. In my mind, they’re a symbol of serenity, peace, focus, and prayer. They’ve stood as a testament to the flame one holds in their heart for a connection to the divine since I was a little girl. For as far back as I can remember, my mother would stand before the candles on Friday night, her hair covered and face solemn, as she covered her eyes and recited the blessing to invite the Shabbat into our home. I remember standing with her, or in the home of a friend on Friday night, all the women standing before the candles, covering their eyes to say the prayer.

‘Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha‑olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.’

‘Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light Shabbat candle[s].’

The blessing of the Shabbat candles has stood out to me as one of the most humble, beautiful, and soulful practices of the Jewish faith. It ties Jewish women to a tradition meant for us alone, a task meant to usher in the twenty-six hours from Friday to Saturday evening when the family dedicates themselves to take time and rest, just as God supposedly did after the six days of creation. I grew up knowing that Jewish women for generations, going back into time immemorial, have been standing before similar candles the world over on Friday nights, putting their hands over their eyes to welcome in the Shabbat every week. I remember standing with my mother to learn how to say the prayer, covering my hair just like her, knowing I was a part of a long chain of tradition, held by the light of the candles and my faith.

WarBirds_Front_290416It’s been years since I was what you’d consider very religious, but the ceremony of lighting Shabbat candles has stayed with me. It’s so important in fact that I chose to write a Larp about it for my contribution to the War Birds anthology by Unruly Games. Keeping the Candles Lit tried to capture not only the importance of traditions like the Shabbat candles, but the relationship of passing those traditions down from one generation of Jewish women to another. I tried to capture that importance, that beauty, when explaining it to non-Jewish players, or even my non-Jewish friends.

And every time, I wasn’t sure I could. The practice couldn’t have the same meaning, and most of my friends had no cultural context, no experience with the practices I grew up with. And that was normally okay: I love the diversity of the people I know, how we come from such disparate backgrounds. But every once in a while, I wished my closest friends could understand that feeling the candles inspired in me, and understand my culture with the same familiarity I’ve been forced to understand Christian culture.

Living Jewish In A Christian World

By virtue of living in a predominantly Christian oriented society, I’ve become intimately familiar with the trappings of the religion. It dominates popular culture, the iconography of everything from our holidays to stores in which I shop. I know the story of Christmas and all the songs as they’re blasted over the airwaves every year, every year getting earlier and earlier. I know the story of Jesus, of the Apostles. I know about some of the saints, how they go marching in, and the difference between different Christian groups. I hear conservatives scream about wars on Christmas and how Christian values in America are being challenged every day. And I snort, because I was at least raised to believe America was a land for all, not one with an official religion.

I also grew up being told to keep my head down when I tried to voice those ideas. My grandmother once told me one Shabbat, “Non-Jews won’t want to hear that from you. They’ll put up with it, with you, but don’t forget – they don’t understand.”

I remembered that lesson as I grew up, and watched every game, every TV show, every movie, and its implicit western Christian bias. Its morals baked into every piece of art, every bit of our society. I remember wishing I could share my favorite music growing up with my non-Jewish friends, and realizing they wouldn’t understand a lick of it. I remember realizing when I heard music and it talked about faith, or God, or losing their religion, they weren’t talking about my faith. The icons were always of a man with his arms spread out, a lonely look on his face.

I remember being confused and a little heartbroken when I was told The Chronicles of Narnia was a Christian story and Aslan, one of my favorite characters, was really Jesus. I remember the Jewish holiday of Purim being called “the Jewish Halloween,” as if that represented the beautiful tradition at all. I remember being told The Ten Commandments was an Easter story, even it was literally the story of Passover being shown over that very holiday.

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Literally where the holiday comes from, folks. Moses did this, and we walked through some water, ate some really dry matzah and got away from that pesky Pharaoh.

Most of all, I remember the Shabbat and lighting the candles, and realizing so few people even understood what the Shabbat really was. And this was among those people I knew, forget about in the media.

And then, there were the exceptions. The beautiful, beautiful exceptions.

Finding Your Heroes

Claudia Christian playing Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, who lit the Channukah candles and sat shiva for her father, all while being a commander on a 23rd century space station.

Felicity Smoak on Arrow answering her friends asking what she was doing on Christmas with, “Celebrating Channukah” and sharing cultural understanding with Ragman, a gay Jewish boy wearing an ancient, nigh sentient Egyptian burial shroud.

