I don’t have high expectations for superhero films. (Before now, I felt that two were good films that succeeded within the constraints of the genre and also as films in their own right, and neither Thor nor Captain America: Winter Soldier came from the DC stable.) Nor do I have high expectations for action films starring women: Hollywood frequently falls into the trap of making films which, while ostensibly about the lead woman, are actually all about the men in their lives, and thus deform the narrative arc of the film by not trusting a woman to carry its emotional weight.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman doesn’t do that. It does something entirely different, something I’ve never actually seen a big budget Hollywood film do before. It tells the story of a woman’s coming of age, both as an adult and a hero—mirroring the heroic coming-of-age stories we’ve seen for so many men, but with Diana of Themiscyra in the central role.
Patty Jenkins is not, thank all the gods of film, an “action director.” This gives her approach to both the emotional beats and the visuals of Diana’s story a delightful freshness. Jenkin’s previous feature-length film, the critically acclaimed Monster, was about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and she brings some of the intensity of that film’s interest in unhealthy relationships to an examination of the relationships and human frailty in Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman is Diana’s origin story. But it is also a story about war and the consequences of war on people and their relationships with each other.
Light spoilers for the film follow.
The first half of the film is dedicated to Diana’s childhood and youth on Themiscyra, island of the Amazons. We see young Diana—the only child on the island—and her determination to learn how to fight, and her mother’s determination to protect her from fighting for as long as she can. For this is a society without war, but one that lives with the memory of war and with the constant fear of its return.
Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, tells her the story of the Amazons’ origins to impress upon her the idea that war is not something to look for. The Amazons were born of war, war with men and war between the gods. We can read into Hippolyta’s reluctance to face her daughter’s talent for fighting (and Diana’s desire to learn) the lingering trauma from that long-ago war, just as we can read into General Antiope’s dedication and that of her warriors a lingering cultural trauma, one matched by the Amazon senate’s refusal—once Steve Trevor’s arrival brings the outside world and the Great War to their doorstep—to either permit him to return or to send any help to aid in bringing the war to an end. They live with the memory of war and the fear of it, and they do not want to involve themselves in the wars of men.
In the world outside, Diana encounters people who are themselves scarred in various ways by the Great War, among other wars, and by the world’s injustices. And she confronts the fact that war is not a simple evil, and cannot be slain by killing a single being. But she still chooses, in the end, to believe in her power to change the world. To believe that love can change the world—and the film makes it clear that she does not mean romantic love alone, but love for and belief in humans and human potential, and in the platonic and romantic love of people for each other.
This is a powerful statement, and it retrospectively casts the entire film in a revolutionary (and religiously-inflected) light. Diana’s life is full of love: her mother’s love for her. General Antiope’s love for her as niece and student; the love of the entire Amazon people for their princess, who was the only child on the island. She leaves this love behind her, in a place to which she might never return, because she loves the world—loves her people and people in the abstract—enough to want to make it better.
The film is thematically unified by this orientation towards love—although the pacing sags towards the middle, and the actions of the villainous German general make no very great deal of sense. (And certain elements of the history of Themiscyra can only be explained by “because magic, okay.”)
The film loves and admires and believes in its main character—and the Amazons, for that matter. The most striking images in Wonder Woman are Amazons training; Amazons charging on horseback across a beach into the teeth of German guns and winning; Diana setting forth across No-Man’s-Land, bullets ringing from her shield and gauntlets, because she met a local woman who told her of the suffering of the local people and those people needed her.
And some of the most striking moments in the film are those in which Diana utterly confounds Steve Trevor, either because she trusts her judgment of her capabilities a lot more than she trusts his, or because what’s normal for her is outré for him. My personal favourite of these moments is their quiet conversation on a boat, in which Diana reveals she has read all twelve of Clio’s “treatises on pleasure”—and offers pretty firm canonical support for the queerness of the greater part of the Amazon nation, likely including Diana herself. (Steve looks pretty poleaxed.)
Wonder Woman is a much better film than I expected it to be. More than that, though: it’s a good film. It’s got heart and bottom to it.
It’s not perfect—when it comes to race, as usual, the side has been Seriously Let Down—but goddamn, as a film, it’s actually good. (Could have been longer. I wanted more Amazons, dammit—and more Etta Candy.)
Here’s to Patty Jenkins, and a Wonder Woman film that’s actually pretty wonderful.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press this year. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.