Fans like me had wanted a Wonder Woman movie for years, but despite the character’s popularity the false narrative that a female-led superhero movie would fail to attract moviegoers kept her off the big screen. Fortunately, the success of The Hunger Games led DC/Warner to shoehorn Wonder Woman into Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, where she pretty much stole the show.
Then there was the appointment as director of Patty Jenkins, whose remarkable 2003 film Monster featured an Oscar-winning performance by Charlize Theron. Wonder Woman was released just before the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the resulting odious revelations of harassment and systemic sexism in Hollywood. The ability of both director and character to overcome these obstacles are as much an incredible achievement as Wonder Woman’s success as one of the top grossing North American films of 2017.
Appropriately, the setup of Wonder Woman on the tropical island of Themyscira hints at an epic destiny underscored by dark secrets. The film takes its time establishing the civilisation’s backstory: the Amazons are an ancient female race created to protect the world, with young Princess Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, the first child to be born there. The fall of the old Gods at the hands of Ares, God of War, means the Amazons now live behind a kind of cloaking device as they prepare for the next onslaught.
Sure enough, the First World War crashes into their lives in the person of American spy Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), pursued by what looks like most of the German navy circa 1918. Convinced that Ares is behind this intrusion, Diana – who for some reason is not referred to in the film as Wonder Woman – sets off to find the God of War, vanquish him for good and restore world peace.
Diana accompanies Trevor to London: ‘It’s hideous,’ she deadpans. The humour, of which there is much, is not cruel and never at Diana’s expense. Instead, the witty, light tone is maintained by three elements: the performance of the extraordinary Gal Gadot as Diana, who combines bemusement, understanding and determination in a single look while barely changing her expression; a great supporting cast, particularly Lucy Davis who brilliantly mocks the ‘glasses as disguise’ trope; and the subversive nature of the story.
Take the scene where Diana crashes a British War Cabinet meeting, full of the kind of whiskery old duffer who started the whole conflict in the first place. There is much gammon-faced blustering about there being ‘a woman in here’, which does not deter Diana at all: paternalistic outrage bounces off her as harmlessly as bullets from her bracelets.
Dynamics like these show Diana’s fresh mode as a superhero. Unlike Marvel’s god-prince Thor, who in his 2011 movie gets chucked out of Asgard for hubristic aggression, Diana seeks to end a war rather than start one, because she instinctively understands that her superhero status is based on responsibility rather than entitlement. Yet she underestimates the complexity and the nature of the conflict. ‘Where is the Front?’ she demands, wanting to get stuck into a fight she doesn’t even know the location of, as eager in her own way as the innocents who thought they were off on a grand adventure and would be home in time for Christmas.
In the film’s most powerful scene, Diana leads the Tommies across No Man’s Land, whose dread name takes on new significance as the Amazon uses her shield to block streaks of blazing machine gun fire as she advances slowly and inexorably across the churned brown earth. It is an astonishingly emotional sequence, because it works on so many levels.
Partly, it is the wish fulfilment that properly-written fantasy can achieve; we are over-familiar with the drab horror of the trenches, which were the inevitable result of an absurd national and international class hierarchy. In Wonder Woman, we are reminded that this bright-armoured female character was created not long after that world conflict and just before the next one. Diana is exceptionally strong but not indestructible; by this point in the story, she knows what she is up against and leads the campaign anyway, clear-eyed in her determination and bravery.
Unlike other superheroine movies, like Catwoman and Electra, Wonder Woman was made by people who love the genre and the character. There is the sense behind the film of a genuinely inspired creative team, willing to layer in provocative detail like the Sikh soldiers at the railways station as they head off to the front. It’s fitting that they were included in the film, but should they have been involved in the conflict itself?
Then there’s Diana’s costume. While less flimsy than Linda Carter’s in the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show, it’s still more revealing than, say, Batman’s body armour. Again, Gadot manages to transcend expectations here; we feel that anyone objectifying her does so at his own risk. Gadot’s performance suggests a deep trust between performer and director; a generosity that informs the feel of the entire film.
While no single movie would be able to overturn or even address every intersectional nexus, the allegorical nature of this one allows the film makers to present relationships like that between Diana and Trevor in a subtle new light. Trevor knows he is not Diana’s equal and never could be, understanding instead that his role, although heroic, is not the main one. As with that amazing scene in No Man’s Land, Diana gets to where she wants and, significantly, brings the male characters she has inspired with her.