Wonder Woman movie review: women’s work

Wonder Woman green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Everything about this joyful, sincere origin story feels like a retort — a very welcome and much needed one — to traditional male-centered superhero stories.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

She’s done it!” an anonymous grunt cheers from the trenches at the Western front after Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Amazonian goddess warrior, has succeeded in crossing No Man’s Land to the German side and taken out the enemy, clearing the path for the soldiers to follow. And I cried tears of joy. Not because of the badassedly heroic depiction of a woman doing a thing women do all the time: come in, assess a messy situation not of her own making, and just tuck in and do the nasty, dirty job that a bunch of dudes had been sitting around avoiding. Though there is that, too. But because her attempt and her success are acknowledged. And not even grudgingly! Not contemptuously. Not in any way reeking of the shame of comeuppance that so many men often express for women who’ve done something better than they could have. But with celebration. With awe.

I don’t think any man can possibly appreciate just how gratifying a movie like Wonder Woman is to women…

It’s such a tiny moment in the film, such a small, almost throwaway thing. Which makes it loom even bigger, that such a spontaneous, impulsive whoop could have such power, because it highlights how rare spontaneous, impulsive acclaim is for girls and women, onscreen and off.

So Wonder Woman is doubly necessary, doubly welcome, and doubly corrective. Not only the big screen but the real world is full of the celebration and cheering on of men, even when they do things that are not worth celebrating or cheering. Yet most of the real-life amazing things girls and women do, we never hear about, and you can forget about mediocre women being cheered and celebrated like mediocre men are. I don’t think any man can possibly appreciate just how gratifying a movie like Wonder Woman has the potential to be, or just how well this one rises to meet the demand of girls and women desperately hungry for the same cultural validation that boys and men take for absolute granted.

When someone asks if you’re a goddess, you say yes (because you are).
When someone asks if you’re a goddess, you say yes (because you are).

Incredibly, Wonder Woman is also a sneaky commentary on how the amazing deeds of awesome women go unheralded in our culture. WW opens in the present day, as Diana Prince (Gal Gadot [Keeping Up with the Joneses, Triple 9], whose boots we are not worthy to lick) receives — at her workplace, the Louvre! — a briefcase containing the original of the photograph we glimpsed in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Diana in her Amazon armor surrounded by what sure as heck looks like World War I–era soldiers. The photo looks a century old, too. It was this image that clued in Wayne in BvS that Diana might be, you know, some sort of immortal badass, and now, in the note accompanying the photo, he suggests that someday Diana might tell him the tale behind it. That’s the introduction for the rest of the movie, an origin story that is a long flashback, and one that appears to be playing out only in Diana’s memory. No one else knows this! Superman, in this DC Extended Universe, has a giant statue of himself in Metropolis honoring his heroic exploits, and Batman — as always — is summoned by a spotlight shining out across the Gotham skyline; both men are featured regularly in their city’s media. But Diana’s story is a secret history.

Wonder Woman offers sneaky commentary on how the amazing deeds of awesome women go unheralded in our culture.

Everything about Diana, and everything about Wonder Woman, feels like a retort — a much needed one — to traditional male-centered superhero stories. That No Man’s Land scene is the centerpiece of the film, and it’s where Diana emerges as Wonder Woman: it’s the first appearance of her iconic red, blue, and gold armor, but it’s also the first time she turns her solid sense of justice and righteousness into literal action, racing to save a village on the other side that has been ravaged by the German army. It’s nothing like the conventional first battle for a newly emerged spandex-clad dude with a hard-on for saving a city. There is no oversized cartoonish villain with a bloated ego threatening armageddon; there is no ticking clock to doomsday. There is just… people. Humans. Ordinary mundane mortal men behaving badly in wartime, and in a way that will be happening in many places. (But Diana is here, now, and she cannot let this particular tragedy stand.) It seems like a very privileged straight white man’s idea of the world that there are no real injustices to be fought, so outlandish villains must be invented for a (straight white male) hero to battle… and it seems very much like a woman’s idea of the world that there sure as hell are plenty of everyday inequities and injustices that need a good bashing. (I’m sort of surprised that WW was written by men: the script is by TV writer Allan Heinberg making his feature debut, with Zack Snyder [300: Rise of an Empire, Sucker Punch] and Jason Fuchs [Pan, Ice Age: Continental Drift] contributing to the story. If they can be this woke here, why can’t they be this way all the time? Or maybe they only hit on this accidentally.)