Rufus on Supernatural telling Bobby Singer he couldn’t dig up a dead body yet, because it was still the Shabbat. (Okay, and maybe taking advantage just so he wouldn’t have to dig).

 

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Chanukah shared by many of Marvel Comics’ most famous Jewish characters including The Thing, Shadowcat, Sasquatch, Songbird, Wiccan, and Moon Knight. 

Kitty Pryde in the X-Men wearing a Star of David and proudly declaring herself Jewish, comparing the discrimination against mutants with the discrimination faced by Jews.

 

Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, standing tall and villainous against the bigotry that ended his family’s lives so long ago.

Willow Rosenberg on Buffy straddling the line between growing up Jewish and embracing the Wiccan inside to become one of the most powerful magic users in the Buffyverse.

And yet these were characters on TV shows and in comics, amazing and affirming as they were. I was looking for real life media figures who could tell me that Hollywood wasn’t just full of stereotypes of Jews. We weren’t all Woody Allen or Barbara Streisand. We weren’t comedians and nerdy people, known for lack of athleticism and a cynical, dry wit. We weren’t The Nanny and Annie Hall. I kept looking for more Ivanovas, more Felicitys, more Willows. I found Natalie Portman and discovered Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan were both Jewish. With some Googling, I found a list of Hollywood actresses who were Jewish.

And yet, in their interviews, in press junkets, I didn’t hear anything about their identities. While other celebrities thanked Jesus non-stop, I didn’t hear anything so outward about these women. In the age of social media and celebrity openness to the world, these women’s media image was so devoid of anything indicating they were Jewish I had to go Googling to find notable Jewish women in Hollywood. And that was okay, because their choices were their right, and their right to privacy was absolutely valid. But still, in a world saturated by the Christian identity, I yearned for something I could identify with.

And then, I saw an Instagram photo of Gal Gadot.

Representation Matters

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In the photo, she stood in front of a pair of candles along with her little girl. Both of their hair was covered as they prayed before a pair of Shabbat candles.

Gal Gadot, who would be Wonder Woman.

They say representation matters in media. They say it’s important for people to be able to see those who look like them in the media. For a Jew, that issue can be a complex one, as many Jews of Eastern European descent largely blend into the overall white population. And though Jews were not considered as white until very late in the US and world history (we’re talking somewhere between the 1940’s and the 1970’s), we receive the same advantages in many ways as those who are perceived as white by the population at large.

Instead, Jews face different oppression based on our religious backgrounds, called anti-semitism, which has remained a constant and insidious form of discrimination throughout history. But at the end of the day, those Jews of largely Ashkenazi descent (meaning those whose ancestors migrated during the Jewish diaspora to Europe and got way, way pastier than our brethren who settled elsewhere) are perceived as and grouped into being white, with all the baggage and privilege and advantage that comes with it.

Still. Representation matters. And we all want to see someone in our media who is like us. As a little Jewish girl, I wanted to see characters in things who were Jewish. I cheered when I found out there was an Israeli-Jewish super hero in Marvel Comics called Sabra, a kickass woman super-soldier who defended Israel against her enemies. I worshiped the character of Susan Ivanova as a model for a strong Jewish woman on television. And I looked for actresses who showed me you could be Jewish and be a media star and still have a proud, public relationship with your culture.

And then that photo. Gal Gadot, in front of the candles, with her daughter.

Gadot’s Jewish Identity And Controversy

I remember my eyes filling with tears as I read a quote from Gadot, stating:

“I was brought up in a very Jewish, Israeli family environment, so of course my heritage is very important to me,” she said in an interview with Totally Jewish. “I want people to have a good impression of Israel. I don’t feel like I’m an ambassador for my country, but I do talk about Israel a lot — I enjoy telling people about where I come from and my religion.”

Here was an Israeli-born woman of Ashkenazi descent (her family was from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria), who was proud of her heritage. She spoke openly about her religion, her culture, her home. And yes, that included speaking up about Israel and her feelings about the politics there. That has drawn heat from many pro-Palestinian groups, including BDS, who have called her out for supporting the military actions of her home country and for serving in the Israeli military.

(I would point out that military service in Israel is mandatory at the age of eighteen for everyone who is able. Gal served her two years as a fitness instructor, teaching gymnastics and calisthenics).

