As I write this, Wonder Woman has achieved several memorable milestones. It’s smashed box office records for DC Comics-related films, having earned over $330 million here in the States in just 4 weeks. (Batman v Superman took 12 weeks to reach that amount.) It’s the highest rated DC superhero movie on Rotten Tomatoes (and the second highest rated superhero movie ever, only being outdone by the first Iron Man movie). And finally, Wonder Woman is the highest grossing movie directed by a woman of all time, having earned almost $700 million worldwide.
Having finally seen the film this weekend, all of those make perfect sense. Wonder Woman easily blows past its DC counterparts (with the possible exception of The Dark Knight) by offering up a nice, mythic alternative to the grimdark that seems to permeate DC’s films. It’s a wonderfully executed period piece, a “coming of age” meets “fish out of water” story, a solid action film, and perhaps most importantly of all, a film that gives us a hero quite unlike any we’ve seen before (in superhero movies, anyway): a strong, confident woman who is never reduced to her good looks as a mere sex symbol.
Let’s face it, most superhero movies, for better or worse, are male wish fulfillments. They’re dominated by super-powered, super-strong male characters crafted for an audience that is primarily male. True, there have been some strong female characters who can hold their own against the boys — Agent Peggy Carter immediately comes to mind — but the field is overwhelmingly geared towards one gender. And as a member of that particular gender, I must confess that reality is something I frequently overlook.
But Wonder Woman is anything but male wish fulfillment — which may seem a bit odd considering that she wears what seems like an archetypal skimpy, impractical outfit for a warrior of justice. But — and I can’t emphasize this enough — it was wonderful, and even refreshing, to watch a film about a strong, beautiful woman who was never once presented as an object for leering or exploitation. (Or, as Steven Greydanus puts it in his review, the movie celebrates Wonder Woman “as an icon of female aspiration and achievement rather than male desire.”)
I have to chalk this up to the fact that Wonder Woman was directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). I can’t help but feel that if Wonder Woman had been directed by a man, there would’ve been at least one gratuitous slow-mo pan up and down Gal Gadot’s body in order to show her suiting up, getting ready for action, etc. Indeed, watching Wonder Woman reminds you of just how often female bodies are objectified in films, and presented as little more than objects for the male gaze.
I say all that as a man. I can only imagine how women have felt watching the movie. Indeed, listening to my wife and her friends discuss Wonder Woman has been incredibly eye-opening for me.
Take, for example, the film’s finest sequence, where Diana crosses into “no man’s land” to save a trapped village. It’s a brilliant and heart-pounding action sequence as well as the moment when she’s finally revealed in all of her Wonder Woman attire (the armor, the tiara, etc.). But what’s particularly fascinating about the sequence is that she doesn’t simply go around knocking down enemy soldiers (though she does do some of that). For much of the sequence, she’s drawing enemy fire away from her allies. Her strength is not simply used to deal out death and punishment. Rather, she uses her strength to absorb death and punishment, and not because she’s some doormat or is considered expendable, but because she’s the only one strong enough to do so.
Listening to my wife and her friends talk about that particular sequence, and how it resonated with them as women to see a female character with that sort of strength — not to mention how it represents, albeit figuratively, the constant barrage that women experience in our culture — just reaffirmed for me the value of representation in films. That may sound politically correct, but meh. Wonder Woman proves that you can make an inclusive film doesn’t need to resort to preachiness or pandering, nor does it need to reduce its male characters in order to make its female protagonist seem stronger.
Steve Trevor — played with affable charm by Chris Pine — may just be a mortal man sans godlike powers, but he’s never made to be incompetent, bumbling, or stuck in Diana’s shadow. Indeed, he’s just as capable and competent as Diana and though he’s often befuddled by her various abilities, he’s never threatened by them — the two complement each other quite well. The “no man’s land” sequence aside, my favorite scene in the movie occurs when Trevor tries to explain what life is like without war, only to admit that he really has no idea what it’s like. That confession lends a tragic element to his character which makes his conviction and willingness to sacrifice everything all the more believable — and understandable why it would inspire Diana like it does.
Wonder Woman isn’t a perfect film. The dialog gets groan-worthy and ostentatious when the main antagonist finally arrives on the scene, and the film’s resolution — which is ultimately a twist on the ol’ “all you need is love” theme — is pretty corny and gag-inducing, even for a comic book movie. I can see what the filmmakers were aiming for, but I’m convinced it could’ve been done in a much better and thought-provoking manner. But practically everything else about the film is solid, and about as good you can expect from a comic book adaptation.
That being said, I am worried about the Justice League movie, which comes out this November. Will it build on Wonder Woman’s successes, or simply squander them? After making such a strong impression with her own film, will Diana Prince be diminished or made to take second fiddle to her male counterparts in the Justice League?
Fortunately, it’s all but a given that there will be a Wonder Woman 2, and signs are good that Patty Jenkins will be returning to the director’s chair. (She’s already begun working on the sequel’s script.) And if the sequel can capture even just a fraction of the magic that the original Wonder Woman film possesses in significant quantity, then we could be looking at the next great superhero movie franchise. And it’ll be one that’s so much the better because of its effortless approach to diversity and inclusivity at a time when those often feel like PC buzzwords.