Wonder Woman has carried a particularly heavy weight of expectation on her shoulders right from the announcement of the film. There has been a sense that the reception of Patty Jenkins’s film would make or break women’s filmmaking at large; when she was announced as the director in 2015, industry news sources all noted that this would make her the first female director of a superhero film. But we have to be careful. Wonder Woman will not single-handedly usher crowds of women into the director’s boys club and Patty Jenkins does not represent all women’s filmmaking abilities, just as she would not have represented all women’s filmmaking abilities had the film been a flop. What Wonder Woman’s success does do, however, is send a powerful message to executives in the only language they understand: cash. Action films featuring female leads, directed by women, will sell at the box office if they are good.
And, to many people’s relief, Wonder Woman is good. We open on Wonder Woman herself, always called Diana in the film, working as an art curator in Paris, and the rest of the film is her recollection of the events of 1918. Her story begins on Themiscyra, a utopian island magically separated from the outside world and populated solely by the Amazons, fierce warrior women and protectors of peace created by Zeus to one day prevent the world to end all wars, waged by Ares. Here, the only child is baby Diana, sculpted out of clay by Zeus at her mother, the queen’s behest. Unlike previous depictions of the Amazons (though ashamedly my main point of reference here is Futurama), they are not portrayed as man hating. Rather, they live lives un-stymied by male presence — men are simply extraneous to their experience: an irrelevance. Fast-forward 15 years: enter Chris Pine in a pile of wreckage. Pine plays Steve Trevor, an American spy whose plane crash-lands off Themiscyra, and whose pursuit by a pack of angry Germans leads to a fight between the Amazons and the soldiers. I don’t need to tell you who wins. After Trevor tells the Amazons about the Great War, Diana realises that her destiny is to destroy Ares (who must be responsible) and enlists Trevor to help her.
Trevor leads Diana to the Western Front via London, where she meets Etta, Trevor’s secretary (or “slave”, as Diana sees it), and gets fitted out with some less conspicuous togs, all of which make no sense to her, not least the corset, which she assumes is armour of some kind. In the London department store, she tries on various trussed up, frumpy gowns and tries to lunge and kick in them, to no avail. “How can a woman possibly fight in this?”, she asks. This is a funny scene but also a clever one, because it makes it explicit that Wonder Woman’s outfit is, in its way, practical. Diana wears a version of the classic Wonder Woman outfit, but it’s armoured, and its skimpiness is explicitly all the better for kicking ass with, rather than for the male gaze. Her thigh muscles ripple as she jumps, and her guns flex as she runs.
Along the way, they pick up the rest of their gang: an out of work actor turned con artist called Sameer, a Native American mercenary, Chief, and a drunken Scottish sniper, Charlie. These three men spend the film either telling her what to do, which she blithely ignores, or staring at her with wide-eyed incredulity. They are decidedly in her entourage, not the other way around. This is a big departure for female characters in superhero films: think of Mystique in the X-Men films, Black Widow in Captain America, Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. All superheroes, but all supporting figures for the men. Instead, Trevor and co come together to support Diana’s superior abilities, for instance the four of them prop up a car door so that she can use it as a platform from which to jump and deal the final blow against an enemy. From here, they go on to foil a dastardly biochemical plot dreamt up by a scarred evil scientist, Isabelle Morrow, and her partner in crime General Ludendorf. And so on and so forth, through various encounters with British intelligence and Nazi high command that have varying levels of plausibility. But hey, it’s a superhero movie: don’t look too hard for realism.
It is, of course, not perfect. Wonder Woman is a regressive film in certain ways. It’s a nakedly patriotic take on American involvement in World War One, and it is a real shame they called the Native American character “Chief”. The main Goodie is beautiful, the main Baddie is disfigured. There are loose character threads, such as Etta’s: after it is revealed she’s been accidentally working for the God of War, we don’t see her again. There are places where suspending disbelief is a heavier task than it should be. However, the defiantly different take on the classic superhero narrative means that these flaws make only a small dent in one’s enjoyment of the film.
