Out of the dumpster fire that has been the DC cinematic universe post-Nolan, finally, we have a genuine beacon from director Patty Jenkins. Wonder Woman is a formula superhero movie: as befitting its subject matter, it makes the obligatory hero’s journey in three acts. But as the the superhero genre has generally begun to feel stale—see Doctor Strange staggering through box offices, or Iron Man punching and blasting his way through three movies plus some—Wonder Woman makes the form feel genuinely novel again.
Wonder Woman is a peace-loving superhero. Where Batman has Byronic brooding and Superman has the last of his kind, Wonder Woman, as her current writer Greg Rucka recently said, has love in her portfolio. She has isolation, sacrifice, righteousness, and many other trope-typical superhero traits—and, on top of it all, love. The novelty of that concept didn’t hit me until after the credits rolled. Wonder Woman relies on the essential human goodness of the people around her and works to encourage it: it’s a simple but nuanced premise, where stabbing and punching only does so much, and the Big Bad may not simply be the on-screen villain and his evil schemes.
Gal Gadot, the ex-Israeli Defense Force military combat instructor-turned-actress, delivers that spirit gloriously on screen with real, shining ferocity. Wonder Woman isn’t decked in stars and stripes, but in dyed and gilded armor that represents her utopian home. In this cinematic universe, she isn’t co-opted by a patriarchal nation, but rather independent in her actions and alliances. Invented by the recently-famous William Marston (thanks largely to Jill Lepore’s excellent The Secret History of Wonder Woman), Wonder Woman has her roots in a polyamorous, kink-friendly household in the 1940s where, as Marston put it, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
Undeniably, part of the movie’s impact is the marvelous and unrelenting demonstration of powerful women in combat. As an LA Times’s review noted, it hasn’t been uncommon for female viewers—the review’s author among them—to be moved to tears by the movie’s first major battle sequence, when the German battleship and its accompanying landing boats make landfall, rifles and all, on Paradise Island. Chris Pine’s (perfectly cast) Steve Trevor vocalizes the first question on every viewer’s mind, as the Amazons get ready to meet the Germans in battle: “They have guns, right?”
At this point in the movie, the POV has not yet switched from Diana to Steve: we are still viewing invasion as a strange and alien threat from an unknown world, whereas we’re very familiar with the athletic and awe-inspiring combat training of the Amazon women that has surrounded Diana throughout her life. So when the Germans do come ashore, cocking rifles under a barrage of flaming arrows, the disaster of a one-sided battle seems all too likely.
And then comes the cavalry. This is the moment when I knew the movie was going to succeed: the extraordinary female athletes cast as the Amazons brutally and gracefully demolish the German force. It isn’t a run-of-the-mill battle sequence to move us from one plot point to another. It’s the meat of the movie. The shear force and energy of a quasi-divine, uber-powerful group of diverse women. I don’t think any of us have ever seen that on screen before.
And that’s the power that Diana becomes representative of, when she leaves Paradise and stands as the only woman on screen. Unlike Iron Man or Spider Man or Batman, the movie isn’t about the hero coming into their powers, heightening them so as to achieve their own full heroic glory. That’s only part of the narrative. The core of Wonder Woman’s mythos is bridling and balancing violence, to act when you can, and work toward tangible peace. We aren’t rooting for grand explosions—though we certainly do get them. We’re rooting for Diana to lift a tank over her head and then toss it aside, instead of using it to crush her puny mortal enemies.
Wonder Woman takes the tired blockbuster genre and revitalizes it magnificently. Sure, the writers may have made Diana significantly less gay than she is in the comics, and the wardrobe department may have dressed Chris Pine repeatedly in fetching WWII bomber jackets (ostensibly during WWI), but the cohesive sense of Wonder Woman’s character comes through beautifully. She’s an emblem of responsible power, godly force, and genuine good will, just as Marston imagined her. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that, should we get more of Wonder Woman’s backstory in future films, we will more than likely see a gay demi-goddess played by a Jewish, Israeli ex-soldier single-handedly trouncing Nazis, which this queer Jewish reviewer is personally all for.