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Beautiful Epic, Typical Rehash

Powered by a great performance from Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins’s ‘Wonder Woman’ is amazing fun — until the big, bad superhero movie kicks in

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

Early in Wonder Woman, a little girl named Diana skips out on her school lessons to watch the women of the island of Themyscira — the Amazons, legendary peacekeepers created by Zeus — train for battle. War is imminent against none other than Ares, the god of war himself. Who has time for books? Diana is a born warrior, the princess daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. It’s hard to imagine an actual princess doing rote Greek translations indoors while her mother — literally the warrior queen of a hidden women’s paradise — spends her days somersaulting off the backs of horses and training to kill a god. Diana wants in; she wants to learn, and to fight. Nothing is going to stand in her way — not even her mother. Not even the god of war. That’s a given.

What’s less of a given is the fact of who Diana really is, and the extent of her power — the stuff that makes this a superhero story, specifically, and not just mythological fan fiction. It’s a power that creeps offscreen, ingrained into the very circumstances of the movie itself. It’s hard not to be taken with the intoxicating power of that early image: young Diana kicking and flailing at empty air, shadowboxing the unknown, in imitation of her mother — or rather, her mothers. Diana is a young girl inspired to fight by the sight of heroic women. She’s the future Wonder Woman, but she could just as easily be the audience of her own movie, inspired to fight. Her story typifies the cultural forces that make the movie feel necessary. And the movie knows it.

More so than the other films of its ilk, Wonder Woman — directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot — is a movie that’s well aware of the implications of who might be watching. It’s a movie arriving at a moment when studios are making a visible, if not complete, effort to make their blockbuster franchises appeal to women and girls without, let it be said, alienating men. There’s Rey, of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens, and Laura, Wolverine’s clone-daughter in Logan, though that’s not exactly a kid’s movie. There’s even a "You go, girl!"–chic trailer, styled in the fashion of inclusive Nike commercials, for Transformers: The Last Knight. Hillary lost, but at least movie studios are winning?

And yes, so are audiences; cynicism about Hollywood can’t obscure that. It’s funny, though, in 2017, to imagine Hollywood producers shaking with glee over the prospect of women finally showing up in droves to see a superhero movie — as if appealing to women were its own heroic feat, a job for Wonder Woman herself. Then again, it apparently is: as Wonder Woman producer Charles Roven recently told The Hollywood Reporter: "Historically, audiences in this genre are male — 60 to 40 percent — but if you can really tap the market and maintain the males and actually add a significantly greater female audience, it’s a great win-win."

"Can Patty Jenkins make the superhero world safe for female directors?" asked the same publication. What a question! Jenkins, whose first and only other feature film, the Oscar-winning Monster, was released 14 years ago, was actually the second woman director lined up for the project; the first was Michelle MacLaren. Jenkins was at one point set to direct Thor: The Dark World before walking away over creative differences; more recently, Ava DuVernay was hired to direct the upcoming Black Panther. She, too, walked away. The charge to expand the superhero fan base to more regularly include women is — let’s be frank — a lot of pressure for one movie. And the charge to improve directing opportunities for all women is quite a task to set for Jenkins. Wonder Woman’s 50-odd superhero predecessors have made little to no visible effort to get the ball rolling; Jenkins would need to be Moses to stem the tides of exclusion.

Wonder Woman, however, makes a point of being up for the challenge. The movie bursts onscreen with the pent-up energy of untold stories and unheralded heroines — which might be why it seems to be doing too many things at once. It’s making up for lost time, while also trying to be a movie of its time. It’s trying to get out ahead of everything that’s come before — as a new avenue of movie ought to do — while also setting itself up for a sequel, as franchises ought to do. It’s a little unfair. And for the movie’s many merits, it shows.

It helps that Wonder Woman is trying to tell a rich story. The Amazons, the legend goes, were created by Zeus to restore peace on earth amid the destruction propagated by Ares. They were formed to save man from themselves, and persisted to do so before man — really, men — more or less proved themselves unworthy. Ares was banished, but not for long, and before dying, Zeus gave the Amazons a last resort: the so-called "God killer," better known as Diana.