“No Man’s Land, you say? I am no man....”
“No Man’s Land, you say? I am no man….”

The idea of the big bad cartoon villain is toyed with in WW, but only in a way that intentionally undercuts it. The path of Diana’s larger quest, the quest of all Amazons, is to protect the world from Ares, the god of war. She has learned about the Great War in progress from Steve Trevor (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond, Hell or High Water), an American pilot and spy who has crashed near Themyscira, and whom she rescues, and she leaves her island paradise and travels to the mortal realm of Europe with him, presuming that if she can find and kill Ares, this War — the injustice and horrors of which deeply offend her — will instantly come to a stop. But she doesn’t even know where Ares is, or even if he has manifested in the mortal realm at all. Things turn out to be wildly more complicated than Diana was imagining, and her charming naiveté must give way to a more nuanced understanding of good and evil… and it’s much the same path we all have to take as we grow up. It’s the precise opposite of black-and-white comic-book philosophy, and it’s an absolutely extraordinary thing to see a comic-book movie tackle.

The idea of the big bad cartoon villain is toyed with in Wonder Woman, but only in a way that intentionally undercuts it.

Ah, Zeus, but I’m making Wonder Woman sound so serious and so solemn, and it’s nothing of the sort! There is so much humor and joy here — a surprising amount, perhaps, considering the inevitably grim WWI setting — plus a lovely old-fashioned sincerity and a refreshing lack of cynicism. (I love snark, but it’s nice to take a break from that once in a while, and to be reminded how nice pure idealism feels.) There is no tempering of Diana’s fiery decency and thirst for fairness and honesty, no quarter given to doubt or hesitation. Diana’s relationship with Steve is smarter and richer and more subtle than we typically get between a male hero and his female love interest: the movie doesn’t just nod to their relationship as one of equals but actually lets that play out onscreen. (That’s pretty typical for women-centered movies: their male supporting characters are almost always more substantial than the female supporting characters for male protagonists.) There’s a wonderful female baddie in “Dr. Poison” (Elena Anaya: The Skin I Live In, Van Helsing), a German chemical weapons designer — no one, not even her military superior (Danny Huston: Big Eyes, The Congress), seems to think there’s anything odd in a woman doing that job, which is absolutely bracing.

“You look great, hon, but I’m not sure this is the best time for your Celtic priestess cosplay...”
“You look great, hon, but I’m not sure this is the best time for your Celtic priestess cosplay…”

But there is no doubt that the very bestest thing about Wonder Woman is how director Patty Jenkins (Monster) depicts Diana: as a person whose physical strength and physical beauty are undeniable, but also just mere matters-of-fact. One way in which WW is very much like all those other superhero movies is that Diana is treated with awe by the camera, but also with respect. She is shot to show off her power; she is shot to show off what her body can do, not to show off what her body looks like. Unlike the vast majority of women onscreen, even those who are ostensibly strong both in personality and physique, Diana is depicted as a person who belongs to herself, not to the viewer. (All of the Amazons onscreen, including Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta [Connie Nielsen: 3 Days to Kill, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1], and military leader General Antiope [Robin Wright: Everest, A Most Wanted Man], are regarded in the same high esteem.) We may certainly find Diana beautiful — it would be difficult not to, in fact — but the camera does not insist on it. Which is how women onscreen should be seen far more often.

see also:
Wonder Woman 1984 movie review: days of future past

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