Wonder Woman is better than it had to be. Encased in a pre-packaged genre that has its own rules for heroes and the women who fly next to them, there was no call to make it a great film beyond the requirements of its franchise formula since, as the theory goes, audiences will be primed to see it anyway — just because of the DC [not Marvel] brand, just because that’s what people do. But that isn’t really how it turned out. Wonder Woman has surpassed expectations to become not just one of the biggest hits of the year but easily one of the best films of the year.
The phenomena of Wonder Woman today reminds me a little of how Jaws captured the imagination in 1975. I paid to see that diabolical shark meet its match 14 times in the theater. I didn’t do it because I recognized it as a cinematic masterpiece. I went to see it because it was a good movie, because it was satisfying on every level, and because it gave me a thrill unlike any other I’d ever experienced before or since.
Jaws was of course a genre movie back in 1975 — like so many other giant creature features than came before it — but Spielberg gave it such an unprecedented level of cinematic flair, it was obvious from the outset that Jaws broke free from those monster movie confines to become one of the greatest films of all time. It didn’t matter that the shark looks suspiciously rubbery when it was ready for its close-ups, and it didn’t matter that you knew sharks didn’t behave that way — the effect Jaws had on our psyches went beyond that because it was ultimately a film about fear and courage. For Brody, it was the fear of something we can’t even name until we see it swimming towards us. For Hooper, it was the fear that everything we thought we ever knew to be true could turn out to be wrong, and for Quint it was the fear that he had finally meet a sea-faring challenge he that he couldn’t defeat. Until he does. Each of these men were also mildly wary of each other, which carried its own set of fears since they had to rely on one another. Then there was the ocean itself, representing mankind’s fear of the awesome power of nature juxtaposed with the man-made and fragile normalcy of Amity Island.
Wonder Woman is another example of how genre movies can function as modern-day mythology, and since it addresses what it means to choose to participate in making the world a better place it carries special resonance for anyone who cares about the wrong path we’re on as a planet. When Diana chooses love for mankind rather than the resentment we may deserve, it’s a pivotal moment in the film because she has every reason to turn against humanity. It’s a battle I find myself fighting daily — how to avoid a deep and abiding animosity toward mankind when I see what we’ve done to the planet, to animals, to each other – how monstrously so many of us we behave every single day. Diana understands that humans have created this madness: she’s appalled that we make war to kill each other. But she also sees the goodness in us, our vulnerability, our aspirations, and our strengths. Through her first encounter with a good man, she felt true love and knows that it is the only way to save the world, and you know what? She’s right. It sounds trite and syrupy to say it but there it is: the only thing that can save us from utter destruction of ourselves and other living things is love.
Wonder Woman becomes more timely when we frame its release and success in 2017, in contrast to what a gut punch of a year it has been for women. The film specifically addresses how rarely women are listened to, how often we are underestimated, and are almost never granted the kind of trust afforded to men. It isn’t just that no one believes Diana when she talks about the existence of Ares, the God of War, and it isn’t just that each time Diana is told she can’t do something she goes ahead and does it anyway, shrugging off the interference with one of the best lines of the year: “What I do is not up to you.” It’s also that she does not need to be saved. When Jim Cameron said Wonder Woman was a step backwards, he cited Gal Gadot’s beauty as one of the reasons and he fixated on what she was wearing – her classic Wonder Woman costume. He preferred Linda Hamilton in his Terminator films because she didn’t rely on good looks to hold our attention (a fairly crude thing to say about a beautiful woman who divorced him). Well, in neither film does Linda Hamilton illustrate any kind of formidable strength. She is rescued by men and boys in both films and in the second film she’s practically a zombie. Cameron likes her and cast her because her arms and leg muscles are athletically toned but now he’s talking about how ordinary she looked.
It’s true that Gal Gadot may be the “most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen,” but wouldn’t you expect that from a goddess? The strength and beauty of all of the Amazons in the film is breathtaking. Why would anyone consider a woman’s power to be diminished or easily written off because she is beautiful? It makes no sense in the context of the film or even in the real world. In fact, beauty can be a valuable weapon to lower the expectations of your opponent. How better to have the upper hand if they think you are incapable of doing anything except standing there and looking pretty?
I will never understand why it’s so much easier to punish women no matter which way we turn – for being too pretty, for not being pretty enough. All of us just lived through an entire year of watching the first major female presidential candidate in American history called unlikable, a liar and worse — and outright ridiculed and dismissed when she warned us about Trump. Then to be accused by Bernie Sanders of being inherently corrupt – so corrupt that she would [*gasp*] take money for eloquent speeches — with the false insinuation that she did favors in return. Why didn’t Bernie just use the word? His supporters sure didn’t hesitate to, and Sanders never asked them to stop. Now, to cap it all off, the so-called “Women’s Conference” which pointedly omitted Hillary’s name from their list of honorees a year ago has just invited Sanders to be their keynote speaker. The thirst among some to humiliate her will apparently never be quenched.
