Wonder Woman is wonderful. In a way, this a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up into womanhood, leaving her home behind and finding her way in the world in order to live into the identity she’s been given from birth while still forging her own path. It’s the story of Diana (Gal Gadot), but it’s also the story of so many women, young and old, who also find themselves attempting to navigate this complex and often unjust world. As a man, I cannot pretend to know what that experience is like; I want to listen well to the women in my life, my friends and family, my daughter and wife and sisters and mother, to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom. Wonder Woman, even as a superhero action film, is one such story which wears its femininity on its armored sleeve with integrity and complexity.
I found myself moved to tears at multiple points throughout the film: Diana rising from a World War I trench in full battle attire to face down a German machine gun nest (the most powerful and iconic moment in the film); Diana holding a dying mentor in her arms and weeping at the loss; Diana facing the destructive power of soldiers and armies and seeing the true violence of war. Yet the first tear-eliciting moment was surprising: in her training on the island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the deities of Mount Olympus to protect humankind against the corruption of Ares, the god of war, Diana experiences a sudden burst of power emit from her as her wrists cross in the now-iconic posture of the character. Surprised by the blast, as her wrists lower, a small grin of genuine delights emerges on her face. She smiles. I’ve come to expect the DC cinematic universe to be dark and cynical, and I was braced for gritty nihilism. But Gal Gadot smiles often in Wonder Woman, a gesture of sincere wonder and joy, even in the midst of a story filled with pain and loss. It’s a winsome and beautiful smile, a light in the dark world of DC films. I, too, smiled often throughout the film, even through those already-mentioned tears.
Diana’s motivation for leaving her island paradise occurs when World War I encroaches on the Amazon community’s protected oasis. Spy and soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into her world, raising the awareness that war is destroying the outside civilizations. A dangerous new chemical weapon has been created to wipe out humankind, even as an armistice is being reached. Diana interprets this news as Ares’ return, and embarks on a mission to end the war by destroying Ares. Gadot’s performance is exceptional here; she’s idealistic and sincere in her beliefs, passionate about her mission without ever tipping into dark obsession. Whether she’s learning about the strange ways of the world outside of Themyscira, battling German soldiers in an epic action sequence filled with slow-motion pans and zooms, or dancing with Steve Trevor in a moment of quiet romance, Gadot is a powerful, personable presence. Despite being a demi-goddess from an island of Amazonian warrior women, she’s relatable, even fun. In her guilelessness about the ways of human existence–she’d never seen a man before Steve Trevor–she doesn’t come across as a mindless naif. She’s smart and observant, capable and confident, actively learning of the world she’s born to protect, even when she disagrees with its practices or traditions. She’s also motivated by sincere moral fortitude, an internal sense of purpose and hope. Raised to believe that her Amazonian world existed to protect the Earth from the violence of war, she embraces that tradition and identity through her actions and decisions. There is an ongoing ethical dilemma raised in Wonder Woman: in the face of moral injustice, do nothing, or do something? Diana and Steve choose the latter when others won’t, taking action in order to foster the good in the midst of evil and suffering. Gadot and Pine’s performances are both worth praising here–it’s not often that we see genuinely great acting and chemistry within the superhero genre, but it’s very present in these two leads. Recognition must also be given to director Patty Jenkins, who imbues the film with a sense of confidence and originality, even within a now-commonplace genre like a superhero movie. She’s crafted a genuinely great war film and fostered wonderful performances within her actors, all under the pressures of DC’s recent filmic failures and the cultural significance and timeliness of the story.
The film’s anthropology and theology is complex and interesting, as one central question raised in Diana’s mission is whether or not humankind is able to be saved, or worth saving at all, especially if humanity will continue to live in violence and ugliness; one might even label this innate posture “depravity.” Yet there is also genuine good in human beings, seen through the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Diana experiences both the brokenness and beauty of humanity, and in a powerful display of Christlike mercy in the finale of the film, she chooses the way of grace while still enacting justice upon the deceitful enemy of humankind, declaring, “only love will truly save the world.” It’s a feminist film, to be sure, but I’d argue there are pacifist sensibilities here too–it called to mind Kubrick’s Paths of Glory for me, an anti-war World War I film, in its depictions of the horrors of war and its final vision of peace and reconciliation. Diana’s mission is not of vengeance or violence; she is a protector who longs for the day when the world of humanity doesn’t need protecting, either from itself or from malevolent outside forces. She protects the world because she loves the world, and is willing to give of herself sacrificially in order to save it.
A nuanced message of hope and mercy in a violent world? A superhero motivated by love and a desire for peace? A visionary portrayal of femininity in all its beauty, complexity, and strength? I’m with her.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0451279/