It takes a god to kill a god. Diana doesn’t know this; her mother (played by Connie Nielsen) deliberately withholds it from her, for fear of Ares (David Thewlis) catching on and showing up. But Diana grows up sneaking away to train under the stewardship of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), and Hippolyta finally gives in: "You will train her harder than any Amazon before her. Five times harder. Ten times harder." None of that matters much when a bunch of Germans, hot on the trail of the American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, who shines here), stumble onto the beach and start shooting everyone. Simone Biles-ing off of horses and shooting flaming arrows may work on Ares, but it can’t stop a bullet. The massacre incites Diana’s eagerness to leave Themyscira and put an end to all war. "Men are easily corrupted," her mother warns her, knowing she can’t stop her daughter, who grew up on stories of Ares and atrocity, and who has only just begun to know her true power, from wanting to save the world. "If no one else will defend the world from Ares," says Diana, "then I must."

The scope of Wonder Woman isn’t that much broader than other superhero movies. There’s the origin story, the deliberate dramatic and geographical pivot to a real-world crisis (World War I, in this case), as well as the clash of genres (buddy comedy, historical drama, action movie) that have defined Marvel and DC franchises’ opening acts for some years now. Under Jenkins’s direction, however, these various strands feel markedly distinct, sometimes to great effect, other times to the movie’s detriment. The movie’s opening scenes, set in Themyscira, sing with the stylized swagger of action-movie mythology. Jenkins’s bright, sun-drenched images feel like they’re revising the history of genre imagery, but with a rare liveliness. Here’s a slo-mo fuck-’em-up, a la 300 — but with women. Here’s a typically masculinized hero pose, the kind you find in Westerns — but with Gal Gadot. And throw in some gymnastics for good measure.

That’s much more fun, and despairingly more interesting, than the vague machinations of World War I villains, who all seem to look, talk, and act the same, no matter the movie or, for that matter, the genre of movie. When Wonder Woman inevitably enters the real world, the only thing keeping it afloat is actorly chemistry. Comic flirtation between Steve and Diana is nice, but the fact is, there’s nothing as fun in the movie as watching Gal Gadot be Gal Gadot. She’s playing Wonder Woman, but her presence is her own. And one of the purest pleasures here is the joy of watching Diana discover things, be they her immense godlike powers or the delight of eating ice cream for the first time. "Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?" she asks, seeing a penis for the first time. The humor is in the way Gadot says it, completely free of irony, and in the helpless tilt of her gaze. Gadot has a talent for making every experience feel like it’s her first — which, in Diana’s case, it often is. She is remarkably alert. Her eyes and her face are always open; she’s always receiving, learning, responding.

That more than serves the movie: It becomes the movie. Jenkins has made a pretty good film about a woman coming out into the world and experiencing, for the first time, its wonders and its horrors, navigating her own sense of responsibility to help defend it. That good movie, premised on Diana’s self-discovery, is attached to a much lesser movie: a drab superhero epic with vague historical villains and an even vaguer sense of war. Here and in Monster, Jenkins has proved herself a notable chronicler of coming-of-age stories about women who are, you’d think, already of age — women on delayed journeys of self-discovery. Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer heroine of Monster, starts off by discovering the shitty reality of being abused by men as a teenager, then discovers new aspects of her sexuality as an adult, thanks to another woman, before finally coming to recognize her own capacity for violent rage. The movie stars Charlize Theron and, like Wonder Woman, wouldn’t be half as effective if not for that actress’s wide-open, expressive face.

Like Theron, Gadot has worked as a model. Is that Jenkins’s secret? The first thing we see of Diana is her practically runway-stomping into the Louvre. It’s … incredible? Even her most heroic poses — whether walking headfirst into a row of German machine gunners or up to Ares himself — are runway shows in miniature, slo-mo stomps toward the camera intercut with fiery shots of her best angles. This is iconography incarnate. And there’s mystery, and delirious energy, to that iconography, particularly in a genre that seems to have forgotten how to revel in the pure astonishment of superheroic power, favoring bombast to pleasure. There’s no mystery to superhero violence; at least, the filmmakers involved have yet to figure out how to dredge up any. But no firebomb, no gunfight, no over-the-top battle scene can match Gal Gadot peering straight at you.

So when Wonder Woman becomes a big, bad superhero movie, it necessarily gets boring, not least because the villain is a wash. Diana’s belief in Ares — as a force, as a symbol of evil — is far more interesting than the actual guy, er, god. No Ares can live up to the idea of Ares. But thanks to Gadot, Diana lives up to the idea of Diana. She’s Wonder Woman. And if the movie isn’t always wonderful, it’s valuable as a tribute to her.