I’ve been sitting on this review until I could see Wonder Woman a second time, and to give people time to see it for themselves. But I can’t hold it in anymore: I have to holler my praises to whoever will listen.
I went to Wonder Woman mostly on principle. I wanted to vote with my dollars for more woman-directed, woman-led action blockbusters, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to adore it. I’d heard an interview that pegged Wonder Woman and the male romantic lead as “equals,” and it made me scowl. “So all it takes for a woman to be equal to a man is divine parentage? Great.” Add to that the sex-object costume and the history of the character as emerging from the aggressively male-dominated world of superheroes, and I was ready to have a lot to complain about.
I do have a few complaints. I wanted way more Etta Candy, for starters, and I found the decision to have the German ball in English with German accents to be jarring. But for the first time in my life, I walked out of a superhero movie feeling like much, much more had been gotten gloriously right than wrong.
Let’s start with the costume.
The original motivation for putting Wonder Woman in a skimpy costume was, at a guess, the same reason most women are shoved into stupid outfits: because men generally like to look at the nakedest woman possible. This movie, however, reclaimed Diana’s lack of clothing for herself. The movie begins on her home island, the home of the Amazons, and follows Diana as she fights for the right to train as a warrior. As you observe the stunning combat techniques of the Amazons (who take out a boatload of German soldiers bearing guns with minimal losses, considering the technological gap), it becomes plain that the costume is functional armor designed to prioritize mobility and the protection of the core.
When Diana and Steve land in London, Steve spends a bunch of time aggressively pulling her cape more closely around her and quickly decides that they need to get her into some proper clothes. When she and Etta are looking at corsets, she wonders about the inadequacy of the armor. When she tries on fluffy women’s clothes, she rips one dress trying to kick, and with that simple, simple action, all of women’s “proper” fashion is revealed for exactly what it is: designed to inhibit mobility and make women less physically capable than men.
Diana’s armor is strength and flexibility: socially appropriate women’s wear, in comparison, is effectively an act of physical violence against women.
Speaking of violence against women…
Diana and Steve go to see his bosses, and Steve tells Diana to wait outside. She ignores him, because she hasn’t been raised to see that kind of bullshit as worth noticing, and walks into a room full of politicians and military offices shouting at each other about the armistice. The mere presence of a woman brings the room almost to a dead silence, except for the one man arguing for peace, who takes his chance to be heard. Diana later adds her voice to his, arguing for the cessation of violence. I had to watch the movie again just to really hear her speak, because I was distracted to the point of feeling queasy by Steve’s physical attempt to remove Diana from the room. His arms are all over her in a way that made me want to slap him…something somewhere between controlling and pawing. Not the way that one physically engages with an equal, but the way one engages with someone who has to be controlled with no regard for their autonomy.
That was the first moment I got a little teary, because THAT is being a woman. Having something to say, and being unwelcome in the room. Having something to say, and being physically coerced into silence by your ally, the alleged “Nice Guy.” Having something to say and not getting through to even your willing audience because they’re so distracted by the manner in which everyone else is trying to shut you up.
That was the first moment when I decided Diana is my hero, because she ignores the attempts to silence her. She doesn’t even waste her energy responding to the nonsense of how hard they tried to shut her out. She is too powerful to find their flailings meaningful and too committed to her cause to be sidetracked. As she finally leaves the room, her focus remains strictly on stopping the war and protecting those who are dying.
And when it comes to protecting those who are dying…
My goddess. Let’s talk, for a minute, about the crossing of No Man’s Land.
Sorry. I needed a moment to collect myself, because just thinking of it still brings tears to my eyes. I cried shamelessly as Diana pushed past Steve, discarded her cloak, climbed the ladder, and emerged from the trenches as Wonder Woman for the first time. Diana isn’t just doing something all those soldiers had failed to do for over a year, she isn’t just becoming a symbol of hope for those dying boys and the villagers hiding with them. She is rewriting the rules of the engagement in order to stop human suffering immediately. And because the groundwork had been laid beautifully, the scene serves to underscore the message around gender. The discarding of her cloak, the decision to ignore Steve’s command, the ascent into forbidden territory is the rejection of male efforts to limit or discount or take charge over female strength.
Diana hasn’t changed the system. She hasn’t even really changed the men around her, as we see not much later when Steve tries to bar her from attending a gala. What she has done is made the choice to trust her own skill and strength in order to do what she believes to be the most compassionate choice, regardless of the risk it might pose to her. And that is why I wept to watch her walk unscathed through the gunfire.
Let’s talk about passion vs. knowledge for a second.
There’s an argument that could be made for the foolhardiness of Diana’s choice in that moment. She acts on pure principle, which looks suspiciously like emotion, and with Steve making the logic-backed argument for not moving yet, there’s an uncomfortable dynamic of Feminine Emotion versus Masculine Reason. That’s a dynamic that plagues the relationship between Diana and Steve, and there are moments it edged on being problematic for me. Diana’s lack of knowledge of the world of men and its workings ends up being something between infantilizing where it crops up as ignorance and installing her on a pedestal where it functions to highlight her commitment to her ideals.
There are, however, two reasons why this dynamic ends up working in the long run. First and foremost, the movie pointedly demonstrates how Diana’s mother goes out of her way to keep Diana ignorant of the world and its troubles in order to protect her. Her innocence is a scar of a kind of well-intentioned mental violence that parents often do enact against their daughters: barring a girl from the knowledge she needs to engage in a fight the mother thinks she can’t win. Diana’s innocence/ignorance/blind compassion is another metaphorical reflection of my own experience as a woman, and more than that, it is clearly and intentionally explained at the beginning of the movie which, secondly, is a carefully constructed piece of Diana’s hero’s journey.
