Mild spoilers below.
I wasn’t planning to see “Wonder Woman.” The plethora of superhero offerings we’ve had over the past decade or so—thanks to Christopher Nolan, Marvel Comics, and DC—have slowly brought me to superhero fatigue (excepting “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which is watchable for the music and humor alone).
But when rumor had it that the new film starring Gal Gadot garnered a 97 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, some friends and I decided we’d give it a shot, after all. We were not disappointed. The new “Wonder Woman” film has smashed records for a female director’s debut, bringing in more than $100 million at the U.S. and Canada box office this weekend. If the reviews—and applause in my theater post-movie—are any indication, the “Wonder Woman” accolades are just getting started.
Parallels Between ‘Wonder Woman’ And ‘Captain America’
With “Wonder Woman,” director Patty Jenkins has achieved something quite remarkable in the superhero-glutted world of film: she’s offered a fresh story, as well as a genuinely likable and virtuous lead.
The last time we got a superhero film that offered that sort of story, it was “Captain America” back in 2011. The two films strike similar notes: while “Captain America” is set during World War II, “Wonder Woman” takes place near the end of World War I. Both heroes are kindly, virtuous, and self-sacrificing.
But the adventures of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) proffered less action and more drama, and Rogers himself was characterized by physical weakness, until a mad scientist managed to turn him into a super-powered soldier. The film felt a bit slow in parts, and Rogers bordered on annoying at times.
“Wonder Woman,” on the other hand, features a superhero who is both virtuous and inhumanly powerful. Due to her childhood training with the Amazons, Diana is gifted with immense intellectual and athletic prowess. We learn early on in the film that Diana speaks more than 100 languages, has immense knowledge of statecraft, science, and military strategy, and fights more passionately than any other Amazon warrior.
Avoiding the Achilles Heel of Many Superhero Flicks
When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a WWI spy, crash lands just offshore, Diana rescues him and brings him to the island of the Amazons. When she hears Trevor tell of the “war to end all wars,” she leaves her people to help him fight the Germans. Then we get to see what Diana is truly made of.
There’s an unacknowledged Achilles heel in many superhero movies: to create impressive action scenes, many directors insert lots of smashing, blowing-things-up, car-crashing and building-demolishing sequences. But in doing so, their superheroes end up leaving massive, shocking carnage in their wake.
Marvel’s last Avengers film, “Captain America: Civil War,” sought to acknowledge and address this problem. For the first time, the superheroes were forced to see the unintended consequences of their violence. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) compels the Avengers to recognize the innocent lives they’d killed in pursuit of the bad guys.
But “Wonder Woman” confronts this issue head-on from the very beginning. That’s what sets it apart from the other films in the Marvel and DC Comics arena.
The Compassion of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman
As soon as Diana sets foot in London, her eyes search for people to help and serve. Having grown up as the only child in a society of adults, she immediately sees the children surrounding her. She runs over to a mother holding her baby—the first baby she’s ever seen—and gushes over it. Despite the violence, bloodshed, and horror she confronts, Diana never stops seeing the vulnerable and the innocent. She sees soldiers maimed and suffering, and wants to stop and help them. She sees starving women and children, and is quick to advocate for them. She hears world leaders dismiss the death of their soldiers, and rebukes them for it.
This does make Diana a rather Christological figure, as M. Hudson pointed out yesterday. But it also makes her, I would argue, a remarkably feminine superhero. At the risk of gender stereotyping, I would argue that women are often bogged down by the oppression of the small and the innocent. We can’t “get over it.” We can’t ignore it, even if we’re seeking out some greater good or purpose. When Trevor tells Diana to ignore the plight of soldiers and civilians along no man’s land, telling her “We can’t save everyone in this war! It’s not what we are here to do!” she replies, “You’re right… But it’s what I am going to do.”
Later on, when a French village is wiped out by poisonous gas, Diana is not just furious—she’s heartbroken. She sees and appreciates every life lost. Her fury stems from outrage over injustice. There’s no glee to her killing, only righteous indignation.
Wonder Woman Is Both Virtuous And Likable
We caught glimpses of this in Captain America, Batman, and Superman, but it’s really hard to pull off this sort of virtuous indignation. Nobody enjoys watching a holier-than-thou protagonist. Most directors manage it by making their superheroes a bit “bad boy.” Batman and Iron Man are particularly good examples of this. Superman and Captain America tend to get labeled “annoying” or “too nice” to be truly entertaining leads.
Yet Gadot manages to give us a sweet, kind heroine who is also genuinely entertaining. Despite her superhuman powers, her savvy, and her sweetness, we still like Diana. In fact—wonder of wonders—we like her because she is virtuous. That’s nigh unheard of in Hollywood.
Sitting in the theater, I hoped that girls who flock to the theater for “Wonder Woman” would find themselves inspired to be a little more compassionate, selfless, and courageous because of Diana. Perhaps they’d be encouraged to see needy people they might otherwise ignore. Perhaps young and old would be inspired to fight the bullies of their world, to advocate for the oppressed and the downtrodden. Wonder Woman is actually the sort of superhero who makes you aspire to such things.
Gender and Femininity In ‘Wonder Woman’
Parents should be aware of some suggestive comments or scenarios in the film. We see Chris Pine decidedly unclothed in one scene, using his hands to shield us from 100 percent nudity. The original Wonder Woman comics were accused of inciting lesbianism, and one quote hints (very subtly) at such background.
The film’s Christological and mythological roots are decidedly interesting, and worth exploring with children who see the film. But I also think the film offers some moments in which we can explore our culture’s conceptions of femininity and masculinity, and see how this film portrays both. Diana eschews constricting Victorian clothing, but rushes to help little babies and needy people. She’s witty, but humble. She’s no damsel in distress, but accepts help. That makes her an interesting, and perhaps even countercultural, lead.
Diana’s comrade-in-arms, Trevor, is a humble and quiet leader in his own right. The two protagonists complement and support each other throughout the film, each spurring the other toward greater virtue and courage. It’s rather inspiring, quite frankly. Diana’s greatness never makes us question Steve’s—rather, theirs is a reciprocal and complementary greatness.
The Film’s Specific Moments of Suffering and Courage
There’s some violence in “Wonder Woman,” but nothing especially graphic or gruesome. The film focuses less on quantity of blood and gore, and instead pinpoints specific moments of suffering and courage. It showcases the hurt of violence in grand and empathetic fashion. As such, it could be difficult for the sensitive viewer to watch. But for that reason, it is immensely relieving—and encouraging—to see that we aren’t the only ones noticing such moments of suffering this time around. Wonder Woman sees it all, too. And it hurts her as well.
Jill Lepore complained in The New Yorker that Diana—ignorant and silent as she is concerning “women’s rights” and a more suffragette mentality—is an “implausible post-feminist hero.” But compassionate and sensitive to human suffering as she is, I’d rather argue that Diana is an apolitical feminist hero—and as such, will probably be controversial in days to come. Yet despite that potentiality, I think “Wonder Woman” could become a permanent classic in the superhero canon, because it transcends our moment and offers something—or rather, someone—both inspiring and thoughtful. And for that, I’m very thankful I saw the film.