Exciting, stunning to look at, great fun, witty and a bit subversive. But that’s enough about me. You all need to go and see Wonder Woman.
If I was still a teenager I’d watch it three times in a row. I’m not, so I had to leave after one showing, go home, sort some laundry, and cook supper. But even for just those two hours in the cinema I believed in Diana Prince’s world and her view of ours.
Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island given to the Amazons by Zeus, since mankind has been corrupted by Ares, the God of War. Despite their peaceful home everyone has to be ready for war, and there’s a stunning sequence where the young Diana watches Amazon women training, training, training, for an invasion or a call to arms that they hope will never come. Women warriors backflipping, trailing from horses, sword fighting or practising hand to hand combat, and not a man in sight.
Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is queen, while her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright) is in charge of training – and as Diana grows up her aunt takes her under her wing to get her battle-ready. The scenes on their island home are fabulous – a rocky but green idyll populated only by women, with senators and generals and warriors. Having been a great fighter herself the queen is wise to what war really means – “fighting does not make you a hero” – but they are always ready.
One day pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands into the bay, with boatloads of Germans after him – Diana rescues him from the sea and brings him to land. As the Germans breach the island’s protections and chase him up the sand, bullets flying, the warrior women appear on horseback or abseiling down the cliffs, bows at the ready. Their horsemanship and archery skills are astonishing but they aren’t used to modern weaponry.
It’s from Steve that Diana now learns about the ongoing world war (WW1 though of course no one knows that yet, as this is meant to be The War To End All Wars) – which convinces her that Ares is back and bent on destruction. Steve has discovered that the Germans have been developing new poisons – and he has stolen the notebook of Germany’s chief scientist, Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), also known as Doctor Poison, who is working for General Ludendorff (Danny Huston).
With the outcome of the war at stake Diana and Steve leave the island, first for London and then for the Western Front. Steve’s aim is to deliver the notebook to his superiors. Diana’s is to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and find and destroy Ares.
Once in London she meets the bustling and dryly funny Etta (Lucy Davis), Steve’s secretary, who instantly takes a liking to her. But despite what they learn from Dr Poison’s notebook, the British War Cabinet, and in particular Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), are still working towards an armistice.
Regardless, Steve and Diana head to the Front, with a disparate group Steve has gathered to help them – Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a spy with a talent for a fake backstory; Charlie (Ewen Bremner), a Scottish soldier suffering from what looks like shell shock after previous stints fighting in the war; and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American tracker.
The Front is shocking for Diana, with serous injuries and starvation among local villagers ignored while the Allies gain only a few centimetres of land after months of fighting.
Diana is certainly naive to start with – she doesn’t understand the messiness of conflict and though her aims are clear-sighted this is because of her simplistic reasoning. As she says at the beginning, “I used to want to save the world… but I knew so little then.” And though she has her shield, and her truth-telling lasso, her amazing athleticism and something else too, something magical, she leaves the island not knowing about who she really is or what she’s getting into. She is, though, fearless and a born leader – taking a chance when men hang back, eventually inspiring them to support her aims: “Stay here. I’ll go ahead” she instructs them.
Her relationship with Steve is very touching. Though initially he puts himself first, he soon becomes supportive and his later interventions are based on trying to get her to understand how war actually plays out, and around his scepticism of talk of gods.
As a film lover, one of the most depressing things about getting to my great age (a few thousand years less than Wonder Woman but with more wrinkles and I haven’t done a backflip since 1872) is realising that even male directors I rate still shoot so much through the male gaze. But rather than just invert this so poor old Steve gets objectified, director Patty Jenkins frequently subverts genre stereotypes instead. When he gets out of a bath naked in from of Diana she is matter of fact and just wants to know if he is considered typical of his sex (“I am above average”, Steve tells her. More than once!) And during the essential trying-on-clothes-fit-for-the-century-you’re-in scene in London, Diana splits seams and rails against corsets as she practices her fight moves. This mix of wit and subversion really helps create a superhero movie so different to what we are used to.
Gal Gadot is perfectly cast. She is young enough to be guileless and old enough to strategise. She does of course look perfectly beautiful throughout, even after being thrown through the sky, except in the famous sepia picture from Batman v Superman which appears here too and in which she looks pretty miserable. But then everyone looks miserable in those old pictures, probably because they had to stand still for so long. In fact if they’d taken another she’d probably have missed the war altogether.
The CGI is impressive, and exciting set pieces drive the story in different ways whether the Amazons are battling German soldiers, bows versus bullets, firing arrows three at a time, or later in Europe as Diana performs a solitary walk across No Man’s Land facing down German defences. But the script is also funny – and the supporting characters, many of whom first appear half way through, are entertaining, with deftly drawn back stories.
It isn’t a perfect movie. Wonder Woman’s message to the world is very simple, and maybe I’m projecting here but it probably won’t work; and the film isn’t immune from cliche. Ironically once the action leaves Themyscira the number of women onscreen plummets – wars are mainly about men, whether as leaders or canon fodder, but Diana wants to help those who can’t defend themselves and in times of conflict that is often women and children. Yet when she reaches the Front we only see a few women in passing and she doesn’t interact with any of them. Her friendship with Etta back in London is rather slight too.
But these criticisms don’t detract from what this film is, and what Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have done for girls and women – or from its sheer super-heroic entertainment value for anyone of almost any age. And ultimately this is Wonder Woman’s coming-of-age story, something she has to do herself, for herself.