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Film Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

An important recent theoretical framework in the academic world, of which I am no longer a part but which I remember with tempered fondness, is intersectionality. Rougly defined (at least by Wikipedia), the term refers to overlapping social identities and their related discourses and systems of oppression, domination, and/or discrimination. In considering intersecting identities rather than single, monolithic identity markers, a fuller, more nuanced, multidimensional picture of all facets of a subject’s identity is possible, and indeed preferable to considering such markers in isolation. Thus, considering someone as a queer-identifying lower-income African-American woman gives a fuller impression of the challenges of their identity and its related structures of marginalization than pinpointing any of those specific identities on their own to determine understanding.

Intersectionality feels germane to thinking about Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. That is, at least a version of intersectionality adapted to the set of market and fan expectations, generic conventions, narrative and thematic assumptions, intertextual interaction with similar films within (and without) its wider comics superhero franchise universe, and politics of representation and projection, rather than personal identity elements. It’s only so instructive and useful to discuss Wonder Woman simply as a feminist film (though it certainly is one, intelligently and robustly so) because it features a female lead when literally every other superhero blockbuster (and practically every Hollywood action blockbuster period, although The Hunger Games and recent Star Wars movies have seriously cracked that resilient glass ceiling) has a male lead.

That’s true, yes, and it’s especially true in the DC Extended Universe. But the underlying politics of films centred on DC’s male heroes (and anti-heroes) have proceeded from masculinity’s representational hegemony in the genre to its logical, terrible ideological conclusions: toxic assumptions about the uses of fascistic authoritarian power, retrograde embraces of Nietzschean übermensch beliefs, and nihilistically cynical arguments for the perverse necessity of exercising zero-tolerance oppressive state authority. Add to this the decidedly mixed representations of women in DC films (and in superhero films in general) and the knee-jerk negative reactions of a despised but not-inconsiderable portion of MRA-leaning online fanboys to any geek-inclined blockbuster release in which a woman is allowed to be anything other than eye candy or emotional support to a male protagonist, and there is even more to consider (even without the controversy over women-only screenings in Texas and elsewhere). Even star Gal Gadot’s nationality has factored into the complicated politics of Wonder Woman‘s reception: she’s an Israeli citizen who performed mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force, a fact which got the film banned in Lebanon.

It is mostly (if not completely) accurate to say that Wonder Woman strides confidently into this particular intersection and utterly undoes, overcomes, and redeems all of this messy, noisome baggage with refreshing moral clarity and a tendency for blazing, iconic imagery. Jenkins – an experienced and skilled veteran director who has worked on television since her last feature film, 2003’s Monster, won Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress – displays both of these laudable directorial qualities in spades, and Wonder Woman is a dynamite entertainment with surprising thematic and emotional heft. If praise must be tempered at all, it’s because the narrative runs through some familiar generic avenues, develops a predictable love interest angle, and arrives at a CG-heavy, massively destructive final battle of godly proportions set at night, like seemingly every DCEU movie must.

But vitally, Jenkins ends our heroine’s climactic dark night of doubt, struggle, and deep loss with a sunrise suffused with hope and goodness. And Wonder Woman, despite its sops to genre convention and big-budget compromise, not only succeeds but thrives and delights because it holds that sunrise in its heart. There’s an earnest joy and desire to protect goodness and improve situations of injustice at this movie’s core that sets it irrevocably apart from its incoherent, ugly, and smug DCEU predecessors, especially the movie that introduced us to this version of Diana Prince, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Those films doubted that goodness was even possible, let alone worth protecting. Wonder Woman has ideals, and it thunderously upholds them.

Gadot’s Diana begins her transformative journey out of her edenic Amazons-only island home of Themyscira as a starry-eyed idealist with a head full of pure notions of justice, but her disillusionment only deepens her empathy for humanity with experience, and stiffens her commitment to protecting the better angels of their natures. This earned, worldly empathy is redolent of a woman’s perspective; it’s vital to this character, and it’s what DC Films and Warner Bros. got when they hired Patty Jenkins to direct. The odd, moving power of this point of view in Wonder Woman is a welcome and redemptive addition to a superhero genre (and a comics-derived cinematic Extended Universe) greatly in need of it.

