As I watched Wonder Woman and shoveled buckets of popcorn into my grinning mouth, I found myself inspired by Diana’s journey, delighted by her curiosity with the world, and completely thrilled by the sweep of director Patty Jenkins’s dizzying action sequences.
But if I’m being honest, more than anything, I was just relieved.
Years before Wonder Woman was finally released last week, the movie had to bear a mountain of expectations from critics, industry executives, and moviegoers. Now, as Wonder Woman has officially achieved a historic $103 million opening weekend (and is expected to have a similarly strong second weekend), the conversation has shifted to how the movie exceeds expectations.
If you were a fan of Wonder Woman before, or just a woman who’s been known to love a superhero or two, you knew this success absolutely wasn’t a given. Wonder Woman could have given in to the relentless grimness that plagued Batman v Superman, or the blatant sexism that pulsed through Suicide Squad’s veins. It could’ve been half-assed, exploitative, or, maybe worst of all, boring.
But I didn’t just breathe a sigh of relief because Jenkins and company managed to pull the movie off at all — I was relieved they pulled it off so well. It only took five minutes of exploring Diana’s life on the Amazon island of Themyscira for me to realize that Wonder Woman truly wanted to tell her origin story with grit and grace — and that it was not going to let me down with the usual sexist traps I’ve grown so used to steeling myself for when I go to the movies or turn on an episode of TV.
Wonder Woman isn’t just a good superhero movie. It’s a great example of how filmmakers don’t have to resort to the usual problematic tropes to keep their biggest, splashiest movies glued together. And once it became clear that Wonder Woman was going to do everything in its Amazonian power to treat this hero with the respect she — and every female hero — deserves, something in me shifted. My shoulders dropped from where they had tensed up by my ears as I realized with an ecstatic, stomach-swooping start that I could actually sit back, relax, and truly enjoy watching a woman save the world.
It’s not often that I get to see a movie without having to steel myself for its disappointments
There’s a 2014 Onion article that gets passed around my corner of the internet every now and then that never fails to make me laugh through a horrified grimace (the default reading expression for any Onion article worth its satirical salt). “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist to Enjoy TV Show” homes in on an experience that’s both very particular and widely understood, as seen in both its title and its lead:
Saying that she just wanted a little time to relax and “not even think about” confining gender stereotypes, local health care industry consultant Natalie Jenkins reportedly took a 30-minute break from being a feminist last night to kick back and enjoy a television program.
This is one of the most relatable things I’ve ever read in my whole damn life, and I know I’m not alone.
The unspoken assumption that comes with watching a movie or TV show is that it’ll inevitably include some disappointing bullshit. Every genre has its pitfalls. So many comedies (romantic or otherwise) rely on tired sexist and/or racist jokes; too many action movies give in to pointless objectification and flattening of any character who isn’t the square-jawed white male star; horror movies slash women apart for the pure shock of it.
But dammit, I’ve gone ahead and loved so many of them anyway, because for as long as I can remember, pop culture has taught me to take what I can get when it comes to even halfway decent representation of anyone who isn’t a tortured white guy antihero. When I get to enjoy something that doesn’t immediately inspire complex gnarls of doubt, my relief is so overpowering that it’s almost desperate. (See: my 1,800-word review of the surprisingly self-aware Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.)
So when I sat down to watch Wonder Woman, I felt the same way I always do about a movie that seems promising: excited, but wary. Sure, it’s a high-profile blockbuster dedicated to comics’ ultimate female superhero, with a female director and everything, but there were still so many ways it could go awry. The script was still born out of Wonder Woman’s introduction within an overwrought excuse for rectangular men to punch each other into the sky (Batman v Superman), and still produced through the same Hollywood wringer every other superhero and action movie had gone through before it.
Wonder Woman, female superhero or no, could have been nothing new. Instead, it was a beautiful surprise.
The movie kicks off with a tiny Diana watching her fierce-as-hell Amazon aunts spin in midair, slashing and felling enemies with a ruthless efficiency that superhero movies usually only let one woman per film even approach, let alone master. Any jokes made about how Diana (Gal Gadot) is a jaw-dropping beauty are at the expense of the drooling men gaping at her. Her love interest, the earnest spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), learns to let her take the reins, admiring her inner and outer strength without getting insecure about his own worth as a Man. Again and again, Wonder Woman subverts and undermines the casual sexism and erasure that’s become de facto in even the best superhero movies — and with a radiant smile besides.
