Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock.
My rating: ★★★★ stars
The best superhero film ever made.
The total number of deaths from World War I is hard to quantify. But it’s in the millions. When commemorating the end of that devastating war, it may seem disrespectful to consider a film like Wonder Woman that uses the background of this world tragedy for pure entertainment. However, Wonder Woman gets World War I in way that movies haven’t done for a long time.
Actually, few movies have covered World War I in a long time. World War II has left such a scar on the world psyche that the earlier war is often overlooked. Wonder Woman, first introduced by DC comics in 1941, is World War II era. The early seasons of the Lynda Carter television show are set during World War II. However, the filmmakers of Wonder Woman went against the source material and specifically chose to set it during World War I, a less well known and understood conflict. That choice perfectly aligns with the narrative and thematic content of the film.
World War I is more difficult to understand that World War II. The Axis powers in World War II were clearly evil, and they needed to be stopped for the good of the world. The reasons for World War I are more nebulous. The conflicting alliances, the declining Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, competition over colonialism are hard to explain to people with no background in the history of the decades leading up to war. What’s, perhaps, more difficult to understand is how popular the idea of war was in the months leading up to it. People wanted the war. They didn’t just feel it was inevitable. They were excited by the prospect of it. Popular parades were held urging governments to go to war. According to Modris Eksteins in his great cultural history of World War I, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, “There is evidence that the jingoistic crowd scenes in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris, and London, in the last days of July and in the early days of August, pushed the political and military leadership of Europe toward confrontation.” World War I happened because the people wanted it to happen. It was the apotheosis of irrationality.
This martial fervor underlies the story of Wonder Woman. In the movie, Diana aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) believes that the god of war, Ares, has induced the people of the world to go to war and, if she can just kill Ares, the war will end. Manipulation by an ancient god is a lot easier to understand than the actual reasons for World War I and makes about the same amount of sense. It accounts for the peculiar bellicosity of the European people prior to the war.
In the movie, Diana grows up on the isolated island of the Amazons, Themyscira, with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen)*, and her aunt/mentor, Antiope (Robin Wright). The rest of the world intrudes when an American spy working for British intelligence, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes through the mist around Themyscira. Diana saves him and learns that the world is in a war where millions of people have died. She feels it is her duty, then, to leave Themyscira, find and kill Ares, and end the war. Duty is an important concept in Wonder Woman. Steve articulates his point of view early in the movie during the scenes on Themyscira, “When you see something wrong in the world, you can either do nothing or you can do something.”
Ultimately, that is Diana’s philosophy as much as Steve’s. When she sees something wrong, she must act. At the key turning point in the film, she sees a village of people being killed and enslaved. While Steve deems it prudent to delay action, she can’t. People need help now, and she can help. To be fair to Steve, he’s just a human—albeit an “above average” one as he claims. That Diana is right doesn’t make him wrong. Steve is right when he says that sending soldiers into no man’s land to save the village is a futile waste of life. Diana has superhuman abilities. She is right that doing something is necessary, that helping people is not wrong. What follows is a scene destined to become a classic where Diana leads the charge across no man’s land, drawing the enemy fire so that the soldiers can cross. (If I have one question here, it’s why the German soldiers keep firing. Not one of them stops and looks confused or remarks to his neighbor, “WTF? There’s a lady carrying a shield and wearing a metal corset crossing no man’s land!” I guess I just have to suspend my disbelief.)
Wonder Woman is an important feminist film for a number of reasons. Its success at the box office shatters the myth that female-led movies tend to be less successful than those with male protagonists. Also, it shows that a woman, Patty Jenkins, can direct a major action film (if Kathryn Bigelow hadn’t proven that already). Most importantly, it gives women and girls a hero that they have been lacking in major motion pictures for a long time. However, one of the film’s subtlest feminist messages I find most intriguing. Diana isn’t strong at the expense of Steve. Her strength doesn’t make him weak. Too many critics of feminism see it as a zero sum proposition—if women rise, it’s at the expense of men. The film shows that equality for women makes everyone stronger. Even though Diana is the one who goes mano a mano with a god, Steve’s contribution to saving people and bringing about an end to the destruction isn’t insignificant or lesser. He does as much as anyone without superhuman abilities can do. Letting her take the lead doesn’t make him less of a man.
Diana and Steve see the world differently, at least at the beginning. Diana has less experience of the world than Steve. She’s spent all her time isolated on Themyscira. She sees the war in very simple terms—Ares is responsible, and, if he’s gone, people will stop fighting. Steve becomes frustrated with her tunnel vision. He tries to tell her that she’s oversimplifying the matter, eventually saying, “You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it was one bad guy to blame. It’s not. We’re all to blame.” That line would never work in a World War II story. Because Hitler. Sure, Hitler wasn’t the only bad guy, and there was some complexity to the causes of World War II. However, the evil of World War II can be focused where in World War I there wasn’t a “bad guy.” Kaiser Wilhelm II was not an evil man. He had his faults and weaknesses, but he was not evil. The same cannot be said for the Axis leaders in World War II.
The existence of World War II has difficult implications for Wonder Woman. Diana believes that killing Ares will stop the war. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Diana wins the final battle. So, with Ares defeated, World War II should not have been possible in Diana’s worldview. Yet, the Armistice doesn’t hold. It’s Steve’s explanation of the war that “we’re all to blame” that seems to allow for the history that hasn’t happened yet but will.