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Woman of Valor

Many have called for boycotts of the Wonder Woman movie because of her pride in her homeland. Many have pointed to the Wonder Woman movie as being fairly white washed and lacking in diverse representation. And while those issues are very, very valid (I’ll point to this article expressing some very serious issues about the lack of or poor representation of women of color throughout the film), I’ll point out there is one minority who did get to be represented in Wonder Woman in a real and fantastic way.

Shattering Records and Expectations

You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed it, but Wonder Woman has defied the Hollywood trend of bad women-led comic book films. It has come away with critical acclaim and a massive fan response. And it has catapulted Gal Gadot from little known actress into a household name all in the span of a few weeks. This insta-fame has brought much of the aforementioned controversy into the limelight. And though I’m all for discussing political questions and issues of representation, I’ve had a foul taste in my mouth when looking at the way Gal Gadot’s actions and media presence has been scrutinized. In the end, the only thing people have been able to find to diss her portrayal is that she served her country as a soldier in mandatory service, that she looked like a model, and that she is part of a film which has sadly stereotyped people of color and other nationalities.

And while I acknowledge all those issues as valid to discuss, I also acknowledge that a film can have problematic issues and still have a supremely important contribution to the representation of another group. In this case, Jewish women. And that contribution is profound and important and cannot be ignored.

Because somewhere, there are little Jewish girls able to point to Gal Gadot in her tiara and silver bracelets, holding her sword and shield and lasso, and say there, there is our Jewish warrior, there is the ashet chayil (in Hebrew a “woman of valor”) we sing about every Shabbat. There is a powerful feminist actress who is proud of her heritage, passing down our traditions to her own daughter, who trained to fight and did her own stunts in both Wonder Woman and the Fast and the Furious franchise. Here was a woman who is proud of her heritage and who is representing our people, an often forgotten minority group, as one of the world’s most recognizable and lauded super heroines in a film that has shattered movie release records in its opening week.

Wonder Woman is a hit, and Wonder Woman’s actress is Jewish. My inner little girl is so proud I can barely express it. Because when I point to the screen during Wonder Woman, I can say now: see, see there, we aren’t all the yente and the nag, the funny girl and the nerdy weakling, the shady lawyer and money grubbing business person, the Jewish American princess and homely intellectual. We aren’t the hidden, overlooked group, our celebrities laughed at when they go to a Kabbalah Center or talk about their kosher cooking in public. See, in that woman, an ashet chayil at last, a proud, powerful woman, standing tall on the screen.

And somewhere, little girls can see that and believe they can be proud Jews, standing tall to be whatever they want to be while still being part of the traditions of our people. Representation matters to Jews too, and Gal Gadot has given us that representation, complicated as it might be in terms of politics and other problems with the film. And from everything we have seen in the media she is a positive role model both as Princess Diana and in her own life, a true ashet chayil in so many ways.

I am proud to be around to see my comic book idol played by such a woman of valor. Because I’ve finally seen representation that gives me hope that we Jewish women can be seen, really seen, in all our facets and strengths and traditions at last.

And all it took was one Instragram photo to instill that hope, that pride in me too.

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The lights hadn’t even come up in the theater, and already I had stuff to say.

My friends were sitting near me and waiting to see if there would be an after credits scene for the very first showing of Wonder Woman at our theater (spoilers: there isn’t). I hadn’t moved since the names started to flash across the screen, however. I was caught in a paradox of amazed glee and critical thought. Somewhere, the little girl inside me that bade me buy a Wonder Woman jacket and wear it to the theater even when it was way too warm was jumping up and down inside with joy. We’d just watched the first live action Wonder Woman movie and it positively soared. It reminded me deep down what a woman-led superhero film could and should do in all the right ways. I was jazzed, I was elated.

I had already pinged several things that pissed me off.

Welcome to the impossible standard that is Wonder Woman. Where nothing can be good enough, and Hollywood can’t help but make some blunders. This is our review.

[Note: This article is part analysis of the film, part discussion about Wonder Woman and her fan phenomenon. Absolutely will be spoilers ahead for the film.]


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One of my most prized possessions.

A Girl’s First Amazon

I have been a Wonder Woman fan since I was a little girl. I remember clearly being very ill one day and my father coming home with some comic books. He didn’t know much about comics, but he thought they would make me feel better. Little did he know of course he was setting off a lifelong love that would change my life forever. Among those comics, along with a Justice Society story about the creepy Solomon Grundy and an old X-Men comic where the team goes to Japan and deals with Fing Fang Foom, there was a gorgeous comic with a gorgeous cover of a woman in a star-spangled bathing suit holding up her arms under a giant logo that said: WONDER WOMAN. My father had snagged me the now immortal Wonder Woman Vol 2 #1 issue. And I read that book cover to cover, my eyes wide, my tiny mind blown. I was a fan ever since.

