Gal Gadot does something small but crucial in Wonder Woman. She smiles.
This shouldn’t be that remarkable, until you consider the relatively dour superhero-movie landscape. The Marvel universe is littered with wisecracks, yes, but those adventures are still light on the joy that would likely come with being imbued with otherworldly powers. And we all know that the DC films, up until this installment, have been brutally grim affairs. And so, early on, when Gadot’s Diana unwittingly unleashes a blast of power by crossing her bracelets and her expression of surprise gives way to a little grin, I couldn’t help but grin too.
Wonder Woman proceeds to some pretty dark places. The cinematography itself—so bright and sunny on Diana’s home island of Themyscira—takes on a slightly sepia tone when the film shifts to the battlefields of World War I. Yet even as she adopts a stoic demeanor in the face of death and destruction, Diana frequently pauses, in the midst of some sort of wondrous action, to smile softly to herself. It’s not every day that someone leaps into a tower in a single bound to take out a German sniper.
It’s also not every day we get a superhero film in which a woman is the main character. Finally, Wonder Woman is here, yet screenwriter Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins don’t try to make up for lost time by foregrounding the gender politics. Wonder Woman is smartly feminist without making too big of a deal out of it (you could argue it’s more delicate on this front than Jenkins’ previous feature, Monster). Yes, men are to blame for the war that has consumed the globe, but there is also the interesting touch of having one of the main villains, a mad scientist known as Doctor Poison, be played by a woman. (Elena Anaya gives an unnerving performance from beneath an eerie, Phantom of the Opera-style mask.) In other words, this isn’t framed as a battle of the sexes, but as a superhero movie in which the central figure is pointedly of the female sex.
Perhaps I should back up and explain how Diana gets from Themyscira to World War I. The idyll that is Diana’s island home—where women warriors have hidden themselves from corrupted, squabbling men—is invaded one day when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes just offshore, with German boats in pursuit. Diana rescues him—there’s a magical shot from his perspective underwater, where he sees her figure standing on the wreckage of his plane, shimmering and powerful—and drags him to the beach where she lets out another smile and observes, “You’re a man.”
The stunts are all about empowering rather than sexualizing the women.
Their meet-cute is interrupted by those Germans, who engage Diana and her fellow Amazons in a battle on the beach that is the high point of the film. It’s worth noting how the action begins: by focusing on a single bullet, and the singular death it causes. This sets Wonder Woman apart as the rare superhero film that recognizes loss, thereby lending more weight to the violence that follows. Though there are casualties in the ensuing battle, it turns out the Germans are no match for the Amazons—especially Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her lethal trainer Antiope (Robin Wright), the latter of whom can let three arrows loose at once. These warriors’ elegant, slow-motion spins, which frame the action on the screen in ways that resemble comic-book panels, are all about empowering rather than sexualizing the women. Throughout, Jenkins’ camera largely regards Gadot the same way. (The sexualizing is saved for Pine, who later gets naked while recovering from his injuries in a cavern pool.)
Once healed, Trevor heads back to the war and Diana insists on coming with him. According to the mythology told to her by her mother (envisioned in painterly images that move ever so slightly, like a Rubens painting slowly coming to life), Diana is part of a lineage that includes Zeus and Ares, the god of war. She believes she will find Ares at the European front, and by conquering him will bring about peace on earth.
A basic question driving Wonder Woman is whether or not Diana should bother with this mission. Wouldn’t she be better off remaining blissfully on Themyscira? Steve, after all, doesn’t really believe her mythology (a story beat that may allow for some unsteady fish-out-of-water humor, but at the cost of convincing us of the romance that develops between them). One of the more interesting ideas to arise in Wonder Woman concerns this relationship between higher beings and lower creatures. Diana is told by an adversary that humans “do not deserve your attention.” And throughout, thanks to Jenkins’ reverential rather than devouring camera, we recognize her superiority. Yet in a final gesture in the midst of battle, Diana reveals herself to be uncommon in another way: she’s a superhero made up of equal parts power and grace.