Gal Gadot’s performance, also infused with an odd power, deserves to share credit for summoning up this resurgent verve with Jenkins’ direction and Allan Heinberg’s screenplay (based on a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and DCEU overseer Zack Snyder). Her ability to effectively emote and communicate frames of mind during furious, epically-scaled action sequences was established in her cameo appearance in Batman v. Superman, where she practically stole the movie out from under the noses of the hyper-masculine Oedipal titular superheroes with a single-beat grin. But more than that, Gadot’s Diana recognizes – and helps us recognize, as if for the first time – a fundamental thematic message of the superhero genre that has been casually discarded by DC Films’ self-satisfied, morally-ambiguous realpolitik understanding of good and evil (and even the cannier Marvel films, to an extent, although their source material was always built on more sociopolitically complex foundations). She does good not because it makes her feel good or because it is just marginally better than doing bad, but because doing good is how a better world is built.

Diana believes in the overarching mission of the Amazons – to defend mankind from the threat of the all-corrupting god of war Ares (manifested in this comic-ized Hellenic myth as a species of concealed Satan) and one day utilize their “godkiller” weapon to destroy him entirely, a backstory gorgeously exposited by a sequence of no-fooling slow-motion-animated Classicist paintings – enough to defy her mother and queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and convince top Amazon General Antiope (Robin Wright) to train her in the ways of her people’s combat. Both those combat skills and that belief in the ideals of justice will be needed when a stray biplane flown by U.S. Army Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the crystal-blue waters off her home island. She saves him from drowning, he saves her from the pursuing German soldiers who attack Themyscira, and he informs her and the Amazons of the conditions outside their bubble of concealment. It’s 1918, the War to End All Wars has left 25 million dead, and his mission as a spy for British intelligence is to stop the production and deployment of a devastating and potentially conflict-extending toxic gas developed in Ottoman Turkey by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) for the implacable German military commander General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Firm in her belief in the Amazons’ mission of protection and justice and furthermore convinced that not only the lethal gas but the entirety of the Great War is the secret work of her sworn enemy Ares, Diana accompanies Trevor back to London and the British War Cabinet, where he is to show his superiors (including a peace supporter named Sir Patrick Morgan, played by David Thewlis) Dr. Maru’s encoded notebook and convince them to fund a mission to destroy the super-gas factory behind enemy lines, as well as to delay the planned armistice long enough to allow it to be completed.

Diana and Trevor’s travels to and around London and eventually to the front lines in Belgium are marked by multiple instances of productive tension and exposure of unfair hypocrisy in the status, treatment, and expectations of women in that time and place. Trevor is the first man Diana has ever met, and she thinks nothing of asking him if his penis is of representative size (“Above average,” he wrily claims) or bluntly telling him that although men are needed for procreation, they are “unnecessary” for female sexual pleasure. In conservative, patriarchal England, she tries on period clothes (her metallic bustier is judged insufficient in the coverage department for the staid city streets) and wonders how women can fight in voluminous skirts, is introduced surreptitiously as Trevor’s secretary (his actual secretary, Etta Candy, is a good comic-relief part for BBC’s The Office alum Lucy Davis), and pushes through the condescending disregard of arrogant statesmen to demonstrate her mastery of over 60 languages and witheringly condemn their cowardly decision-making with regards to the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians. These jabs at sexism and patriarchy never really feel like soapbox-ascending moments predominantly because, from Diana’s perspective, discrimination against women is not only absurd but unnecessary (even the villainous but talented Dr. Maru receives appreciation for her abilities from Trevor and a moment of solidarity from Diana). There is nothing of importance men can do that she cannot, and they certainly cannot tell her what to do.