Years later, I was able to walk up to George Perez at a comic convention and present him with a mint copy of the very same issue. My original copy had long ago fallen apart from love and use. I got to tell George Perez how much I’d loved the run, and how it was truly the first comic my father ever gave me. He signed it to me, and that comic hangs on my wall to this day.

With a story like that, you can imagine Wonder Woman has had an incredible impact on my life. I’ve collected first perhaps hundreds of her single issue comics, then went on to buy every graphic novel I could get my hands on, and then some collections too. I watched the DC animated series and the films. If it had Wonder Woman in it, if the story had to do with the Amazons and Paradise Island, I was there. I knew the names of most of the Amazons who helped raise Diana, followed all the storylines up until the New 52. My love of Wonder Woman followed me into my thirties.

But as I grew older, I also developed a critical eye for the media I consumed. I would pick up issues of Wonder Woman and frown, finding moments when the stories felt… off. I would have favorite writers with what in my eyes were better runs on the book. I’d cringe when Wonder Woman appeared in crossovers with writers who would write her as wooden, or else fall into a lot of patriarchal or patronizing tones. I would scour DC comics for good portrayals that matched my experience with Wonder Woman. I embraced the Gail Simone Wonder Woman, I ditched the Azarello. I knew what I liked, because in my head, I knew Wonder Woman.

Built inside my head was the composite image of Wonder Woman, a complex, almost unknowable character, built out of a woman’s infinite capacity for power, grace, compassion, humor, will, and hope. She was as much of a known commodity as she was a cypher, a character of infinite facets, dedicated to an ideal so much higher than what anyone in the imperfect world of men could achieve. In the comics, Diana of Themyscira was a pinnacle to be modeled after, even as she was also approachable and human. She was every woman, and the best of us. She was vulnerable and imperfect and fantastic. She was Wonder Woman.

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That’s how you end up with shit like this. 

And when I heard they were making a movie about her, I was very, very worried. Because how could you achieve a film that captures the deeper parts of such a complicated character so many people take for granted. Go to any tween shop or nerd convention and you’ll see Diana’s smiling face slapped on lunchboxes, wallets, even underwear. Wonder Woman had become a brand, her symbol a merchandise logo ready to greet you wherever you went. But I’d often wonder how much people actually got what Wonder Woman stood for. “Feminism!” people would say. “She kicks butt!” Yes, but what else? Did they really get the depth of the character? And then, point of fact, would the film studios trying to make the movie?

Greg Rucka spoke at New York Comic Con last year about his time writing Wonder Woman on the eve of her 75th anniversary. He talked about how she was so much more than most people gave her credit for. He spoke about being honored to get a chance to explore Diana’s multiple sides and give her the best work he could do. I trusted Greg Rucka’s writing since I read his stand-alone graphic novel called the Hiketeia. His was perhaps one of the penumbral Wonder Woman stories, truly capturing Diana in all her complexity. I could trust Greg Rucka. I trusted George Perez, or Gail Simone. But a big budget movie? Did I trust it to handle Wonder Woman, the media icon I adored, with the proper understanding and respect?

Having come out of the movie, the votes are in, and its this: Wonder Woman is a film that understands Princess Diana of Themiscira and Wonder Woman. And it also exhibits how much Hollywood tropes and the real man’s world can absolutely suck.

The Review

wonder_woman_SD2_758_426_81_s_c1From the beginning, Wonder Woman truly does its job capturing the origin story of Diana before she picks up the lasso and becomes the warrior who will kick ass in the Justice League. There is nothing more endearing than watching a tiny terror Diana galavanting without fear across the unbearably gorgeous Paradise Island, riding horses and watching the training of the no-holds-barred, thank-you-for-making-them-amazing Amazons. The warriors of Themyscira stride with dignity and grace across the screen, saved from being sexualized and exploited for the male gaze. Instead, the cameras spend time giving them the CGI badass treatment befitting films like 300, as the Amazons show just why they’re exactly the female force to be reckoned with.

