1 Jun 2017

Wonder Woman is a wake-up call for superhero movies

1:15 pm on 1 June 2017

Superhero origins and kick-butt girl power are two of the tiredest tropes in cinema. Wonder Woman is here to bring them back to life. 

Gal Godot as Diana in Wonder Woman.

Gal Godot as Diana in Wonder Woman. Photo: Roadshow Films

When the marketing junket for Wonder Woman began, it was easy to be snarky. Another superhero origin story? *yawn* An extraordinarily beautiful former model kicking butt with the guys? *yawn* A DC movie that’s not meant to be terrible? *weesnaw*

But as early reviews emerged, even the grumpiest little cynics began pricking up their ears and scratching in the scorched earth with a single cloven hoof. And so they should. Wonder Woman is great.

Essentially the coming of age story of Diana (who is never referred to as Wonder Woman in the movie) we join her (after a slightly clunky present day framing device) as a child, running free and easy as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta on the island paradise of Themyscira. Protected by Zeus from their enemy Ares, the God of War, the island’s population of tall beautiful women and zero (0) men are trained in combat by Diana’s fierce as Auntie.

This happy little arrangement is disrupted when Diana rescues drowning US military pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from the sea. Learning from Steve that the rest of the world is a little less tropical than Themyscira, and currently embroiled in WWI, she decides that Ares is most definitely on some shit and only she can stop him.

So, off she goes with Steve to England and then to the frontlines of war to see what she can do.  

And it’s great. Everything about it is great. All female island - great. Fun early 20th century makeover scene - great. Chris Pine au naturel - great.

As Diana, Gal Godot in particular is (you guessed it) great. Charming, dignified and, of course, extremely beautiful (with a smize Tyra would die for), her very presence embodies what is quietly radical about Wonder Woman.

I say quietly because, in a lot of ways, nothing here is particularly new or different: another superhero origin story, in the endless spate still necessary to launch a thousand franchises, it is reliably formulaic in its narrative and character tropes - Diana’s rag tag team headed to the front includes an alcoholic PTSD-riddled marksman and, somewhat bizarrely, a Native American chief. Their foes are a popper snorting dude called the Kaiser and a disfigured German chemist known as Dr Poison.

What sets it apart, and brilliantly so, is the subtle shift in perspective, an unreservedly female point of view (both narratively and formally) that is neither compromised nor condescending. Directed by Patty Jenkins of Monster fame, she is one of the first female film directors to helm a Marvel or DC movie.

In spite of her previous success, Jenkins it seems was considered a risk. In the words of a Hollywood Reporter Profile: “Warner Bros. gambles $150 million on its first woman-centered comic book movie with a filmmaker whose only prior big-screen credit was an $8 million indie”. (Never mind, of course, that that lil’ $8 million indie took in $60.4 million and won big on the awards circuit.)    

Gamble or not though, it paid off.

Through the lens of a female filmmaker, a story of war and battle takes on a new dimension. Diana’s empathy and warmth permeate the film, her comic naivety quickly becoming a powerful sensitivity to the world around her.

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Photo: Roadshow Films

Wonder Woman is the inverse of the usual, tired #kickbutt #girlpower movies in which women find their strength in traditionally masculine traits of stoicism and detachment. Diana’s emotion is essential to her strength and through this lens an otherwise run of the mill superhero film becomes fresh and exciting.

It is also via this subtle framing that Wonder Woman is able to take its more explicit moments of gender disparity to another level. Scenes in which Diana is ignored, talked over, excluded and mocked by virtue of being a woman leave little mystery about the place of a woman in the world. That she, and the film, can negotiate this while retaining their point of view demonstrates rare deftness in the face of some pretty noodly gender politics.

If you caught Jessica Chastain’s surprisingly stark (and bleakly correct) evaluation of the state of female representation at Cannes, you will have thought recently about how resolutely male film industries around the world continue to be.

If you caught the reports of whiny infant men making a fuss about those all-female Wonder Woman screenings, you will also know how difficult this still is to combat.

Wonder Woman proves that there is more than one way to tell a palatable, mainstream story with new and meaningful angles that audiences are ready to embrace. Hopefully in doing so it will go some way to opening the door for more such gambles from large scale Hollywood studios.

For those thoroughly sick of superhero movies, at first glance the formula underlying Wonder Woman may not alleviate that fatigue. And sure there is still a way to go negotiating seemingly ingrained cinematic traditions like the male gaze which (though lightly parodied) remains an accepted cornerstone of Diana’s relationship with the men in the world around her.

In spite of this, Wonder Woman is hearteningly subversive in its quiet defiance. With still such a dearth of quality female driven and directed cinema emerging from Hollywood, Wonder Woman puts its money where its mouth is.