What Diana needs in order to defeat Ares is the ability to love the world of men regardless of their flaws: by protecting her from the knowledge of how deeply unworthy humanity is, her mother’s sheltering education leaves Diana nearly crippled in the final battle. She is young in this movie: this is her coming of age story. She began the movie with the uncomplicated and blind compassion of a child and ends it with the knowing compassion of a woman.
What actually opened her eyes?
John and I had very different reads on the end of the movie, where Diana flashes back on the scene in which Steve says goodbye. John thought I would be annoyed, because he read it as Diana finding her motivation because Steve said he loved her. So to John, it looked like the critical catalyst was some old-fashioned man-love. He’s right that that would have annoyed the living daylights out of me if I shared his interpretation, but I don’t. How I read that transitional moment is that Diana’s reflections were more about Steve’s comment that choosing compassion isn’t about the worthiness of the people you have compassion for. His words were underscored by his sacrifice, and it was that combination that lit the fire under her.
The fact that he told Diana he loved her was, as with everything else in the romantic subplot, a mildly distracting footnote. I think the movie would have been stronger without the weird boat conversation about reproduction, the brief makeout scene, and Steve’s declaration of love, but because the romance was so thoroughly on the sidelines of the larger story about two independent people trying, in their own ways, to bring an end to war, that final “I love you” seemed appropriately close to irrelevant. What seemed, to me, to change Diana’s mind was how willing Steve was to give up his life to stop the war, even if the people he was saving weren’t worthy of the sacrifice.
The worthiness of the people saved…
One choice John and I both really loved was the decision to set the movie during World War I, instead of II, as in the original comics. In World War II, there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity to the sides. Nazis were gassing children and old people and dumping their bodies in mass graves: everyone else was trying to put a stop to that. The boys taking off their gas masks at the end of the movie are the nominal “bad guys,” and if they’d been Nazis, it would have been much harder to pull off a scene where people from both sides can share a smile of relief that they’re not dead yet. World War I wasn’t personal or moral: it was a stupid waste of life all around, and that’s a message worth reflecting on, especially in times of high partisan tension in the real world.
That, and the value of art.
The movie begins with a shot of the Louvre and ends there. In the middle of the movie, after the saving of the town, Diana and Steve are dancing…sort of…and Diana says something along the lines of, “So this is what people do when they’re not at war.” Charlie’s singing is hinted at having been buried by his PTSD, and Diana draws it out of him. That’s what Diana is when she’s not fighting war: that’s what love looks like when it’s not forced to expend its strength on saving people.
Saving people vs. killing people
Yet another excellent detail of the movie: when Diana is saving people, she’s not just saving one side from another. She’s primarily saving all people from themselves. Her primary targets are always the heavy artillery and the guns. She deals damage out to people too, but in a lot of her combat, it’s entirely possible that she has dealt incapacitating blows without doing lethal damage. One more fine highlighting of the message that people, no matter how unworthy, need saving from war and that the real enemy is those who actively deny peace its day in the sun.
Love is a wrecking ball
Love-based powers tend to be seen as feminine, and all too often, that turns into tropes where women are the fragile sideline healers. Sure, love can manifest as healing. But when Diana is taking Veld in a whirlwind of divine fury: that’s love too. Love is not soft and weak in this movie: love is a sacred meatshield who brings on the DPS. Crumpled tanks, smashed walls, demolished church steeples: that’s love.
A quick note on diversity beyond gender
Wonder Woman was a brilliant story for me, as a white woman. I think it was trying its best to do well by other groups as well, but I would like to know how less well-represented groups felt it did. The Amazons of Diana’s home were diverse in color and clearly powerful. When Diana was running from a black woman at the beginning of the movie, I was afraid that she was running from a servant, but a line from her mother suggests that the woman was actually her tutor: an educated intellectual superior whose services are valued by Diana’s mother who worries the tutor will quit. The historical context of the movie paired with Diana’s background and the story they were trying to shape for her may have put some weird constraints on the writers and directors, but there were hints that they were making at least something resembling an effort to acknowledge the fact that the world is made up of more than just white men and the white women who refused to be stepped on by them. The presence and power of black women on the island was one hint at that effort.
The diversity of Steve’s renegade crew and the fact that they were all given space for their backstories, which called out real suffering, was another hint. What I would like to see in the next movie is more. I don’t see any excuse for them to not improve with the Justice League movie.
On a relation not, I understand what that questionable review meant by calling Diana and Steve equals. They’re not, obviously, when it comes to combat stats. Diana could whip Steve like cream and no mistake. But what this gem does, magnificently, is show a relationship in which a man and a woman are both strong characters with independent agency.That dynamic is one of the things that puts Wonder Woman above a lot of reasonable decent strong female protagonist movies/shows, and Steve sets a standard for how sidekicks should be written, no matter what their race or gender. Steve is an ass about gender and Diana has yet to grow into something resembling a capacity for finesse or subtlety, but they managed to work together without either diminishing the other, and I want to see more of that well-managed tension.
Wonder Woman was the first superhero movie I have ever been to that felt like it was written for me. I felt in my bones the point of making superhero stories, which is a brand new experience for me. Diana is a larger-than-life reflection of how I want to be in the world. I really hope this lovely movie is just one on the leading edge of a wave of movies that do the same for people who are still waiting for their Wonder Woman.