This review contains spoilers.
Near the end of the first act of Wonder Woman, Diana tells Steve Trevor that he wouldn’t like Amazon writings on sex. The conclusion of the 12 volumes, she says, is that while men are necessary for reproduction, they are not necessary for pleasure. “Preach!” a woman in my packed theater in New York City cried out at Diana’s declaration, and a delighted ripple of laughter made its way through the crowd. That moment of collective bliss, however, had nothing on the unified chorus of cheers that went up 30 minutes later when Diana of Themyscira hoisted herself out of a World War I bunker in the middle of No Man’s Land, revealing her full regalia to the audience for the first time. Sword of Athena. Bracelets of Submission. Lasso of Truth. Wonder Woman, at last, on the silver screen.
Wonder Woman stands alone with Batman and Superman when it comes to iconic American superheroes — but unlike Batman and Superman, most people have no idea where she came from or why she took on the mantle of fighting bad guys. Everyone knows Clark Kent fell out of the sky over Smallville and Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down in an alley in Gotham City. Superman’s a do-gooder alien. Batman’s a tortured vigilante. As their faces and costumes have shifted from big screen to small screen to comic book and back again over the last 75 years, Superman and Batman’s origin stories and characterizations have remained largely the same. But until now, the only thing most people knew about Wonder Woman is that she looks like Lynda Carter.
The reason why is pretty obvious: To tell the story of Wonder Woman’s origin you have to introduce the world to Themyscira, a utopia where there is “no want, no illness, no hatreds, no wars.” There are also no men. Paradise Island is home to only women. Women warriors, women caretakers, women artisans, women governors, and a woman queen. “How can they not all be in same sex relationships?” current Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka wondered aloud recently. It caused a stir, but he was only echoing what other writers have been saying on and off since Robert Kanigher first declared all Amazons lesbians in the 1960s. There’s a reason Wonder Woman and the her sisters exclaim “Suffering Sappho!” every time they turn around. The Amazons of Themyscira don’t need men for anything, not even for pleasure. Is it any wonder Hollywood had to be strong armed and shamed into making this film?
Gloriously, director Patty Jenkins lingers in Themyscira. Like Hippolyta, she is in no hurry to see Diana grow up and leave. Diana trains as a wide-eyed young girl. Diana trains as a rebellious teen. Diana trains as an adult and finally surpasses her mentor, her aunt, as the greatest warrior on the island. These sequences are breathtaking. The scenery, yes, but more than that: the women. Swords and shields and bows and arrows and javelins and fists and endless acrobatics. They delight in each other’s strength, never doubting their place as the rulers of their world or their ability to protect it. I felt such a pang of sadness and annoyance when Steve Trevor’s plane crashed through their barrier and into their sea. I only recovered my happiness when the Amazons decimated the soldiers who followed him.
An origin story is more than just the place that birthed our hero; it’s the journey from who they are at home to who they become to the world. For Diana it’s all very simple: She needs to defeat Ares, the God of War, so that men will lay down their arms and the planet will be at peace again. World War I is an unfamiliar setting for a superhero movie, but it’s a welcome one. World War II is always Good Guys vs. Nazis but the Great War before it was impossibly complicated treaties that came to bear on a royal assassination, tens of millions of men in trenches mowing each other down with machine guns for reasons they didn’t even understand. “They haven’t moved an inch,” Steve Trevor tells Diana when they arrive in No Man’s Land. It’s a metaphor, see? She moves them more than an inch, more than a foot, more than a mile. She takes on an entire German battalion with minimal cover and blows past them to rescue a town from enslavement and destruction.
What Diana finds as she makes her way across the battlefields to the castles and strongholds of the men who are controlling the madness is that things aren’t as black and white as she was taught on Themyscira, that Ares whispers suggestions rather than commanding obedience, and that humankind is weak and fallible and has a bottomless capacity for evil.
Wonder Woman‘s action sequences are stunning. Her sword, her shield, her bracelets, her lasso, her fists: she uses them all in equal measure and to full effect, over and over and over again. She leaps and she punches and she stabs and things around her go KABOOM! The pacing of her fighting is that precise kind of breathlessness that leaves you nothing but satisfied. Again: Jenkins. It’s an action movie and it’s a war movie and it’s a love story and it’s a character-driven origin story, and she balances all of those demands with uncommon aplomb. Critics will look for flaws to undermine her work because she’s basically an unknown woman director and how dare she, but they won’t find better fighting from even Chris Nolan or Joss Whedon.
There was always going to be too much Steve Trevor in this movie for my liking, even if he’d died in the plane crash that sent him careening into the ocean at Diana’s feet — but he is her sidekick. He knows it and we know it. There’s never any question. Wonder Woman flips nearly every gendered superhero trope it encounters. He follows her lead; she saves his life (repeatedly); hers are the lessons that need to be learned; his is the body that is scrutinized, objectified, and consumed by the gaze of the camera. She never listens to Steve’s advice, never heeds his warnings. She’s a princess from an island ruled by women; why would she stay outside while the men decide whether or not to go to war?
It’s impossible not to bring the real world with you into Wonder Woman. It’s a Warner Brothers backlot and you will see Aleppo. It’s an arrogant madman and you will hear Donald Trump. The men beside you in the theater will squirm and exaggerate their yawns and when it’s over they’ll flee from their seats as fast as they can or linger to complain that Batman didn’t appear after the credits (even though he was the center of the Justice League trailer that aired for four minutes before Wonder Woman even started). When Wonder Woman begins to lose her optimism as she comes face-to-face with the dark and complicated truths of the world, you’ll feel that too. A punch in a gut that feels constantly pummeled these days.
But maybe you’ll take something out into the real world too. Even as Wonder Woman finds her true strength and uncovers the magnitude of her powers, even as she unleashes fire and destruction, she finds glimmers of goodness in those who have stayed to fight alongside her. Something to believe in. She doesn’t have Batman’s cynicism, Spider-Man’s sarcasm, Iron Man’s arrogance, Hulk’s misanthropy, Thor’s battlelust. Oh, she’s as powerful as all of them and more so than most. But unlike them, she has hope and she has love. They aren’t gimmes; she chooses them.
When Diana of Themyscira stepped out of that bunker in her full Wonder Woman suit, the little girl behind me gasped, “It’s her!” And it’s true. She’s Lynda Carter, that cover of Ms. Magazine, and now she’s Gal Gadot.
Wonder Woman arrived in the world in 1941 fighting fascism and preaching the power of women, and despite all the diversions and oppressions her writers have inflicted on her over the decades, she’s been born again in a new and lasting way to a generation that needs her as desperately as ever. “Time beckons,” Charles Moulton wrote in Wonder Woman’s first days in Sensation Comics, “and Wonder Woman comes — to weave her spell of love and beauty and peace over throbbing human hearts.”
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