By the time tiny Diana morphs into the incredible Gal Gadot, we’re already invested in loving this complicated group of women, tasked with preparing for a time when Ares, the God of War, will try to start the war to end all wars. The film especially takes time to highlight the difficult but loving relationship between Diana and Queen Hippolyta, her mother, as well as her strong attachment to her aunt Antiope. I could have watched an entire film set on Paradise Island thanks to their engaging interplay and the lushness of the scenery and the supporting Amazon cast. I was almost disappointed when Steve Trevor’s plane appeared, nose-diving into the ocean, even if it marked the beginning of Diana’s true adventure.

It’s also the moments when the cracks in the perfection of the story start to show.

Gal-Gadot-Wonder-Woman-PosterFor the most part, director Patty Jenkins weaves an incredible heroine’s journey for Princess Diana. Diana and the Amazons discovers war with the arrival of German soldiers on their shores, and with the help of Steve Trevor learn about World War I and the millions dying all across the world. Diana disobeys her mother, steals the lasso of truth and the God Killer sword (one of the most powerful weapons in the DC Universe!) and leaves with Steve to go save the world. She’s naive in thinking she can make everything better just by smiting Ares, who must be behind everything. Here, Gal Gadot plays Diana as the innocent princess, passionately dedicated to her ideals and ready to face down any foe to put her warrior skills to the test. She will save the world no matter what, because she represents the forces of good and right. And of course, she gets a rude awakening.

From the moment Diana sets foot on European soil, she spends a good deal of the film being pulled around by Steve Trevor in a constant state of agitation at the awfulness of man’s world. She’s confounded by the way in which women are treated, clothed, and disregarded. She speaks up to Etta Candy about her employment being akin to slavery. She pushes back against British generals who are willing to sacrifice their men to create an armistice with the Germans. She is Diana, indignant, proud, feminist, a true warrior.

And yet, I kept thinking, and yet.

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When she goes over that trench line? Cheer. Go on. It’s okay. I know I did. 

Gal Gadot shines as Diana. She radiates the confidence, strength, compassion, and power I would expect from someone playing Wonder Woman. And when the action starts and she starts to move, she is a truly intense presence, radiating ferocity and capability. One long action sequence set along a trench line outside the town of Veldt had me positively cheering as Diana lets loose in one of the most awe-inspiring action sequences of the film. I would rate that scene as one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a film altogether, forget about just with a woman protagonist.

From Veldt, Diana heads off to find a German general who, along with his pet scientist, a woman named Doctor Poison, are out to get the Germans back in the war by creating the deadliest mustard gas ever made. The film rockets to a climactic ending with Diana hunting down the German general, who she believes to be the god Ares incarnate. It all comes down to a major battle behind enemy lines with Steve and a ragtag band of their diverse crew of friends in tow. And yet, as the film came around to the climactic ending and its slow wind down to the credits, I found myself seeing the chinks in the armor, the cracks in the candy-covered coating the last half of the film tried to feed me. I felt both exhilarated and dissatisfied.

I went into this film with high expectations. It would be impossible not to, considering the kind of fan I am of Wonder Woman. I wanted to walk into a film that managed to encompass Diana in all her complexity, all the facets that make her one of the richest characters in all the DC Universe. And, to my amazement, I did. I found Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana to be witty and sweet, heartfelt and vulnerable, fiery and aggressive, unapologetic and brave. I don’t believe they could have found anyone willing to tackle the role with such conviction and dedication as Gadot, and I believe director Patti Jenkins understood Diana when she made the movie.

And yet it isn’t Diana that fails this penultimate Wonder Woman film. It’s the rest of the film that fails Wonder Woman.

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Diana with the God Killer sword

Lost Opportunities

From the get-go, the movie is fabulous at juxtaposing the safe, vivid confines of Themyscira for the uncertain, drained-palate wide open man’s world. Yet from the moment Diana walks into Europe, it’s as if the film is sapping away what made the first half special by introducing her to the banalities of patriarchal early 20th century life. Diana is criticized, boxed in, mansplained, and rejected. And while all of those moments would have been perfect examples of the failures of man’s world, the film does not give Diana enough opportunities to press her agency in those situations. While she does speak up against the authorities of male-oriented society around her, the protestations are given too little space around the often redundant and overly mouthy Chris Pine. The camera spent entirely too much time focused on his soulful blue eyes for my taste, driving Diana out of scenes where she could have been the agent of action in her own film. Instead, Diana is led, sometimes literally by the arm, from gun battle to gun battle, left with enough time in between to impress some guys in a bar over her strength and be horrified by the horrors of war.

