To be human is to love.
The superhero movie is many things: a reliable return on investment for producers and studios, a space within which the hottest actor/actress of the day can flex their muscles (literally) and ham it up, a bone for diehard comic fans to chew up and over as they argue about Easter eggs and continuity and elaborate theories. It channels explosions of energy and machines onto the screen, and provides some sort of entertaining catharsis; good wins the day, ultimately, after cheesy speeches about hope, and evil is safely put away, even if there is a hint (in post-credits scenes) that it will rise again.
With the glut of superhero movies and dramas reaching screens in the past few years, no filmmaker has left as indelible a mark on the genre as Christopher Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reminded viewers that superhero movies can be ‘profound’, and underlined this by drenching his screen in darkness, and giving his Batman a moodiness and pathos that sets him apart from the far more campy versions brought to life by Michael Keaton or George Clooney. Bale’s Batman was so successful, critically and commercially, that DC, Batman’s owners, decided they would continue this formula for their other films, with varying results. Most of DC’s efforts have been panned, with Batman vs Superman reach particularly low standards, but finally, they seem to have gotten the memo that not all superhero films need be extended meditations on heroism and goodness in a dark world. Some of them can be this, and fun as well.
Enter Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose previous credits include the Charlize Theron-starring Monster, the movie stars Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel and a total badass. There was some griping when Gadot was cast (mostly because she was a relative nobody), but from the moment she lit up screens in Zach Snyder’s otherwise forgettable B vs S, I think most critics have been silenced. She is, to put it succinctly, effortlessly charismatic in this role, and brings Diana Prince’s blend of naivete, strength and integrity to life.
Wonder Woman is a first for many reasons, most importantly its place as the first female-led and –directed superhero blockbuster in more than a decade, the first movement of a Queen in this elaborate game of chess DC and Marvel have suckered us into watching them play. How does it fare in these contexts, as a superhero movie in general, and one that stars a woman?
The answer: pretty damn well.
Wonder Woman is an origin story, a flashback shown to us after Diana Prince (Gadot) receives an old photograph from the seemingly-all-knowing Bruce Wayne. It’s a picture of her in her Amazonian armour, standing on a battlefield with a group of men. ‘Maybe some day you’ll tell me your story,’ Wayne writes. Diana reminisces, looking at the picture, and her memories unspool before us in the form of the film.
Wonder Woman, the comics character, has been around for decades, so her origin isn’t all that mysterious. She is an Amazonian princess, raised on the idyllic island of Themiscyra, by her mother, the queen Hippolyta. She is trained in warfare and combat by her aunt Antiope, trained ‘harder than any Amazon before her,’ though why is left unclear at first. The Amazons, a race of demigoddesses, were created by Zeus to promote a ‘greater understanding among men’, but retired to their mysterious island when Ares, God of War, corrupted the world of men and destroyed the gods. The Amazons hold Zeus’ last weapon to defeat Ares, and prepare for the day when they will have to rejoin the world, and destroy him once and for all.
Or so Diana has been told.
When Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy assigned to British Intelligence, crashes into the azure waters off the coast, he drags with him the fury and chaos of World War I. Diana finds herself confronted with what she sees as a ‘sacred duty’: to return to the world of men and save them from the corruption caused by Ares. She steals away with Trevor, asking her disapproving mother ‘Who would I be if I stayed?’ Self imposed duty and belief call her to arms, even if it means never seeing her mother, or Themiscyra, again.
Thus begins Diana’s time in the world of men, a world that, Hippolyta claims, ‘does not deserve’ her. She and Trevor, accompanied by a band of misfits with their own sad stories, head to where the fighting is most intense: the Western Front. They are aided off-field by Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and the pacifist Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a Cabinet member who insists on funding their mission to destroy a secret German weapons facility run by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Maru has created a horrendous weapon that has the potential to wipe out ‘millions’; Trevor and Diana believe that she and Ludendorff must be stopped at any cost.
As with all stories, there are twists and turns, some surprises, but also sweetness and sadness in equal measure. Diana is shocked by a world that seeks to shut her out simply because she is a woman, where soldiers and civilians are killed with impunity by generals hiding out in their offices. But still, she clings tight to what she knows: that she has a job to do, as an Amazon, and she must do it, no matter what.
What really stands out about Diana as a superheroine is this, her lack of confusion over what it ‘means’ for her to be a hero. Diana does not see herself as markedly different from the people around her. Her gifts are not burdens she carries (like Cavill’s Clark Kent), but things she must put to use to help those who cannot help themselves. She does not waste time wondering ‘why’ she feels the need to help people, what it means in the larger scheme of things. She does not quibble over killing, if it must be done. She’s a warrior, a tool, and she has a purpose. Not for her existential mulling over being a dark knight, or a god among men. ‘I can help them,’ ‘I can do it,’ ‘I am the man for the job’: these are her phrases, and they capture her superheroine manifesto, as well as anything Nolan’s Batman might have said captured his.
Is Gadot’s Diana a feminist? In an interview, Jenkins pointed to one scene in the movie, where Diana enters the Cabinet Room at British High Command, a place of power from which women are banned. ‘She doesn’t think she doesn’t have a right to be there,’ Jenkins said. She believes these men should listen to her, because she brings important information, and she, more importantly, wants to and can help with the war. Diana has been raised in a place where gender is not seen as something to be commented on, certainly not something that should act as a stumbling block to what one wants to do. Even her first stunned comment to Trevor (‘You’re a man!’) is made as a general observation, rather than loaded with judgment and predisposition of what a ‘man’ might be like. She cannot comprehend why the modern world would not ‘allow’ women to fight in battle, or that her armour is ‘inappropriate’ in any way. It is impossible to stress how refreshing this is, to have a protagonist (who also happens to be a woman) focus solely on her mission and ideals, and refuse to dignify what she sees as amusing, if not outright ridiculous, conventions.
On the flip side, Diana’s confidence and lack of faith in institutions like marriage and sexist biases comes not from any sort of enlightenment, but simply because she was never exposed to the same. She has not struggled ‘out’ of these bindings; she just never had to deal with them. While this works for the movie, it does sort of problematize the idea of her as a feminist icon, a fact that critics of her nomination as a UN ambassador seized upon. But within the echelons of pop culture, and this movie in particular, Diana’s position as powerful woman works. Personally, I loved watching her kick ass, and would watch many more scenes of her doing just that.
Wonder Woman ends with (spoiler alert) Diana thinking that ‘only love can save the world’. It’s a curiously sentimental line, one that might seem out of place in a movie-verse where we’ve gotten used to darker pronouncements about man’s innate evil, and the futility of effort. But here, it makes sense. There is something hopeful and, well, clear about Diana. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who just does her job, something she’s basically trained all her life to do, because it is right. Not for her brooding or posturing, or staring into the dark skies, wondering about the personal and metaphysical implications of her actions. She cuts through all that bullshit with one flick of her lasso, and throws herself in headfirst, saving a world that might not always deserve her. But, as she herself says, ‘It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe.’ Diana believes she has to be there for the world, and do what she can to save it from itself. If that doesn’t make you love her without complication, I don’t know what will.