What's the wonder about Wonder Woman?
In the 1980’s my little brother and I were deep into DC comics. I carried around a 13 inch, plastic wonder woman doll that rivaled my brother’s Superman and Batman action heroes. So I came into this movie with many childhood expectations waiting to be fulfilled.
Gal Gadot brings tremendous integrity to her role: her character is strong but accessible and makes for a distinctly modern Wonder Woman that is perhaps late arriving to the screen, but a breath of fresh air nonetheless. She is physically and mentally strong. Capable. Intelligent. Full of compassion. And her compassion and empathy are not weaknesses to over-come but part of the world view that makes her our hero.* When Wonder Woman sees a baby for the first time on screen she throws open her arms to run to it with excitement. It's refreshing for a generation of young women who are tired of seeing female characters regulated to either rough and tumble sex-candy roles vs. loving matriarchs that ground other characters, but don’t get to dip their own toes into heroism. This woman gets to be both, and neither detracts from the other. More please.
The relationships between the women in this movie are also revolutionary. For starters they are atypically, real: the amazons have comradery. They have love for each other that is in no way fetishized. When Queen Hippolyta turns to her daughter Diana and tells her simply "you have been the love of my life" it was perhaps, the most realistic moment in the movie. It's surprising to realize how infrequently healthy female relationships get shown on screen.
There was also a particular satisfaction for this 80’s-baby in seeing the Princess Bride’s Princess Buttercup reimagined as the most competent fighter and general of the amazons. Robin Wright’s acting chops have only grown with time. You will know her, and love the more grown up version of her.
Much has also been made of the woman behind Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins. Conan O’Brian recently had a thoughtful segment where he brought Jenkins on to discuss the film. He argues that with a male director the amazon race would likely all be of a certain physicality, while Jenkins' amazons are of many races and builds. For her the answer was simple: an Amazon has to first be physically strong and competent and so she found the most capable female athletes of our day to play the amazons. And because these real-world athletes come in all shapes and colors her amazons naturally came in all shapes and colors. Watch the movie for them alone: their horsemanship and their fight scenes are delightful.
This is Jenkin’s first movie since the critically acclaimed 2003 movie Monster. Why this gem of a director has been hidden for the past 14 years is a mystery. She was apparently hired to direct the sequel to the movie Thor in 2011 but left the movie after 2 months over creative differences. Regardless of the delay, we are glad she is no longer waiting in the wings. Other reviewers have commented on the nuances of the film that only a female director would think to bring: When wonder woman crashes to the ground you see her thighs jiggle (that this physiologic detail is commentary-worthy should make the need for more female directors all the more apparent). And the amazons, while all beautiful and strong are never the subject of lingering eye candy shots. I hope Hollywood takes Wonder Woman’s success as a sign to bring up more female directors.
If you care to read my husband’s letterboxd review of the movie you can do so here. He docked half a star for the less than convincing German accents and what he felt was a superfluous love plot between Diana and WWI Spy Steve Trevor. I am more than fine with it: Chris Pine, the actor behind Steve, will be most familiar to sci fi fans as the new incarnation of the young Captain Kirk. He plays a convincing counter-part to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. He’s not demeaning and recognizes early on her competence, sacrificing himself in the end, saying “I can save the day, but you can save the world.” It’s not hard to see what Wonder Woman sees in his character.
There is much more to say: the understated humor of the movie shouldn’t be ignored. When Wonder woman tries ice cream for the first time and turns to the salesman exclaiming “This is wonderful! You should be very proud of yourself!” everyone in the theater chuckled. The stylistic choice to make Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira techi-colored and bright in contrast to dreary London helps reinforce the impact of WWI on the world (and notably when the smoke clears in the final scenes the light comes in with it as well). The portrayal of mankind as possessing both good and evil within themselves and the ongoing need for each person to choose good gives us a dose of realism in the super hero world. There is much more….but here I’ve met my limit and given away enough spoilers. I hope you all go and see it. Few movies give you a life affirming jolt. This is one of them.
Peter and I have a baby due in November. We don’t yet know if it is a boy or a girl. Either way it will be growing up with this version of wonder woman.
* For those who follows such things in movies, you can see a great commentary on how Newt Scamander from the Fantastic Beast Series provides a more healthy, realistic depiction of masculinity in a leading man here.