It’s all but impossible for “Wonder Woman” to escape the absurdly high and unattainable expectations that have been foisted upon it — much like being a woman in today’s society. And for tapping into that meta-textual sentiment, maybe “Wonder Woman” is the feminist masterwork some are labeling it as. Or maybe it’s just a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story with a rare female protagonist. I think it’s both. Or maybe neither. But that kind of complexity is what makes this film so unique.
It took this, the first theatrical live-action film centered on the character, to make me realize I actually didn’t know Wonder Woman’s origin. (I’m far from an expert on comic books). Diana (Gal Gadot) is an Amazon warrior from the hidden island of Themyscira, sculpted from clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), queen of the Amazons, and brought to life by the god Zeus. After saving World War I soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), from drowning when his plane is shot down near Themyscira, Diana leaves her home and ventures into the outside world to help end the war and bring peace to mankind.
The film gets good mileage out of this familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, both comically and politically. It’s deliberately funnier than most action blockbusters — and in a different way. There are few jokes made at another character’s expense, with none of the humor used to demonstrate the wittiness or intellectual superiority of the protagonist. And it’s noticeably less grim — tonally, if not visually — than DC’s post-Dark Knight trilogy films. But neither is it sickeningly eager to please, blandly devoid of personality like Marvel’s cinematic universe. It finds a happy medium between the light and the heavy, the playfully enjoyable and weightily dramatic, the desire to distinguish itself and the need to meet commercial demands.
This — dare I say — feminine approach to the story-telling makes “Wonder Woman” an oasis of sorts in a barren desert of masculine posturing and disingenuous grasps at “seriousness.” But that makes the obviously studio demanded sequences of dull, CGI-drenched spectacle and weightless ass-kicking all the more stark and disappointing. Not to mention the film feels at times as much Steve Trevor’s movie as it does Wonder Woman’s. Did any of the male superhero’s female love interests get as much screen time and opportunity to save the day as Wonder Woman’s does? I know Chris Pine is probably the film’s most recognizable star, but it still feels like the studio and producers lack confidence in a woman’s ability to unequivocally lead her own film and still manage to have an artistic and commercial success.
But perhaps this is why “Wonder Woman” is such a fascinating and refreshing take on the genre. Intentionally or not, it’s a corrective to how the romantic arcs in comic book movies usually play out by mostly sidelining of the hero’s love interest. The answer to this problem wouldn’t be to give Trevor less screen time and agency, but to give female love interests like Lois Lane and Pepper Potts more. The more I consider it, the more I come to admire this film, if not love it. It has its ideals and socio-political worldview, but many of the issues it raises are left unresolved to better allow discussion to flourish around it. But whether this by accident or purposeful is hard to say.
Take, for instance, the issue of Wonder Woman’s outfit. Many have criticized it for being too revealing, sexualizing a character that is meant to be an ideal of female empowerment. But the film contextualizes the issue so it’s not so cut-and-dry. In order to fit into the outside world, Diana is forced to don clothing that is socially “appropriate” but restricting and has no protective value, qualities that matter to a warrior. These older forms of women’s fashion have historically operated under the guise of protecting female modesty and have also been criticized as a tool of patriarchal oppression for signaling that women’s bodies — and thus, their sexuality — are meant to be simultaneously shamed, protected and repressed. The reveal of Wonder Woman’s outfit can feel like a repudiation of these sexist mores. It’s complicated, and I’m not sure the film has its own mind made up on these topics, but the way various waves of feminist thought clash is the film’s most fascinating aspect.
Director Patty Jenkins understands the mythic potential of superhero fiction and how it can speak to our modern day concerns. She also circumvents and subverts the myriad problems these film tend to have, whether its dull pacing, drama that fails to engross or incomprehensible action, utilizing slow motion to highlight the physical prowess of Diana and her fellow Amazons. Maybe she overuses the device by the film’s end, and set pieces are still reminiscent of Michael Bay at his chaotic worst, but mostly Jenkins demonstrates a strong, if slightly uninspired, control of form, tone and pacing.
It feels like there’s a lot riding on this film, because so far, this is the only major female-led superhero film. And that kind of baggage means this film will never be enough to satisfy the hopes and ideals of everyone going into the theater. Some perhaps, but not all. That’s why more female voices are needed in superhero fiction and in film culture at large. Hopefully, the film’s already massive box office success and glowing reviews will prove to studios and critics that art and entertainment made by, for and about women has value. This film can’t be everything we want it to be, but if it weren’t alone in shouldering the responsibility that’s been placed upon it, it wouldn’t need to.
Ultimately, “Wonder Woman” is neither a definitive, revolutionary, patriarchy-busting, feminist screed nor the savior of superhero cinema. But on both fronts, it represents significant progress and proves itself to be an excellent starting point.