For the next half an hour at least, Wonder Woman is effectively led through her own movie by Chris Pine’s Trevor, who does a fantastic job of portraying a likable and fun movie hero. But that in and of itself is half the problem. Pine is written as an equal hero alongside Diana, and once the film gives him the reins, it often forgets to let Diana take them back.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681Diana finally wrestles back some agency during the fantastic trench-battle scene, where she seemingly remembers she doesn’t have to listen to this guy she fished out of the ocean. Instead, she almost single-handedly saves the day after pushing back against the men around her denying she can do what she knows she’s clearly capable of doing. And once Diana starts to move, it’s a joy to watch. Her action sequences are pure poetry, her joy at rescuing innocents in harms way infectious. This is the Diana I came to see, one deciding on her own how to go about saving man’s world from itself.

And just like that, the film comes back to a screeching halt by veering off into a love plot.

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Oy vey.

Yes, that’s right, Steve Trevor and Princess Diana. Team Steve, right everyone? Not only are we treated to an all-too saccharine scene of Trevor and Diana dancing in the newly falling snow among the people they saved, but the film makes the almost unforgivable sin of deciding to have an implied sexual encounter between the two.

Now before you jump up and shout, “But Steve and Diana were a thing in the comics!” I’ll ask you to slow your roll for a second and look that shit up. In fact for the most part, though Steve and Diana had many years of intense attraction to one another, they did not in fact end up together in many continuities. Diana and Steve were the couple that never were, with Steve ending up with Etta Candy in the original continuity before the reset, and Diana going on to be attached to different romantic partners including Superman (New 52), Batman (er, almost, in the Justice League cartoon), the mercenary Nemesis, and more. Steve and Diana’s story was the implied deep feelings of two people tied together by love, friendship, and destiny. It does not, however, involve a hasty hookup in a half-bombed out Bulgarian apartment building. Because, you know, they don’t have anything better to do and what would the movie be like without a love story, right?

From here, the movie starts to hit more fits and starts. Diana spends too many scenes being bossed around by Steve, who undermines her at every turn, probably because of his burgeoning feelings for her and need to be overprotective. Diana ignores him for the most part, which is refreshing, but his constant interfering only provides the plot devices necessary to get from one scene to another while undercutting Diana’s agency at every turn. By the time we get to the now famous from the trailer blue dress party scene, Diana has basically had to end-run around Steve just to get anything done. And while once more that could stand as a perfect expression of Steve’s position as an arm of the controlling patriarchy, expressing itself in inappropriate post-coital possessiveness, it’s played off instead as the knowing actions of the experienced soldier restraining the hot-headed princess.

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If only the script let that be true…

Even when Diana proves Steve’s choices have cost lives, there is no repercussions to him literally laying a hand on her to stop her from doing the right thing. Steve Trevor is wrong, gets in Diana’s way, constantly undercuts her agency, chides her for doing what she was trained to do all her life, and gaslights her, and is lionized for it.

wonder-woman-2017-photo025-1495491531570_1280wThese errors are compounded by other issues of representation and missed opportunities in the film. An awkward early scene between Diana and Steve skims almost coyly around the question of Amazonian sexuality (“aww shucks, don’t you know about marriage and sexual pleasure and stuff?”) while ignoring the fact that during the death of a beloved Amazon early in the film, one of her fellow warriors clearly races over in what looks like the grief over her dying lover. That lost moment and odd perhaps erasure of queer inclusion in the film is coupled by some stunning backseating of Doctor Poison as a villain in the film. Touted as a terrifying figure, a murderous chemical genius out to kill for the love of it, Doctor Poison is instead relegated to the German general’s frail sidekick. Her sole moment to shine is in a scene during the castle party when she, wait for it, nearly falls for the undercover charms of Steve Trevor.

WONDER WOMANThe film also manages to get some wonderful racial and ethnic stereotyping into the movie with Steve’s three buddies in intrigue, Sameer, Charlie, and Chief. Sameer is played as a lying grifter whose heart really lies in the theater. His “very sorry, master!” acting to Pine’s pretend German general as they try to sneak into the castle is almost painful to watch in its stereotypical awfulness. Meanwhile, Charlie (played by the phenomenal Ewen Bremner) has the chance to be a poignant character as a crack sniper dealing with issues of PTSD. He might have gotten there however if he wasn’t buried in the trope of the Drunken Scotsman so hard its almost shocking. And then there’s Chief, the Native American smuggler who manages to magically show Diana where the bad guy is going by sending up smoke signals. No joke there. For serious.