My unexpectedly emotional response to Wonder Woman was echoed by the LA Times’s Meredith Woerner, in a piece on how she surprised herself by crying through Wonder Woman’s fight scenes: “I felt like I was discovering something I didn’t even know I had always wanted. A need that I had boxed up and buried deep.” After watching movie after movie where men saved the day with a well-timed punch while women cleaned up the mess around the edges, Wonder Woman is a goddamn revelation.
It’s not a coincidence that the turning point of the movie — which, not for nothing, is one Jenkins had to fight to keep in— comes when Diana defies a man’s order to stay in a trench to strut out into the treacherous “no man’s land” standing between them and a village of endangered innocents. Her whole life was a no man’s land. What’s one more on the way to saving the world?
Wonder Woman’s Amazon paradise isn’t just rare for superhero movies —it’s rare for movies, period
The no man’s land battle marks the glorious moment when Wonder Woman locks into superhero mode in a way that’s specific to Diana in all the right ways. But truthfully, I was already a goner from the movie’s literal first minute, thanks to the Amazons.
The first 20 minutes of Wonder Woman unfold on Themyscira, a protected utopia populated entirely by ferocious female warriors whose ethos is best summed up as, “Don’t take shit from anyone for any reason, and while you’re at it, show them you can kick their ass.” We get to watch Diana — an adorable girl full of resolve and apple-cheeked smiles — grow up in a collective of women resolved to be the best, strongest, and most decent people they can be. Jenkins’s camera follows warriors like Robin Wright’s smirking Antiope into training and battle with the same giddiness that’s plain on Diana’s awed face, tracking the Amazons’ fearsome spins and relishing their deadly precision.
I mean, come on. No wonder Diana doesn’t bother correcting Steve when he calls Themyscira “Paradise Island” (a nod to the island’s original name in the comics).
Five minutes of this would have been amazing. That Wonder Woman devotes its entire first act to these women and their perfect snarls was all the proof I needed that the movie would do Diana’s story justice.
Seeing the Amazons live and fight and love among themselves feels like seeing another world — and I don’t just mean within the DC or Marvel universe, but in our own. It’s still rare, especially in the action and/or superhero genre, to show multiple women being capable at once. Maybe this is why I haven’t stopped thinking about Emily Yoshida’s piercing piece on how downright terrified movies have traditionally been of two women even just talking to each other without the presence of a man since I read it. Writes Yoshida:
For whatever reason — our inherited medieval imaginations, the cycles of the moon, perhaps — in their short life the movies have been perennially haunted by a fear that when two or more women are left alone together, some kind of dark magic will inevitably rear its head.
... The amount of trouble film still has getting two women to talk to each other about something other than a man belies how redundant so many writers think (subconsciously or otherwise) such a scene might be. After all, what would two women talk about? What would the conflict be, if not about a man? Wouldn’t it get confusing? Wouldn’t it be too hard for the audience to try to tell them apart?
Diana’s story is exactly the worst-case scenario of all these ridiculous rhetorical questions — a fact Wonder Woman not only knows but embraces. Amazons spar and support each other, unfurl themselves off their galloping horses, launch their sistren into the air to leap higher than they could on their own, and scoff into men’s gaping faces. The Amazons are the living, fighting equivalent of that “dark magic” some fear — and they love it.
The tidal wave of onscreen superheroes we’ve gotten over the past decade has brought some fantastic female characters with it, from Black Widow to Gamora to Agent Peggy Carter to Wonder Woman herself. But it’s still incredibly rare to see more than one of them onscreen at a time, let alone an entire island full of women that don’t know or care about the petty squabbles of men.
In that respect, Wonder Woman rejoices in its singularity. It lets women talk and fight and love among themselves without ceremony, and acknowledges that its hero is different from the ones we might be used to without pretending that should be a distraction from her righteous mission. For Wonder Woman and her Amazon family, forging ahead to do good in the face of incredible odds and doubting men is a no-brainer. For me, getting to watch them do it was a pure joy.