Diana struggles with a sense of nagging dissatisfaction with the inequity of these imposed limitations on her, and with Trevor’s repeated insistences that she not intervene in the flood of small refugee tragedies witnessed as they approach the Front with his diverse strike squad (Sameer, a chatty failed-actor-turned-secret-agent played by Saïd Taghmaoui; Charlie, a shell-shocked Scottish marksman played by Ewen Bremner; Chief, a nationless Native American smuggler played by Eugene Brave Rock). All of this catalyzes Wonder Woman‘s greatest scene, and one of the most iconic moments in the (admittedly brief and patchy) history of superhero movies: Diana defies Trevor’s constant goalpost-moving pragmatism and strides over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land (but she is no man!), fully unveiling herself as the titular heroine for the first time under a hail of a volley from German rifles, shells, and machine guns. It’s an image for all time, the Wonder Woman mythos (and, indirectly, the long struggle for women’s rights) distilled into pure, lightning-written form as she stands against the awful, grinding inhumanity of a destructive and misbegotten war and leads weary troops on to a great victory. The action direction in No Man’s Land and in a shell-shocked Belgian village afterwards is superb and exciting (and clearly influenced by Snyder’s style), but Wonder Woman’s emergence from the trenches (revealed though it was by the film’s trailers) is utterly glorious cinema.

There’s a very deliberate sense to this moment, and to Diana’s later choice to fight on for justice and righteousness despite both personal anguish and the deconstruction of the simplistic, Hellenic-myth-derived terms of her idealism, that Wonder Woman stands not only against a proximal foe with deadly arms, but against all oppression and discrimination, everywhere, against everyone. Moreover, the choice to set this origin film for the character during World War I (reminiscent of the World War II era of Captain America: The First Avenger but even more successful, I would argue) recontextualizes a war generally characterized as either wholly pointless, tragically absurd, or carelessly imperial in character, or at the very least sparked by interlocking-alliance over-reactions to a curious and above all local assassination on the margins of Europe’s power centres.

Heinberg’s script runs a bit of a bait and switch with Diana’s assumption that Ares is the puppetmaster behind the Great War, as well as with her reading that Ludendorff is Ares in disguise (added kudos for pulling Ludendorff from the history books to serve as a skulking villain; he’s one of the 20th Century’s underappreciated reactionary bastards and a genuine John the Baptist figure to the exponentially more monstrous Adolf Hitler). But just as Diana realizes that messy, complicated, morally compromised humanity is tragically in charge of its own ever-threatened future, we are nudged by this unwaveringly earnest superhero film towards understanding this war, and all such mass suffering events callously engineered by powerful men to extend or preserve their ever-tenuous power, as the offspring of intersectional forces of oppression, domination, and discrimination.

The corsetting of women in literal and figurative terms that Diana witnesses in London is of a same piece with the massacre that she witnesses at the Front, a harsh contrast to the twinkling, snow-flecked, beer-tinged revelry she witnesses after the liberation of the Belgian town. It’s a corsetting of the marginalized that takes in Sameer’s exclusion from stage acting due to the colour of his skin, Charlie’s debilitating PTSD, and the historical dispossession of Chief’s people by Steve Trevor’s people. The violence of power, ever a blunt tool of control, lies behind all such subjugations just as it lies behind the four-year global human meat-grinder of the Great War (or the even more destructive six-year war that it presaged). Wonder Woman seeks to throw down this god of war not through the use of its own genocidal weapons, as her counterparts in previous recent DCEU films have done. She wields a shield, gauntlets, the innate power of protective love, and her own just and empathetic will (also a badass sword and a goofy golden lasso, but I digress from my point).

In our troubled, uncertain, and hate-tinged times, Patty Jenkins has iconically elevated a heroine who is proud to derive her power from a varied intersection of love and mutual respect rather than from single-minded fear and hate. Diana’s post-battle glimpse of dawn, expanded into a splash-page pose in the film’s final shot, ought to be ours as well. It’s this inner glow, this bright beam of innate justice, that casts Wonder Woman in a better light than so many other superhero movies that it superficially resembles in structural terms. A wonder, indeed.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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