Wonder Woman is a film loaded with fun, action and heart that manages to efficiently check off every single thing one would need for a high-quality superhero movie and then proceeds to offer more than the audience had a right to expect. To say that director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot perfectly threaded the needle on this project is to understate just what they have accomplished. In between all of the thrilling, if occasionally dizzying action sequences, a living, breathing, well-rounded person emerges; one who is more interesting, charismatic and charming than literally any other DC superhero captured on film or video in the last two decades – or even four, since Gadot’s performance is rightly being compared to Christopher Reeve’s Superman. More importantly, a new template for the female hero emerges; one that doesn’t rely on the male gaze or a fetishized “badassedness” that obscures an inner life. Jenkins and Gadot took the OG superheroine and fashioned an approach to action filmmaking that is distinctly woman-centered without being remotely cute or precious about it. It is, without fuss, a classic hero’s tale told from the perspective of a hero who is a woman.
First, casting matters. You can’t just shove anyone in a superhero costume and expect it to work – especially a superhero as iconic as Wonder Woman. There’s a reason Gal Gadot’s performance is being compared so often to Christopher Reeve’s. It’s not just because she’s charismatic, sincere and likable. It’s not even because she’s so eminently believable in the role. It’s because the performance starts from the assumption that a hero can simply be heroic because that’s what they choose to be; because that’s the kind of person they were raised to be. Goodness. It radiates from her performance in the same way it did from Reeve’s – and in a manner almost no modern superhero performance is executed. She is completely without guile and utterly self-confident. The definition of someone who is fully herself.
There’s a subtle aspect of Diana’s character that comes through in Gadot’s performance under Jenkins’ direction: she is almost always intently forward-focused. There’s a charming and cute scene where Diana encounters a revolving door for the first time (echoing a similar scene with Reeve in the first Superman film). Steve Trevor and his secretary Etta fuss over her (because she’s holding a sword and shield in the middle of London) but never once does she pay them any attention. She is entirely focused on figuring out and getting through that door. It stands out because there’s such an ingrained expectation for women (onscreen and off, fictional and real) to be deferential; to slow down and let someone explain things to them. Even in action films with the requisite “badass female” characters, there’s always a sense that a confident woman is, by her very nature, making a mistake. You never once get that sense with Diana, even as her entry into the world of men is clearly loaded with some naive assumptions about what she can do for it. In fact, her journey in the tale is partially a classic hero’s tale of learning the truth of your origins/power (think Luke Skywalker) and partially one from childhood naiveté about the world to a more nuanced, grownup sense of it. All of this is deftly handled and conveyed by Jenkins’ confident, uncluttered direction and Gadot’s open, earnest portrayal. Diana “grows up” in this story without being shamed or pummeled into submission. She changes her perspective but is not fundamentally changed by her experiences. She is not, in other words, “taught a lesson.”
This is why we single out Jenkins’ direction and her status as a woman. She’s able to take a female hero through a story like this without ever once falling into the kinds of traps and cliches that female heroes are routinely subjected to under the direction of male creators. Every single character (except for the villains, who rightly need most of their scenes to take place apart from her) is positioned around Diana; every character speaking directly to her, waiting for her to decide what to do, reacting to her action once she decides, over and over again. There’s not even the slightest sense that any of the other characters (who are all mostly male after she leaves her island home) threaten to overtake or overwhelm the story.
