An early scene in Wonder Woman highlights in a way what is at stake. On a mystical hidden island, a dark-haired youth watches wide-eyed as hardened warriors train in ancient arts of war. With obvious hero-worship, the child is stirred to half-conscious imitation, little fists and feet flying.
But for two things, that youth might be me at 10 or 12, swinging a plastic lightsaber or shooting a cheap plastic web-shooter, or any of countless other lads thrilling to the adventures of their heroes.
First, her heroes really exist in her world. Second, Diana, who will grow up to be Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, is a girl, and her heroes are the Amazons of Themyscira.
The stakes for Wonder Woman turn on all of this.
To begin with, that wide-eyed hero worship, and the heroic qualities that inspire it, have become practically as elusive as invisible jets in the modern cinematic superhero landscape. This is particularly true in the troubled, grimdark DC universe pioneered by Zack Snyder, though the problem exists even in Disney’s fizzier, stunningly successful Marvel universe, with its roster of heroes who are mostly semi-redeemed bad boys (arrogant hedonists, brawlers, former assassins, thieves and so on).
At least the Marvel universe has its straight-arrow: Captain America. Snyder managed to kneecap the most quintessentially noble of superheroes, Superman himself, as an aspirational figure, though maddeningly other characters still talk about him that way.
But DC has one other archetypal superhero who is defined by her ideals as much as Superman — and in a way she’s even more important.
That’s because, in the entire roster of classic comic-book superheroes, Wonder Woman stands alone as the only female hero in her own right. That is, she’s the only superheroine who is neither a knockoff of a male character (like Supergirl or Batgirl) nor one who traditionally exists only in partnership with male heroes or in mostly male teams (like Black Canary or the Invisible Girl).
And now, despite more than 15 years of ever more frequent superhero films, Wonder Woman has become the first big-screen superheroine to get her own franchise. Where Disney has so far never allowed characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Gamora to be more than one-fifth of mostly male teams, Wonder Woman still stands alone.
From that early shot of young Diana to the closing hero shot, director Patty Jenkins (the first woman to helm a big-budget superhero film) celebrates her heroine as an icon of female aspiration and achievement rather than male desire.
When an Allied pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) accidentally crash-lands on Themyscira and finds himself on a paradisiacal island inhabited entirely by beautiful women, it’s pretty clear that this is their world, not his fantasy.
Screenwriter and comic-book writer Allan Heinberg, working from a story co-written with Snyder and Jason Fuchs, invests Princess Diana with possibly the most genuinely heroic characterization of any modern cinematic superhero: a selfless champion of compassion and moral duty who fights for those who cannot fight for themselves.
Not Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel, but Wonder Woman is the closest thing today to Christopher Reeve’s Superman — and like Superman her idealism makes her something of a fish out of water in Steve’s world, which turns out to be 1918 during the last phase of World War I. (Wonder Woman was created in 1942, and her origin story is traditionally tied to World War II; the earlier setting is a curious twist.)
Diana believes that mankind is basically good, reflecting the good deity in whose image we were created, though we have been led down the wrong path by a malign spiritual influence. The catch is that the good deity in question is Zeus, whom we are told brought Diana to life from clay. Also, the malign spiritual influence is Zeus’ son Ares, the Greek god of war, albeit a version of Ares more like Lucifer than anything in Greek mythology.
Pine’s Steve Trevor is a bit of a Han Solo type: a skeptical, jaded figure who stands between the audience and a fantastic, magical world. The difference is that Star Wars was set in a fantasy universe, while Wonder Woman is set in a version of our world and our history. This has consequences for what we can and can’t accept.
For instance, I can buy a version of World War I in which the Ottoman Empire mass-produces dangerous chemical weapons developed by a female mad scientist in a Phantom of the Opera mask nicknamed Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), which a ruthless German general (Danny Huston) plans to use to sabotage the Bulgarian armistice.
It’s another story when Diana tells a skeptical Steve that Ares must be behind the Great War, and if she can kill him, the war will end. Just because it turns out there are Amazon women who can block bullets with their bracelets and force you to tell the truth with a glowing lasso doesn’t mean anything goes.
If Diana transcends the cynicism and nihilism with which Snyder imbued the first two DC universe movies, the movie is sometimes more cynical than it should be. At times Diana seems so naïve the movie threatens to become an allegory of blind faith, or even lost faith. Other times it seems cynical modernity is on trial. The resolution of these ambitious themes is more thoughtful than I expected, if less than fully satisfying.
In a way, all the DC movies, even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, have been about the same thing: Granted that people need heroes, do they deserve them? Are people worth saving? No one asked that question more pointedly than Nolan, though in the end he bit off so much more than he could chew that he neglected to offer a final answer.
The arc of Wonder Woman follows Diana’s education in humanity, good and evil, and suffering, and a moving twist leads her to what is at least a good provisional answer, if an incomplete one.
The movie has fun with the sometimes awkward banter between Diana, who has never seen a man before, and Steve, who has never seen a woman like Diana.
When close quarters make it difficult for Steve to avoid sleeping alongside Diana, he stammeringly tries to explain that he has no objection to “sleeping with women,” but “out of the confines of marriage … it’s not polite to assume.”
Marriage? Although she has grown up in an all-female environment, Diana’s education has encompassed the particulars of sexuality and reproduction, but somehow she hasn’t heard of marriage.
So Steve tells Diana that marriage involves going before a judge and promising always to cherish the other person. And does this lifelong cherishing happen? “Not very often, no,” Steve judges. Well, then, Diana wonders, what’s the point?
This is a pretty bleak — not to mention secular — take on marriage, particularly for 1918, although admittedly as a spy Steve may be more cynical and secular than average. Ironically, as their relationship deepens, the prospect of getting married, having kids and growing old together seems to become more credible.
Paradoxically, the movie’s secularity is nowhere seen so clearly as its religious content.
Unlike the Marvel movies, which have been careful to minimize potential scruples from religious viewers regarding story elements like gods and magic, the writers of Wonder Woman show no such concern.
So, for example, Marvel’s Thor is the son of Odin, but we’re told that Odin and his fellow Asgardians are not gods per se, but merely long-lived extra-dimensional beings. Likewise, Doctor Strange’s sorcery is presented as non-ritual, non-incantatory technique — an alternative form of technology rather than occultism. Clearly someone at Marvel Studios has an eye on Christian moviegoer dollars (not to mention national censors in Islamic countries and aggressively secular China).
Here, though, while it’s eventually made clear that Diana’s mythological view of the world includes a number of mistaken ideas, it does turn out that the gods of Olympus, including Zeus and Ares, are real, and at least one of this ilk appears onscreen. Crucially, the idea that Zeus made man in his image is seemingly confirmed.
In a story mostly set in the year of Our Lord 1918, that’s an issue. Stories of the gods of Olympus are one thing, but when they come crashing into Christian history — and at the very least the landscape includes churches, most glaringly when Diana destroys the bell tower of a German church in which a sniper is hiding — something’s got to give. If Zeus made us in his image, it would seem the one God of Christians, Jews and Muslims did not.
In the end, what sells me on Wonder Woman, despite its issues, is Wonder Woman herself. Movies like Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger misunderstand and besmirch their iconic heroes. This movie understands and reveres its protagonist. That’s worth a lot, especially today.
Caveat Spectator: Much stylized action violence and some battlefield violence; polytheistic religious themes; sexually themed dialogue and humor, brief non-explicit male nudity and an off-screen nonmarital sexual encounter; limited profanity and some cursing. Teens and up.