Cynical critique is popular and fun to write, but I can’t really bring any of it to bear on a review of this film. Not because it is perfect, but because it deflects irony. Wonder Woman is a deeply sincere superhero film, but not in a self-important way. The dull pomposity of, for instance, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, is nowhere in evidence. This time, Snyder and the other writers could also have gone down the Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy route, with a world-weary, snarky protagonist. What they in fact did was a bigger risk. But as with all bigger risks, it came with a better pay off: a fresh and original vision of a decades old character. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is unabashedly compassionate, green and hopeful, as well as being physically powerful and an expert in combat. We have seen women fighting on screen before, but the fact that most people can only name a small handful with ease (maybe Ripley, Lara Croft, Sarah Conners, The Bride in Kill Bill) means that Wonder Woman’s representation of female martial power still feels rare when you see it. However, this does not mean she has to be traditionally masculine. She likes babies, throwing tanks, ice cream, archery, sex, justice. And why not? Often female characters who are physically powerful are only allowed to be so at the expense of their human warmth, which is down to a general reluctance or laziness on the part of script writers about giving female characters depth and complexity: all too often they take the shortcut of copy-pasting in the Battle Axe or the Wide-Eyed Damsel.
Diana’s true super power is her empathy. Jenkins has been careful to show Wonder Woman using violence mostly in self-defence, mostly non-fatally and never towards civilians. This is unlike Man of Steel, in which the collateral damage from the final stand-off killed thousands of bystanders for no good reason; this vision of superhero battle is much easier to watch. It is a supreme tonal achievement that a film in which love and compassion explicitly saves the world doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes so far to the back of your head that they stay there.
There is no attempt to deny that Gadot’s Wonder Woman is strikingly beautiful (in fact, Etta neatly subverts the old Clark Kent disguise trope by withering Trevor’s attempt to hide her beauty behind a pair of specs), but between them, Jenkins and Gadot have, in fact, managed to strip away much of her identity as sex object. In fact, Chris Pine’s character is the one who gets walked in on naked in Wonder Woman and subjected to some double entendre. Diana inadvertently interrupts him washing, and points at his watch, asking what it’s for. He explains that it tells him when it’s time to do things, and she responds, looking down at it with only the faintest of smiles, by saying, “you let that little thing tell you what to do?” It’s a knowing subversion of the usual gender dynamic of this sort of interaction, but it’s subtle enough and softly delivered enough that it doesn’t seem creepy or bitter on the part of Gadot or the filmmakers. On their way to London by boat, she is nonplussed by Trevor’s discomfort at sleeping next to her, and tells him matter of factly that, to Amazonian thinking, “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure – unnecessary”. And his character ultimately (spoilers) dies to motivate her character development. This is a film made by people who know all too well the sexist bullshit that drives too many plots, and graciously flip it on its head.
Perhaps people will complain that this Wonder Woman is not as empowering a figure as she is in the comic books. Maybe this is so. Who cares, frankly. Films about powerful women are often criticised for either being too feminist or not feminist enough. Wonder Woman has (demonstrably, social media is overrun with proof) empowered women to feel strong and hopeful about themselves, which can be said of negligibly few blockbuster movies. And hell, it’s a miracle to be celebrated that we have a Wonder Woman film at all — even Ant Man got one before she did. Ant Man.
The film has been a financial success, too, raking in over $100m at the US box office on its opening weekend: the most ever taken by a film directed by a woman. This is brilliant news. However, Wonder Woman is Patty Jenkins’ second film, after she wrote and directed Monster fourteen years ago. This is what female directors are up against and will continue to be up against. One male reviewer, for a publication not worth linking to, even suggested that letting Jenkins direct Wonder Woman was merely a “politically correct token”. Yes, Patty Jenkins was allowed to make a brilliant female super hero movie, but until women are allowed to turn out crappy super hero movies in quick succession like their male counterparts, we’re not truly talking about equality here. We need to keep working hard to tip the balance. That said, in the optimistic spirit of Wonder Woman, let us hope that this box office event might at least suggest to some producers somewhere that it could be worth their while giving women a chance to show what they can do.