The scene comes about halfway into Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, and it’s about as carefully prepared and elegantly executed a reveal as you’ll find this side of The Third Man. Our heroine, Diana (aka Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman), is being spirited through the foxholes of Western Front (the story is mostly set during WWI, more on the significance of that later), a brutal line that hasn’t moved in a year. “It’s a no man’s land,” she’s told. “No man can cross it.” No man. And with that, she leaps onto that battlefield, revealing for the first time her iconic red, blue, and gold uniform – and the full scope of her power.
This is a sequence not about plot (as they’re en route to fulfill the mission the movie’s about; it’s literally a detour) or even about character, but iconography. It’s a crowd-pleasing moment, and it works. And as she crouches in the middle of that battlefield, her shield aloft, taking round after round of enemy gunfire, it’s not hard to image its enthusiastic audience of women feeling a genuine tinge of identification. As Diana overcomes the odds and battles through the enemies in a beautifully choreographed fight scene, like a dancer in a violent ballet, it hard not to image the audience cheering in elation. And cheer they did.
A moment like that reminds us that Wonder Woman is, rightly or wrongly, more than just a movie, but a long-overdue big-screen showcase of an honest-to-goodness female comic book legend, in a landscape (both on the page and on the screen) that is notoriously male-dominated. Director Patty Jenkins has talked extensively in the media about the difficulties of directing a film with such high stakes for female filmmakers and female superheroes, and while Wonder Woman is supremely calculated in its gender politics and its gender role reversals, it’s also easy to get so wrapped up in what Wonder Woman represents – comic book movie about a woman, geared towards women, directed by a woman – that we overlook what it actually is; a really good movie. And thank goodness for that. Wonder Woman not only empowers its viewers – it enthralls them, with a neatly structured story that, under the care of such a talented director has fully delivered and then some.
Gal Gadot is a delight as Diana, occupying the titular role with exceptional poise and gusto, whether bantering with Pine or charging into a German battalion. As with many of the films DCEU predecessors Diana is a character marked by duality, but where Batman and Superman are weighted-down and tormented by their solitude and their histories, by the battles between light and darkness, Diana is enriched by her contradictions – a supremely capable yet utterly innocent, a big fish who has left her little pond and now finds herself out of water altogether. She’s a character that takes her solitude for granted, and her history is almost entirely of her own choosing. Batman tortures criminals and tries to murder Superman, while Superman himself accidentally destroys cities, and is forced to murder villains. Wonder Woman simply fights injustice and saves lives. It is, frankly, a relief.
Wonder Woman has a lightness and wryness that none of its DC predecessors could claim, but it’s still about philosophical crisis and a hero trying to find an identity. It’s still exploring DC’s favorite themes: whether mankind truly deserves heroes, and whether it’s possible for one person to justly wield immense power. But this time around, those themes are explored with a humanity that the franchise’s previous films were lacking. Jenkins takes her protagonist’s natural superiority for granted, making it a joy instead of a heavy burden. In their hands, Wonder Woman questions her place in the world, but not her inherent identity. And it makes all the difference to the story.
Wonder Woman, who first appeared in a 1941 DC Comics, has been waiting a long time to make it to the big screen. The film, which chooses to focus on character over violence (please continue to do this from now on DC) explains her story – and only her story: the narrow focus is one of several wise decisions in a strong script in which Snyder had a hand, but which Allan Heinberg wrote. Yes, this is an origin story, but it is one in which the “origins” don’t get in the way of the story.
After a brief framing scene in the present day, the movie takes us back in time to Themyscira, the legendary island of the Amazons. Outside of Themyscira’s paradisaical bubble of protection, World War I has been raging for four years, 25 million people have died. The arrival of Trevor and the soldiers disrupts and threatens to destroy that paradise and the Amazons are forced to fight to defend the society they have built. It’s hard not to see the allegorical radicalism in this setting: a paradise created by women, destroyed by men.
Placing the film in its First World War setting was a smart and calculated move; it’s not the righteous battle against Nazism (a la Captain America), but the moral quagmire of the Western Front. The ‘America first’ blind-patriotism that WWII lends itself to is absent from this film and it is instead infused with a more international flavour, and a more diverse set of supporting characters. Befitting this World War I setting, Wonder Woman has a certain throwback charm to it, with Gadot and Pine playing off one another as good-naturedly as characters in a 1930s comedy. It’s a vibe that stands in particular contrast to the bitter, Snyderesque unpleasantries – “Do you bleed? You will!” – that characterized the movie’s immediate DC predecessors.
Another benefit of the setting is that there are no heroes yet in their world, so the characters have a strong urge to treat Diana as just another strikingly beautiful woman — in other words, to protect her, sideline her, and politely diminish her. And without making a fuss about it, she is in no way willing to be diminished. She’s a fish out of water in 1918 London, which gives Wonder Woman a fair number of comedy opportunities — and also its strongest feminist leanings, as Steve tries to control and contain Diana, and she shrugs him off and does whatever makes sense to her instead. But Diana, raised in isolation from the outside world, is also blindly naive to its brutality.
Wonder Woman gets its philosophical bend from the conflict between Diana’s pure, untested idealism and the actual gruesome realities of war, and it finds rich ground in the gap between them. It also gives the movie a fascinating narrative tension, as Diana and Steve try to carry out a spy mission while operating under radically different worldviews: he wants to stop a German weapons program, she wants to stop a god. Wonder Woman continually finds the strain between a mundane worldview and a supernatural, superheroic one, and questions what that strain would do to the people trying to navigate it.
It is hard to really pick major faults with a film that has taken risks and emerged as a piece of spectacular filmmaking. Wonder Woman is comfortably at home being ranked in the same league as the likes of The Dark Knight Trilogy, or the best Marvel has to offer. Upon leaving the cinema, I witnessed a mother in tears with her son, as they both excitedly spoke of how inspiring and brilliant the film they had just seen was … this is the point really isn’t it. For all the bleating about the odd ‘Women-only screening’ (get over it guys), this is why we go to the movies and why we need heroes. They inspire, they engage, they encourage. Wonder Woman does all that and is a tremendous win for a franchise that desperately needed one.
Image: Roadshow Films