However, Diana’s inexperience gives her a clarity that Steve lacks. She doesn’t get caught in murky ambiguity. Eventually, she comes to see that the world is more complex than she thought—that’s her arc; that’s what she must learn over the course of the film. What Steve must learn from her is that complexity must not paralyze action, that, no matter how imperfect humans can be, the simple idea that they must be protected should provide the impetus to “do something,” as he states in his earlier maxim. He comes to believe his guiding principle more profoundly because of his contact with Diana.
In the end, the film’s message is one of love. Diana comes to believe that, no matter the conflict, the best actions are those that are inspired by love in its various permutations with the love of humanity at the center. At the risk of stepping into a gender-essentialist minefield, I will say that that seems to me to be a particularly feminine message. We don’t get many expressions of the importance of love in male-driven superhero films and action films in general.
I have superhero-movie fatigue. I want blockbusters and tentpoles to be about something other than superheroes. However, Wonder Woman is refreshing because it’s about something more than action sequences and special effects, as the best action movies are and too many recent superhero movies are not. It’s not about destroying cities. It’s about preventing cities from being destroyed.
Wonder Woman is also not about T&A. The character’s depiction in comic books often doesn’t just border on the absurd but leaps across the line of absurdity in sexualizing her. Looking back on the Lynda Carter series, I was shocked at how much of the show was devoted to jiggle. In this film, yes, Gal Gadot is very beautiful and her supersuit is skimpier than those of male heroes. It is based on the battle dress of Greek hoplite soldiers, so, in this film at least, there is some reason for her to be dressed as she is. Regardless of the skimpiness of her outfit, the film is not about exploiting Diana’s body for the consumption of the male gaze. The way Jenkins films her is not about the display of her assets as much as it is about an appreciation of her power and the beauty of that power.
In fact, Diana remains far more clothed that Steve does in the film. In a humorous scene, Diana, who has never seen a man before, comes upon Steve bathing in the altogether. (Nothing in the scene, however, crosses out of PG-13 territory.) It’s clear she finds him intriguing. She indicates something off-screen that she finds particularly interesting. As the audience leaps to the obvious conclusion as to what she’s curious about, Steve realizes that she’s asking about his wristwatch. In this matter, Diana is less fascinated than the rest of film viewerdom about what Chris Pine looks like naked, as proven by the discussions of this weekend’s film Outlaw King, in which Pine has a brief full-frontal nude scene. (From the headlines I’ve seen, I don’t even know what Outlaw King is about, but I know Pine is naked in it.) Considering the panting attention that the bathing scene in Wonder Woman and the rumors of male nudity in Outlaw King get, I think that the female gaze has probably been largely underserved by cinematic history.
Also underserved by cinematic history is racial and ethnic diversity. (Was that a strained transition or what?) Wonder Woman does the best it can with its period setting. In reality, there weren’t a lot of people of color at the Western Front in World War I. There were Indian soldiers among the British troops, and they’re seen milling around in the film. There were also African-American combat support troops, but they were far from the front lines. There were Ottoman Turks fighting for the Central Powers, but they were at the Middle Eastern Front.
Yet, the film doesn’t abandon the idea of a diverse cast because of the setting. Diana and Steve, with help from British politician Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), form a group of specialized agents to infiltrate the front line with them—Charlie, a Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner); Sameer, a Moroccan conman (Saïd Taghmaoui); and Chief, a Native American smuggler (Eugene Brave Rock). Their goal is to stop German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his pet chemist, Dr. Isabel Maru aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), from developing and deploying a new deadly gas.
Some may ask why it’s important to have a racially diverse cast in period film where the setting wouldn’t generally have much racial diversity. (It’s important to note that nothing in the film is counter-historical; diversity is not included at the expense of historical fact. All the countries represented by these characters were involved in World War I, and these characters would have been affected by it and could have played a role in it.) Films are not just about the period in which they are set. They are about the period in which they are made, and we live in time that holds the ideal that people of all races and ethnicities should work together to solve world problems and that media should represent a diverse world. (One sad moment comes early on when Sameer says he would rather use his talent for mimicry to be an actor, not a conman, but that he is the wrong color. Yet, it’s also an affirming moment because Taghmaoui is, of course, the same color as Sameer and, now, he is an actor of international repute.)
Furthermore, the inclusion of this diverse group is not mere tokenism. The characters’ ethnic identities become central to the characters, and the vision of the friendship between these people and their working together is one of the elements that helps form Diana’s idea of the importance of love, giving her strength in the final battle.
Too many superhero films are about violence. (I was horrified at the violence in Captain America: Civil War, the last MCU film I’ve seen). Wonder Woman does have its share of violence, and yet it presents violence as an evil, a form of destruction. (Yes, you can argue that this is the film having its cake and eating it, too—showing violence in the guise of condemning it. But I’m not a killjoy.) The film is, more importantly, an affirmation of love—romantic love, familial love, love of friends, and love of humanity. It’s free from the cynicism and even nihilism of recent superhero films, which, after all, should be about optimism and hope.
*One thing I don’t get about Queen Hippolyta is that, when Diana leaves to go defeat Ares, Hippolyta tells her that once Diana leaves, she may never return. Why? Is there some explanation I’m missing? Do the gates of Themyscira close forever?