Wonder Woman subverts the superhero genre with style, yet never seems like it intends to – mark of good storytelling.
A tale of a warrior woman committed to the ideal of everlasting peace, Wonder Woman is a success on many different levels. Perhaps, its most spectacular achievement is the manner in which it subverts the superhero genre and supplies a plot that is thrilling yet soulful, and most importantly, refreshing.
Very early in the piece it becomes clear that Diana, played with remarkable grit and grace by Gal Gadot, is no brooding superhero. She isn’t suffering on account of a past event that continues to haunt her, and neither is she driven by a need for retribution. In fact, all of the dark undertones of the story, which has come to characterise Zack Snyder’s tales, come from the mayhem that people unleash on the planet and, needless to say, the antagonist in the form of the God of War. Diana of Themyscira is instead a kind, thoughtful and empathetic warrior woman who does not stand for violence or injustice in any form and is committed to the ideal of peace, come what may.
Diana is tender, but not at the cost of toughness; she is dreamy but not oblivious to her surroundings. She is human. And this distinguishes her character from other superheroes in the genre. If a parallel must be drawn, she is perhaps similar to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, who was all too human himself when not hard at work rescuing the world. But Gadot brings a level of authenticity and sincerity to the character that is seldom seen in movies of this kind.
Part of the credit for Gadot’s beautiful portrayal must go to the film’s captain, director Patty Jenkins, perhaps most commonly known for directing Charlize Theron in Monster, for which the actress won her Academy Award in 2004. Under Jenkins’ direction and Allan Heinberg’s writing, Gadot’s Diana radiates innocence and warmth instead of the superhero staple of power and intimidation. In one of the scenes, for instance, Diana is seen asking for an ice cream and loving it, and telling the vendor after a couple of licks, “You should be proud of yourself.” An ice-cream-eating superhero? You should be proud of yourself, Patty Jenkins.
Led in large part by strong, inspiring females, Wonder Woman wastes no time in bringing the ladies to the fore. The picturesque island of Themyscira is shown as a home to an all-female warrior clan, the Amazons. The values of strength, courage and honour quickly take centre stage on this island as we see powerful women interacting with each other with great respect and as a close community – frankly, a rare sight in cinema, as articulated smartly by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a comic strip in the mid-1980s, known more commonly as the Bechdel Test. Watching these women pass down their wisdom to young girls on the island is heartening to see as it strikes home for any of us who has ever lived. To see this quiet, majestic process depicted with such beauty and grace onscreen is delightful.
In one of the more direct attempts at turning the tables on gender stereotypes, spy Steve Trevor, played with unending charm and sincerity by Chris Pine, is made to get out of the bath, naked, as Gadot’s Diana – who has never seen a man before – stares down at him with wonder without thinking to turn away. There is a hint of objectification here but not without purpose, pointing to the overall trend in movies where objectification of women is almost customary.
We also get to see the halls of power in the London of early twentieth century, bereft of women – any women – as men alone get together to decide the fate of the country and its people. There are other such moments in the film where sexism and gender stereotypes are subtly addressed and overturned, but what makes it all enjoyable is that at no point do these moments take themselves seriously. The focus is never to send a message but to use the inversion tactfully to enhance the storytelling, and in that Heinberg and Jenkins succeed.
What elevates Wonder Woman, however, is that at its core it’s a romance. And it’s not a token subplot, no sir. In between all the thudding, drubbing and slamming, and in between the talk of saving the world and fighting the “bad guy convention”, the binding agent is love. Diana finds strength in love every time she has her back against the wall. And Trevor goes on this incredulous journey with Diana purely driven by his love for her, not necessarily because he believes in Diana’s idea of what is at the root of evil. This love is not weighty, it’s empowering. It allows them both, Diana and Trevor, to fly. But even here, the film steps off the course of regular love stories and charts a path that is uniquely its own.
Love, peace, empathy and compassion – these are the values that emanate out of Wonder Woman’s tale, and thankfully they do. The world is in short supply of these qualities as we live in highly polarised environments, where everyone belongs to a certain camp and sees another as “the other”, or worse, the opposition. In this context, it’s befitting that a female superhero and her band of women warriors delivers this message – not because this is exclusive to women but because this magical process is seldom portrayed on film. What encourages me is that little boys and girls will go to the theatre and see a woman being sexy, kicking ass, oozing love, compassion and empathy and standing tall at the end of it all. The world needs more of this. It’s about time.