Let it be known here and now that Patty Jenkins is a brilliant director. She’s brilliant when directing indies like Monster, which won Charlize Theron Best Actress, and she’s brilliant directing television (DGA winner for The Killing) where she’s mostly been relegated ever since. We now know she’s brilliant when directing a massive feature film wedged in a genre dominated by men and boys. Wonder Woman must, by its nature, leave us awed and breathless. It also must, thanks to the recent trend in films like these, take its subject seriously. Jenkins, being the first woman to direct a superhero film, had additional pressure to deliver big on that opening weekend, without name-brand stars. She delivers on all three demands.
It’s funny and strange and weird that Big Hollywood has never trusted a tentpole of this size to a woman … like, ever … and it’s even weirder that no one took a chance like this on Jenkins before. With Wonder Woman, easily one of the best films of this year, Jenkins proves that not only can she direct a superhero film, but she takes the genre itself to new heights — heights never really seen since Christopher Nolan got hold of Batman. Who knew a superhero movie could be this good?
What happened to strong women in the action film genre between Raiders of the Lost Ark and now? Fanboy culture happened. And with them came a target demographic that strangled Hollywood for a few decades, aiming their products almost exclusively at teenage boys and young men fastened in extended adolescence, while giving female moviegoers nothing more to identify with than the sidekick or love interest role. Over time, the discussion about the absence of women behind and in front of the camera boiled over. What was the hangup? Money. Since the only woman ever allowed to helm a $100 million summer action feature fell short of turning a profit (Kathryn Bigelow, K-19: The Widowmaker), it seemed that no woman should ever again be trusted to mount a $100 million film. Unlike their infinitely forgivable male counterparts, women have to prove themselves again and again, and constantly risk being shunned from the film industry at the first sign of trouble. One strike and you’re out.
You might not expect the message to go as deep as this Wonder Woman does — or to delight in so much ethereal visual magic with Jenkins’ assured hand. She doesn’t try to direct like a man, nor does she try to season her story to make it easier on male viewers. And to the film’s credit, it refuses to score points at the expense of the male ego, as some might predict it would. What it mostly does is flip the narrative to a kind of storytelling we don’t expect. Wonder Woman’s origin story sets us up for more of the tough and charismatic Gal Gadot as the Amazon warrior tasked with saving the world from Ares, the god of war. We know that going in. We also know she’ll have Chris Pine as her co-star, the biggest name in the film (at least before Gadot becomes a household name, which she will soon enough, like, immediately). But to say any more would be to spoil the fun. Yes, Wonder Woman is enormous fun. It’s also a surprisingly moving and refreshing change to what we’ve seen again and again where men and men alone save the day.
Written by Allan Heinberg, Wonder Woman never sells out its heroine, even when a male character enters the story. She’s never dumb, never foolish. She makes her own decisions (shocking, I know) and saves the world in a way that so many of us so desperately need to see right now. This is still in the realm of comics and fantasy, so to dissect its plot too fastidiously would be a mistake (although it surely provides fertile ground for anyone who chooses to do so). Chris Pine is one of the best things about the film, in addition to the other rich supporting castmates like Robin Wright and David Thewlis. But the film ultimately belongs to Gadot, who makes us believe and makes us forget and makes us never want the movie to end. It is partly the astonishing physicality — the high-flying Amazons and their arrows and swords. But Gadot handles the emotional scenes just as well. There aren’t many women who can carry an entire film as she does — but she does it.
Most films now, summer blockbuster or otherwise, revolve around “one special boy.” But this is especially true with the superhero genre. Women are meant to sit politely and not care that no one has ever said they matter enough to make a whole movie about them, even though comic books have always had dynamic female characters at their center. In the Marvel universe, Black Widow would make a great singular stand-alone character and yet, for some unknown reason, that’s never materialized. It was an experiment, this film – to see how many men would go along with it. Some haven’t. Some have swollen into marshmallowy crybabies, bitching because they got excluded from a screening or two out in Austin, Texas, where a marketing campaign came up with the idea to put wall-to-wall women in the Alamo Drafthouse to see how this history-making movie might feel for a crowd like that. There will be some guys who just won’t see it, feeling that their hallowed territory is being encroached upon. Or maybe they just like being able to turn off their frontal lobes and project themselves into a world where they can kill bad guys, lift cars with one hand, and always end up with the girl. Funny thing about that, though, is lots of different kinds of people like to vibe that fantasy — women, and people whose gender and ethnicity is never represented. It’s just that this market has been cornered for nearly three decades by a false perception of ticket-buyer identity. Audiences buying tickets in America are no longer just white males (nor have they ever been) and Hollywood is slowly remembering this fact.
Wonder Woman is a movie about human nature. To defend us, one has to understand us. With our ugly inclination to kill one another and destroy the world we’re easy to hate. How quickly so many of us have turned one another this past year, forming tribes that point fingers, sling insults, pull triggers. We’re living through seemingly hopeless times. All the more reason to step back and remember that there are still things about humanity still worth saving.
Art has the power to transform, to heal and show us the way. Humans need art. We always have. Our experience of life can’t just be screaming at each other on social networks. We need our stories, too. We need to see the ideals represented, even if it’s “only a movie.” Even if no one believes it could ever or would ever happen. Art is not here to show us reality. It is here to show us the unreality, to light our way through the murky darkness to reveal the gods, the goddesses, and the wonder women — weightless and fierce, and never hesitating to take on the fight for a better world.