The end of the film has its moments of fantastic action and cheering triumph as Gadot’s brilliant portrayal of Wonder Woman carries us through the somewhat overdone CGI final battle. However by that point, the holes in the third act have led to so many and yet moments. Even when the film pulls a reverse fridging to kill of Trevor in an act of sacrifice to get Diana mad enough to succeed, it is couched in such typical patriarchal language its hard to get through it all. Diana sees her lover get blown out of the sky and loses her cool, screaming and fighting her way through the Germans while being goaded into her rage, emotionally out of control (of course, because how like a woman). She only manages to take control of herself when confronted by a woman she is about to kill, the very Doctor Poison who had slaughtered so many on the battlefield. And of course the film flashes back to Trevor’s last declaration of love to her, and his words of wisdom earlier in the film as he mansplains the way to have compassion for those unworthy of protection. Only then, remembering her lovers words, does Diana find the strength to stop her enemies. The answer all along, she says, “is love.”

And that’s when I just about fell out of my chair.

c-38a4sxkaavykzLook, I was worried from the jump that Wonder Woman would fall into the love story trope. I prayed up and down on a stack of Gail Simone issues that we’d end up with a Mako Mori/Raleigh relationship instead, with two deeply connected people out to end a terrible threat together, rather than indulging in the traditional boy-meets-girl nonsense. When I heard the leaked songs from the soundtrack leading with the gushy song by Sia featuring a chorus with lyrics like “To be human is to love,” I knew there was a chance we were in trouble. But when Wonder Woman rose into the air crackling with lightning, empowered by the knowledge that love triumphs over all, I knew we’d tumbled right into some magical girl anime territory. I knew that somehow, somewhere, some studio executive saw a cut of the film and said, “You know what this needs? It needs a handsome love interest to be an equal hero, to give the little lady some support, because she can’t carry this all herself. Oh yeah, and this needs more CGI. All super hero movies need more CGI.”

Look, here’s the real truth of it: yes, Wonder Woman is powered in large part by love. Love for mankind, for her fellow Amazons, for the world around her, pretty much for everyone. She is a being made of love, really, and fueled by it in a world where things go horribly wrong all the damn time and she faces terrible, unrelenting darkness. And that’s what the movie is desperately trying to get at in its own hackneyed way. But by undercutting Diana with that awful “I love you” tripe with Trevor, it turned the benevolent complexity of a woman with boundless caring for the whole world into what sounds like a greeting card answer. The complexity, the depth, was lost.

By the end of the film, I was on a wild see-saw ride inside. The credits rolled and I was unsure how to feel. On the one hand, Gal Gadot had captured everything I wanted to see in Diana. She had found that spot that Greg Rucka talked about, that place where the complexity of the character could be found. She was the physical presence, the beauty, the grace, the wit, everything. I could not have been happier with Wonder Woman. She was perfect.

Wonder-Woman-Movie-ArtworkAnd yet she was too perfect for the movie she was in. She was too perfect for a movie that wouldn’t trust her to just be herself, to stand strong and make her own decisions without being led by the nose by a male counterpart. Though the character might be young and on the beginning of her journey, there was a great difference between showing inexperience in the character of Diana and providing the movie with tons of moments of bad patriarchal behavior that are barely ever addressed or confronted. By the end it was quite clear the movie had lost the complexity of Diana in favor of tropes better recognizable to a general movie audience: the star-crossed wartime lovers, the lost and enraged hero saved by the power of love. And while it might be revolutionary for some that the genders of these tropes have been flipped so the hero has become the Wonder heroine, as a fan of the character for two and a half decades, I am not that easily impressed. I expect more.

And that’s where this movie fell short. Perhaps there was no way it could have met my expectations, as high as they were. No film could probably come close to the image I have in my head of Wonder Woman, built up from a little girl’s adoration through twenty five years of appreciation. Yet I could only hold the film up to that internal yard stick and see where it fell. The result was exciting and sad all at once. Because perhaps if the movie had just trusted in its own Wonder Woman and the power of her character to be who she could and should have been, the movie would have achieved that place of perfection. As it is, it stands as the best of all the DC films so far and perhaps one of the best superhero films out there yet. A solid 8.5/10.

And yet, what could have been. And yet.