Take the range of women depicted in the Amazon nation. Despite Gal Gadot’s sylph-like beauty and runway model bearing, the women of Themyscira are not a bunch of pinups. Instead, they’re a bunch of really powerful-looking women; thickly built and tall, like athletes more than models. In scene after scene depicting beautiful women in exotic costumes on a sunlit island setting, there is never once a sense that we’re looking at them through a man’s eyes; never once are they shown as bodies first, people second. Throughout the film, despite the chances a strapless miniskirted all-leather costume might provide, the camera lingers not on Gadot’s body, but on her face – constantly. She’s so lovingly photographed it’s a little hard not to see her as a semi-divine figure; nearly impossible not to fall in love with her a little. There isn’t time enough in a film like this one to dive into the Amazon world as much as we might have liked, but Jenkins makes these opening scenes count. If you really want to get to the heart of who this character is, watch her mother ride a horse like a legendary queen or her aunt charge into battle like Leonidas. And then marvel that you’re watching a fifty-year-old woman (Robin Wright) tearing up the screen in one of the best, most beautifully shot and choreographed action scenes of the year. The emotional wallop of it all will hit you unexpectedly. We hope this doesn’t sound weird, but we’ve sat through a lot of crowded superhero movie opening weekends. Until last night, we’d never sat through one where the predominant utterances coming from the audience were clearly female gasps. Over and over again, surrounding us, we heard one woman after another grunt or gasp involuntarily throughout the film. Don’t take our word for it. Go read some of the reviews of this film written by women critics. For many of them, it turned out to be a surprisingly emotional experience.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that Diana’s sexuality was lightly touched upon and not remotely lingered over. This is a character with a sexual and romantic history that careened between reverent and exploitive over her publishing history, as you might imagine a pedestal-dwelling goddess figure written almost exclusively by men for 75 years would be. Whatever gestures the film makes towards depicting Diana as a sexual being came off as a way of rounding her out rather than for titillation. Even better, Diana’s reaction to heterosexual sexual expression is simply not conveyed much at all. More time is spent on her joyous first reactions to babies and ice cream than to anything having to do with heterosexual sex or any attraction she might have to a man. Which brings us to Chris Pine, who does something no one had any right to expect from him here. He gave the best performance of his career. Steve Trevor is by no means the Perfect Boyfriend or a Nice Guy. He’s not a square-jawed hero nor is he a sensitive dude-in-distress. Like Gadot’s Diana, he’s simple a fully rounded, living, breathing person with agendas, experience, and a certain world-weariness that spars with Diana’s optimism in a way that suggests he’d much rather be wrong than right. The two of them have chemistry out the wazoo. And while we didn’t go into the film thinking a love story was remotely needed, we wound up getting a surprisingly tender and entertaining one.
Let’s get to some criticisms, so this doesn’t come off like too much of a gush. There’s a lot of ground to cover in a film like this, since you’re dealing with an iconic character whose backstory is largely unknown by the general public. A more or less standard origin story is needed here and you’ll have to patiently sit through several scenes that are more necessary than entertaining on their own merits. It’s a film that does tend to get talky at times, but to be fair, it’s also a rare superhero film that’s trying to ask and answer some fairly big questions about the nature of humanity. And then there’s the final act, which pretty much goes straight to the standard superhero final act checklist.
On the one hand, the final battle is nothing but a bunch of modern superhero flick cliches – which the film had managed to neatly avoid up until then, largely because of its World War I setting (not to mention its distinctly female perspective). Everything was there, from the crackling energy in the sky to the megalomaniac making a speech, to the moment when all seems lost only (spoiler) for our heroine to rally emotionally as well as physically. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be singularly thrilled, in a hairs-standing-up kind of way, to see that kind of raw power emanating from a woman’s form. “Badass” women in film or television tend to be good with a gun or good with a kick or good with some sort of move that tends to wind up with her straddling a man’s head with her thighs before flipping him, in the Black Widow/Catwoman/Black Canary /Harley Quinn mode. Then there are the point-and-gesture heroines in the Storm/Jean Grey/Invisible Woman/Scarlet Witch mode. Fun in their own way, but not exactly cathartically thrilling to watch. But a woman at the center of explosions; hurling lightning, throwing tanks and generally doing the sorts of stuff reserved only for your Thors, Hulks or Super-dudes, is not only a genuinely thrilling thing to see, but a deeply emotional one as well. Again – there’s this constant sense of the physical and the emotional being intertwined in a way that shows Patty Jenkins really understands the metaphoric aspects of superhero tales.
If we haven’t made it clear so far, we loved this film. It’s not perfect, but it is the best single-character superhero film in years, not to mention one that easily sits among the best the genre has ever produced. Even better, it offers an emotional reward and a unique perspective unlike every other example of the form. Wonder Woman sits, as she should, both with the pantheon of great heroes, as well as above it.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]