I didn’t see Wonder Woman in an all-female screening. In fact, I was with Keets, and we were sitting near at least two groups of men who had come with no women at all. Which was a good thing, from my perspective; it’s nice to live in a city where people’s appetite for cliché-ridden action movies seems to depend more on their quality than the gender of the top-billed actor.
Not that this, of course, frees Wonder Woman from the burden of everyone’s bullshit expectations that any failure of female-led art is a sign that no female-led art can or should be made again; the New York Times, in one of its not-infrequent moments of blithe inability to hear the words it’s saying, posted an article whose entire summary (and originally its headline, though that appears to have changed) was that Wonder Woman will “test fan interest in a female superhero.” The Hollywood Reporter was at least self-aware enough to notice Patty Jenkins “bristling” when they implied that she was some sort of test case for whether women should ever be allowed to direct movies again.
Well, test or no test, the fans came—sometimes accompanied by their long-suffering partners, like me. And actually, I thought it was pretty great. After having sat through both frivolous and slightly nonsensical offerings like Ant-Man and masterpieces of self-seriousness at a level even James Cameron can only aspire to like The Dark Knight Rises, it was nice to watch a movie that tried to say something about its material without too much overdramatic near-gibberish like “It’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe”… well, until about two-thirds through, anyway. (In case you’re wondering, yes, the moral of this movie is apparently that “It’s about what you believe,” which… OK then?)
Opposite Gal Gadot as Diana, Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, a plain-talking-but-not-plain-looking American spy who accidentally lands on Diana’s Amazon island, and then accompanies her on her quest to kill Ares, god of war, and thus end human suffering forever. Meanwhile, the human villain Steve’s out to get is a scientist (female, for what it’s worth) who is developing a chemical weapon whose brutality makes Mustard Gas: Version 0.0 look like a nap in a meadow.
Diana’s confrontation with the nature of modern war, with its brutal chemical weapons, its machine guns, its indifference to the suffering of civilians—an evil that was perhaps at its most senseless and inexplicable during World War I, when this movie is set—gets more real about human evil than most superhero movies ever manage to pull off. Diana sees herself as the caretaker of humanity, put on earth to help them end war. Her mission sounds grandiose, but she approaches it as a public service—not a way to prove or aggrandize herself, but as what she is called to do by her own conscience as well as her upbringing. If she has a fatal flaw, it’s naiveté about the true nature of the people she hopes to save—which makes her all the more likeable.
There is also a lot of sparkle and fun in Diana’s chemistry with Pine’s Steve, who is surprised but obviously enchanted by her frankness about her beliefs and her sexuality. The best line of the movie was definitely the exchange when Diana explained that she had been sculpted out of clay and brought to life by Zeus. Steve politely responds, “Well, that’s neat.” I laughed till tears came out of my eyes.
And it wasn’t just a good movie—it was a good movie that didn’t accidentally ruin itself with careless sexism. Which wasn’t really due to the female lead but the female director. One of the reasons Wonder Woman didn’t exactly capture my feminist imagination at first is that her outfit pretty much looks like what it was, an outfit drawn by a young straight man to appeal to other young straight men. But the entire first half hour or so of the movie involves young Diana training with an island full of Amazons in her bikini-like armor, which helps the silly outfit seem like it has a function other than sexiness. This is nicely emphasized later, when Diana keeps ruining all the demure clothes she tries on in a department store in 1930’s London by testing to see whether they’ll let her do one of her trademark high kicks, and asks if a corset is “armor” for the London ladies. All of a sudden we see her bare legs and arms as a symbol of freedom of movement, not as a sacrificial offering for that rapacious social force that so often usurps the camera’s lens for itself, the male gaze.
This is helped along by the camera work, which avoids focusing on her outfit and shows her in athletic, fierce motion most of the time. After enjoying the lack of objectification for an hour, I did cringe at one moment, certain that now was going to be the time when we got a lingering and unnecessary close-up on her butt or boobs—when Diana is filmed from behind, climbing up a ladder towards the Western Front. But instead of focusing on her body, the camera focused on her boots, her movement, her determination. So, I stopped cringing and went back to enjoying the movie as someone who identified with the audience, rather than—as I so often do—someone who identified with the object of the audience’s gaze.
I could’ve done without the last half-hour of the movie, when everything devolves into one of those explosion-filled, interminable hero-versus-supervillain fights that seem to be the sine qua non of these superhero movies. Other than that, though, I really have to say I loved this movie. And I loved Gal Gadot’s frank, fearless, and charismatic Diana. I’m even excited to see the inordinate number of sequels the studio is inevitably going to put out after the success of this one.