Guest Post: The Power of Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman movie posterNB: This is a wonderful guest post from Rose, who recently saw the film Wonder Woman. To see the site’s grade, check out Redheadedgirl’s review of the film. We also did a Wonder Woman-only Links post and some book recommendations for before or after screening the film!

Wonder Woman is, start to finish, an absolute dream. I took one breath before the movie started and one breath after the credits, and have no memory of any taken in between. I do remember thinking:

I am watching history being made. I am watching the first great female superhero movie. And we do not step backward from here.

I was raised by and around powerful women. I’ve been a superhero geek since childhood and a screenwriter since college, and in everything I’ve done–my friendships, my writing, my years in the male-dominated film and television industry–I’ve sought to find and tell the stories of strong women. I’ve closely followed the film canons of Marvel and DC during the superhero super-boom of the last decade, watching each movie twice in theaters: once with glee, and once with a critic’s eye, looking for both stories told, the one on the surface and the one below.

While Marvel is far from perfect, I’ve always favored them over DC because they have more characters I could relate to. The women in the X-Men lineup were my childhood idols, while the by-the-numbers archetypes of Batman and Superman bored my younger self silly. By the time I came of reading age, Wonder Woman was reduced to a sexy, silly punchline, while her male counterparts got sleek reboots. DC has mostly stuck to the handsome-white-man-saves-the-planet formula, and as the world spins toward inclusion, I expected Marvel to upset its rival at every turn.

Wonder Woman kicked my expectations in the ass. I don’t know if she’s the hero we deserve, but she’s sure as hell the one we need.

Between Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman became a feminist narrative that, like its heroine, doesn’t bother wearing a mask. The plot is solid: Diana, princess of Themyscira, lives an idyllic if slightly stifling life among her tribe of warrior women, including her imperious mother (Connie Nielsen) and rebellious aunt (Robin Wright Penn, sheer perfection). Their Eden is threatened by the crash landing of WWI-era pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an intrepid spy bent on ending the war.

When Diana sails away in the night with Steve, it’s not because of the admittedly powerful lure of his blue eyes, but because she cannot stand by while the horrors of war are visited on innocents. The ensuing thrill ride covers destiny, gas bombs, the social and sartorial constraints on post-Victorian women, PTSD, the pantheon of Greek gods, ancient treatises on female pleasure, a respectful love interest, and a heroine who wears her heart on her magical wrist guard.

Jenkins gives us no cheesecake shots of Diana’s curves. Instead we get long, steady pans from her feet to her strong thighs, tracing the graceful lines of her arms, along her shoulders and across her expressive face. The camera lingers on her muscles, not her breasts. Even during the intimate moments she shares with Steve, the shots stay tight on their faces, noting every flicker of uncertainty and joy passing between them. Aside from an early scene showing Diana’s unabashed interest in the pilot’s naked form, the importance is placed not on the contact of their bodies but of their spirits.

Star Trek: Into Darkness saw Chris Pine as part of an entirely different kind of nude scene. (I loved Into Darkness, but this scene was its fatal flaw.) For no apparent reason, Captain Kirk slyly peeks while scientist Dr. Carol Marcus is changing clothes, and the camera takes a long, lascivious peep at her black-lingerie-clad body. “Turn around,” she says coquettishly; he looks away, all false innocence. It’s cloying and silly, advancing neither plot nor character. The scene was loathed by critics and audiences alike, and the writer later apologized.

Jenkins’ Wonder Woman takes that tired trope and turns it inside out. Steve is treated for his injuries after his rescue, partly by soaking in magical waters. Obviously he’s unclothed. Diana walks in, intent on important conversation, and observes him with frank but polite interest. She does not try to ignore his nudity—she’s never seen a man before, so glossing over it would make no sense—but neither does she faint. Nothing is gratuitous, and their romance from the first spark is lovely, all witty banter and loving respect, a 1930s screwball comedy crossed with How To Be A Feminist Ally For Men Who Are Really Trying.

The script is not groundbreaking in format, but that allows the movie to subvert expectations even more spectacularly than if Wonder Woman had created a whole new style. From the romance to the battles, everything that could be flipped on its head is done so, quietly or with screaming defiance. Steve is relegated to the role of sidekick and love interest, but still manages to have a unique story with importance and integrity, and save the world with his own skills. The depth and breadth of his character, spanning his sparkling interactions with Diana and his aerial heroics, is a delightfully sneaky way to highlight how little the Superhero’s Girlfriend usually gets to do.

Diana takes her heroic journey in a traditional manner—backstory, training, inciting incident, collection of allies, ultimate battle—but with heart and fun, and the movie moves nicely through its changing shapes, flowing smoothly from exposition to nascent romance to war epic. Surprisingly, producer Zack Snyder’s ponderous, bombastic style works to beautiful effect here. The best of his technique has been skimmed off the wasted potential of Watchmen and the roiling mess of Sucker Punch and carefully doled out in measured dollops through Wonder Woman.

Jenkins and Gadot bring integrity and grace to the epic scale, while Snyder throws in just enough bone-crunching booms to make it a thrill ride. Together the forces balance one another, highlighted in the handful of Snyder’s trademark extreme-slow-motion shots: Diana, whirling through the air in her battle armor, limbs extended with the poise of a ballerina and the power of a fighter jet, is the same tenderhearted heroine we adore, even as she kicks the teeth out of a handful of villains. The tendency of Snyder to slow down and admire his own work is irritating when there’s nothing of substance behind it, but when the action takes a pause here, we still have a goddess to worship.

