I could write you a five-page essay on why I loved Wonder Woman, dir. Patty Jenkins. Well, I have a week off soon, so I actually might, but tonight I am tired and in desperate need of a nap, so I’ll keep it brief.
Wonder Woman — the hero we need (though we definitely don’t deserve her)
In a world where Mad Max was reinvented as the dystopian war-mongering of a male tyrant, in a world there the Ghostbusters are women — in that world, women in big action movies have finally been afforded what they deserved all along, aside from the damn lead credits. Depth, character development and, most of all, facets. As I wrote in my review of Mad Max: Fury Road, once you have more than one woman in your cast, you solve a huge conundrum that puts so many movies in the ground: no one woman on that cast, no one female character in that story has to stand in for all women, standing in for too many, being pulled every which way and being caged by tropes, the worst of all of them the “strong female character,” which has become as restricted in its ‘mustn’t show emotions because they’re a weakness’ as other other female character tropes are in their ‘mustn’t contribute to the plot’ workings.
It used to be that you had the luxury of choice when it came to the blokes: you could be Captain America or Iron Man, Han Solo or Luke Skywalker (or Chewie, if that’s more your thing)… but then you looked around, and there was only ever one or two women left. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. Leia and Padmé. Standing in for too many, standing alone. And if there’s one thing true for women, it’s one size never fits all. And not only because that is against the laws of physics (and fabric design), but because it shouldn’t.
It could have emerged as a conundrum, then, that Diana is leading this movie alone for much of it; and that we don’t get to see much of the Amazon’s daily lives before she leaves. But it doesn’t. Because Diana, somehow, manages to be a lot of things at once — not all the things, the script doesn’t demand that of her because that would be foolish.
We get enough setup before she helps Steve escape to know this:
The Amazons are warriors unlike any we’ve ever seen. And while Hippolyta is cautious, her sister Antiope smiles as she rides into battle, feeling again that thrill of the fight (seeing Robin Wright in that role… chills). Hippolyta has grown tired of it, Antiope welcomes it — and Diana is somewhere in the middle, for now. It’s in Batman v Superman that we see her smile in combat, when Doomsday knocks her back a few hundred feet and she tilts her head with a smirk, as if saying, ‘now you’ve only pissed me off.’
But she is delighted at the sight of a baby, she is a fish out of water in a world entirely unlike her own, she is a woman discovering her powers and the true extent of what she is. She is compassionate and kind, earnest almost to a fault, at the same time as she is a skilled fighter who does what she must to protect those who need her. On that beach, she does not hesitate when she has the arrow notched and the shot lined up. She kills that soldier just as she has been trained to do — and that neither negates nor diminishes her goodness.
To be clear: many have been saying, ‘This is the first badass woman movie ever,’ and it’s not quite true. It’s the way audiences and critics raved about Frozen and Disney’s “first” sister/family narrative — years after Lilo & Stitch. I’ve seen women fight before — Nikita, Buffy (though in light of the surfaced 2006 script Joss Whedon wrote for Wonder Woman, I wince a little giving him credit here — I worry for Batgirl), Furiosa, Mako Mori in more recent years…
But this is the first comics/superhero movie starring a woman of this DCEU continuity, decades after Lynda Carter broke the mold. And although it’s not the first Extended Universe movie that made me cry (GOTG Vol. 2 won that contest by mere weeks), it’s the first to make me weep. When I was a little girl — much like Famke Janssen once said, little girls want to be James Bond, not the Bond girl. That, at least, has changed in recent years (with the noteworthy exception of Sévérine); but the point still stands. When I saw little Diana on that horse, when I saw her determination when looking at that sword, I saw all my action-packed dreams from when I was a tyke, and I saw them coming true. And if it’s not too late for me, then it is exactly the right time for millions of little girls out there right now.
The power is not in the sword. It’s in us.
Representation matters. Seeing a female superhero like this, seeing that they’re doing right by her character, and more importantly seeing her through a lens other than the male gaze… it’s a big deal. Anyone tries to tell you it isn’t or make fun of how moved you are — they’re not worth your time. If Diana can defeat Ares with the words “I believe in love,” then we can own how much this movie makes us feel. We must.
It’s not the first movie directed by a woman, it’s not the first action movie directed by a woman, but it’s the first of this scale. It’s the angel on the wing. Diana will enter the boys’ club that is the Justice League in November, but she will shine brighter for the introduction to her character that we received with this movie. She will shine brighter for her courage and her wisdom, and not least for the humour she brings with her, such a breath of fresh air after the rather drab offerings in Man of Steel and BvS. If Marvel want to make good on their promises, their female-led movies are going to have one hell of a challenge in front of them. Hopefully, they can make good on one of those promises with an excellent Black Panther movie.
Steve Trevor — one of the few good men
A lot of hullaballoo has broken out over Steve’s own heroic arc and his sacrifice; and over how his role was too big, too small, blah blah blah.
Steve Trevor is a hero in his own right. He is a symbol of those who fought in that war, of those who did what must be done. Making him useless would have been an insult to them.
That’s one thing.
The other is this: Chris Pine has always said that he’s the love interest, and that this movie isn’t about him. And that is true, and it is not derailed by the fact that Steve makes a noble sacrifice and gets character development. (Although it is true that it means he gets the luxury package when it comes to love interests in action movies.) It’s true because what we see when the camera looks at Steve is his respect and, later, adoration for Diana.
Here’s a man who has lost his faith twice over, but Diana… she gave him hope. She crossed No Man’s Land. There’s beautiful imagery in that — she’s not a man, and therefore she can. Remind you of anyone?
Through her eyes, he sees something better. He’s not so broken that he’s a cynical prick, he’s just… tired. He’s forgotten what it was like not to be at war, he’s never known what it’s like to have a family of his own, and he doesn’t hold out hope that he ever will. But seeing what Diana can do, he knows that humanity may not deserve her, but he still believes that innocents deserve saving.
When he gives his life to save today, so that Diana can save the day, and when she realises what he said, what it meant when he gave her his father’s watch and told her he loved her, it is not Steve’s death itself that drives Diana to unlock her ultimate powers, it’s not just what his loss feels like to her, it’s his sacrifice for a peace that may never hold, a sacrifice that humanity may not deserve from him.
Diana hasn’t been suddenly changed by being with him — she may have loved him, but she still refused to help after realising that Ludendorff wasn’t Ares, being confronted with the possibility that mankind didn’t need Ares to tear itself apart. Their romance, well done and moving though it was, did not become her driving force. That is still her inherent goodness and wish to save the world, but on her terms. When Steve dies, she understands that he does so because he believes that the world can be saved, that it should, and that he believes in this enough to give his life for it. Her grief, too, is something that she is allowed to feel; and she still turns her back on humanity for a long time after that.
Diana gave Steve hope and happiness, if only for a few fleeting days; and Steve gave Diana his heart. There can be no tragedy in that.