After hearing Trump lead a chorus of “Lock Her Up” for months, after watching Bernie supporters chant “She’s a corporate whore,” after seeing pathological need of Julian Assange to take her down in concert with Putin’s obsession to destroy her, and after millions of spiteful men on the left and the right did everything in their power to make sure America did not elect a woman as president — what a gratifying, healing, empowering thing it is to watch Diana choose love, vanquish Ares, and proceed to fulfill her rightful destiny be a future badass.
What makes Wonder Woman so good? In time we’ll see thoughtful and insightful analyses written to illustrate the techniques that Patty Jenkins employed so brilliantly. For the moment much of the alchemy feels inexplicable. It shouldn’t be. We’ve had to patiently listen to a few critics talk about their issues with the “third act,” how they find some parts of it “problematic,” or how it’s “enjoyable but flawed.” But anyone who’s swept up in a film like this knows when it hits its target so precisely. When a movie can still elicit spontaneous applause at some random theater in the Valley mid-way through its run, when it’s able to makes women burst into tears the first time we see Diana walk across the No Man’s Land of the Western Front, something deeper and more profound is at work and what that is is the magic of movies. Sometimes every aspect of the collaboration fires on all cylinders, and for all of the sore points of naysayers, Wonder Woman simply works.
It’s good. It’s extraordinarily good. The entire film is a chain of enthralling set pieces, one after the next, dipping in and out of fantasy and cinematic archetypes and feminism and love and war and diving into questions about our reasons to being alive at all. Yes, Wonder Woman goes that deep once you surrender to it. Having seen the film three times now, it just gets better with every viewing, leading up to that climactic explosion of emotion and anger by the main character when she realizes for the first time how the power of love can unleash our strength to achieve redemption.
Wonder Woman works despite our knowledge she’s an Amazon and such immortals don’t exist in the real world, but we feel the celestial connection anyway. We know it’s odd that Steve trevor would show up out of the blue like he does, literally falling out of the sky to act as catalyst, but we also understand that mythology always chooses remarkable happenings like that. We know that a woman of her frame could never be that strong or that fierce, or able to stop bullets with her wrist guards, and yet we get that real life women are resilient in ways that equally unfathomable. You know these things make no logical can still feel true, and it soon becomes moot because once the film begins we’re eager to believe in it. We believe it all the way through the end when the God of War finally shows up and Diana’s prediction is proven right.
If we look at Wonder Woman as a metaphor for all women, you will inevitably run into the problem of intersectionality and why women of color always get short shrift. That’s mostly true across the board this year with Oscar films. White women are often placed in the leads alongside black men, for instance. Nonetheless, the diversity on the island Themyscira is notable and appreciated, though we all know that a black Wonder Woman would be just a formidable, if not more so.
Oprah Winfrey (who for decades has been a powerful voice for women) has always been dismissed by the world of men, condescended to and never given full credit — as we saw with Jonathan Franzen’s haughty reaction to being chosen for the Oprah Book Club. I promise you it doesn’t stop there. That’s why I’m heartened to see the way Oprah and Ava DuVernay continue to carve their own paths anyway, without the need to ask for anyone’s permission, pioneering how women can invent their own exhilarating island realm, much like Themyscira, to become distributors, directors, writers, cinematographers, creators of their own destinies, making films and television programs like none we’ve ever seen before. Patty Jenkins has now proven that women can deliver an $800 million blockbuster, revive a depleted superhero genre, and create easily one of the best and most memorable films of the year.
With Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time coming next year, change is most definitely in the air. And with Wonder Woman dramatically changing perceptions of what women can do behind and in front of the camera, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Finally, there is a seat at the table for filmmakers who been marginalized out of the major studio blockbuster roster fr far too long.
Wonder Woman is one of the best films of the year, though there’s a question as to whether it can accumulate an estimated 200 #1 votes on nomination ballots it needs to put it in the Best Picture race. Everything we know about what Best Picture is supposed to mean in Oscar history should lead the Academy to include this successful game changer. Yet we also know that isn’t how the typical voter thinks. Most of them still have a built-in aversion to superhero movies that verges on a phobia. This resistance was forcefully expressed when they gave the vocally anti-superhero, anti-tent-pole film Birdman four Oscars, including Best Picture.
The first time I saw Wonder Woman, I could not hold back my tears. I don’t to do that in public seated next to restless strangers, but I couldn’t help it. The film moved me immensely, not just for the electrifying tingle of seeing a woman, for once, as the hero who could face down the Germans in No Man’s Land, but because the writers and director knew they didn’t need to sacrifice the superpowers that every women is blessed with to make Wonder Woman strong. She could still fawn over babies. She could still take her time deciding what she wanted to wear. She could still be driven by the power of love. Only a woman behind the camera could have teased out these essential truths with such wit and flair and sensitivity. Wonder Woman is a film that made my year, a film that has redrawn the lines of division that have always tried to delineate what what women can and cannot do. Now we’ve seen it. Now we know.