The little flickers of realism and practicality are the chief delights of the script. Steve, intent on making Diana less distracting, tries to dress her up in drab period garb while his (utterly wonderful) secretary rolls her eyes in the background, asking in exasperation: “A pair of spectacles, and suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?”

When she’s not fighting, Diana tends to wear her long fur-trimmed cloak instead of standing around in her battle outfit. Why would she? It’s chilly in war-torn Belgium, and she doesn’t need to pose for anyone. And yet, the simple fact that she’s allowed to wrap herself up when she wants and fight in strapless armor when she wants feels fresh and revolutionary.

The use of language is wonderful, especially as it cheekily addresses the phrases women hear all the time, words we’ve internalized until we believe we should keep quiet, stay out of the way, wait to be rescued. At least half a dozen times, someone tells Diana to stay put. The intent is to keep her out of danger, and the reflex is automatic—it’s usually Steve, innocently well-meaning, just trying to protect her.

Never does she obey. She waits patiently through a lecture on how no man can cross the scarred ground between English and German trenches, pushes back her hair, and climbs out onto the ravaged earth. The movie’s most powerful moment is a war cry all its own: the sight of Diana stepping on land no man can touch, after being explicitly told she can’t do it, and taking the fire of a hundred guns to defend the innocent.

And then, just as we think we could not possibly be prouder, she could not possibly be more heroic, she puts up her shield. And she starts to run.

Besides the subliminal touches of defiance, one of the best things about the movie is that it never lets its heroine harden to the world. Early in Diana’s introduction to London, she sees a baby for the first time—Themyscira has no infants—and rushes over, cooing with joy. Shortly after, she saves Steve’s life by beating the snot out of a gang of enemy flunkies, but refuses to blame them, deciding that the Germans must be under an evil spell.

She waxes rhapsodic over ice cream and snowfalls, and will in the same breath debate the ethics of war or the necessity of lies. Her naiveté is lost before long, but her compassion, and her capacity for delight and wonder, do not go with it. In striking contrast to Batman and Superman, who save the world, even love it, but cannot find joy in it, Diana calls the world beautiful again and again.

Maybe she has better vision than her counterparts.

Diana is determined to save mankind on her own terms, and one of them is the fundamental belief that people are good. The central conflict sees her struggle with this belief, but she never hides those loving, gentle parts of herself that the world defines as feminine and disdains in favor of traditionally masculine qualities, like strength and silence. This is feminism in its purest form: not that women should be like men, but that women should be true to themselves. Diana is strong, and she could be silent, but she does not want to, so hell with what anyone else wants her to be.

Like its heroine, the movie does have a few flaws that keep it from pure perfection. There’s a disappointing lack of diversity. Though there are a handful of non-white actors it feels a little jarring in an epic about equality.

The antagonist duo, a bullish German general and the über-creepy Dr. Maru, have a wonderfully twisted chemistry which could have been explored in its own movie. I had hoped to see Diana square off properly with Maru, the only non-Amazonian woman with significant plot weight, but their confrontation is lost in the scope of the larger battle. And the villain of that final battle presented his own problems:

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My one true disappointment was the reveal of Sir Patrick as Ares—a good twist, but not a powerful statement. I had my fingers crossed that after the red herring of General Ludendorff, Dr. Maru would emerge as the god’s manifestation. It would have opened the door for another challenge to Diana’s perception—she, like everyone else, overlooked Maru, assuming that the warlike figure she sought must be male. Ares’ spirit powering Maru would have touched on the idea that while women can be powerful forces for good, just as men can, there is no reason they can’t be forces for evil as well: equality has two sides. The freedom of power comes with the power of responsibility.

Perhaps the constraints on Greek gods are such that they cannot swap genders, but I doubt it. However, this is mostly a matter of personal opinion. The choices made didn’t detract from the tale told, and it’s entirely possible that even if the writing team considered it, it would’ve made for too much story crammed into a single movie.

Wonder Woman is smashing box office records as readily as its heroine smashes brick walls and glass ceilings. It’s on track to become the highest-grossing female-directed blockbuster of all time. Already it’s one of the most acclaimed movies in the DC canon, and fast becoming the studio’s most powerful property.

I took my mother to see it on my second viewing. She runs her own company, has beaten breast cancer, and is the strongest, most no-nonsense person I know. She doesn’t care for fantasy or fiction.

But five minutes in, when the movie showed the sweeping glory of Themyscira, and the powerful, beautiful women in it, she gasped. And when she first saw Diana fight, she burst into tears.

“Are you sad?” I whispered. “We can leave.”

“No,” she said, wiping her eyes on my jacket. “I’m so happy. I never had any role models like this. I’m so happy for you.”

One day we’ll look back and wonder how we ever doubted that a movie about a super-powered, super-loving woman could succeed. But today I—and a whole lot of others, from tiny WonderTots in blue tutus to great-grandmothers who were around before William Moulton Marston picked up his pen—will be looking ahead, at the strong, gorgeous goddess on the screen, and a future even brighter than her magic lasso.

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