Full disclosure: I’m not really into superhero movies. I’ve enjoyed some of them — the first X-Men or two, the first Iron Man, the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, Watchmen. But I haven’t really had the interest to keep up with sequels, or check out every new property. As a genre, it’s a little mysterious to me. I get the appeal of the “freaks become powerful” theme, the “heroes are people, too” theme, and the fact that lots of shit get blown up and it looks cool. But I don’t generally feel much personal connection to any of it.
That said, there was no way I wasn’t going to check out Wonder Woman. I didn’t read the comics, and I only vaguely remember the Lynda Carter show from re-runs when I was a kid. But I was curious to see how Hollywood was going to handle this one, and it felt worthwhile to contribute to the box office success of a female-fronted, female-directed summer blockbuster—which is far too rare a thing—whether or not I would ultimately enjoy it.
I did really enjoy it, as it turns out. Is it kind of hokey? Yes. Is it doing something dramatically different for a summer popcorn movie? That depends on how dramatically different it feels to you not to have to roll your eyes at something sexist as you try to enjoy an escapist spectacle. Is it a perfect expression of feminist ideals? No, probably not — although the few “Wonder Woman isn’t as empowering as you think it is” hot takes and think pieces I’ve seen have a contrarian-for-the-sake-of-contrarianism flavor to me. Although I did wonder, why didn’t any of the screenwriters get to be women? It would seem the glass ceiling of artistic control over franchises with high production values is hardly shattered yet.
But the movie does feel like some legit progress. Let’s start with the fact that most of the first act doesn’t have any men in it. We open on the idyllic island of Themyscira, where a race of women called the Amazons are sequestered from the rest of the world (and from the passage of time, it seems). The moment we meet young Diana, daughter of the Amazon queen, we know she’s special, even among this exceptional group of warriors. I enjoyed their backstory, told in a visually interesting way with animation in the style of classical paintings of mythological figures. And I really dug their training scenes, which somehow did not feel exploitative. Yes, the Amazons’ costumes showed off their bodies, but the focus was their powerful arms and legs, and the physics-defying things the women could make their bodies do. We’re to admire the women’s prowess and competence, rather than T&A and tiny waists. The director created that scene so a female audience would think it was awesome, and if it gave a male audience boners, that was a secondary perk. If you don’t believe this is progress, think about how many summer blockbusters in the history of moviedom have shown any evidence the filmmakers thought women were a primary audience constituent to satisfy, and get back to me.
Diana’s world is disrupted when German soldiers chase hunky spy Steve onto the island, killing many of Diana’s friends and mentors and bringing the awareness that a giant war is roiling in the world of humankind. Diana concludes this is the work of Ares, the god of war and the nemesis the Amazons are supposed to protect humankind from, so she sails off the island with Steve to Europe so she can kill Ares and end war forever. There’s some fun fish-out-of-water stuff as a self-confident Amazon wends her way around pre-Suffrage London, then a genuinely cool battle scene as Diana, Steve, and their band of misfits hit the front lines and free a besieged village. For the first two acts, I really enjoyed how different this movie felt from other superhero movies, with its cool period aesthetic and lack of over-the-top computer-generated special effects. “Wow,” I thought, “a blockbuster fantasy that doesn’t look like a video game!” But then, of course, the climactic battle scene between Diana and Ares was a total video game.
But even as I was registering disappointment at this, I was really affected by aspects of that scene. Actually, I cried. This is a fact I feel comfortable admitting to you alongside these extenuating circumstances: 1) I’m pregnant, and a lot of things make me cry these days; 2) I watched the movie right around the first anniversary of Dad’s death, and he was on my mind quite a bit. I was thinking of him especially during the psychological moment in the standoff, when Ares tries to convince Diana that humans are not worth saving. They are inherently corrupt and evil, he argues, and the world would be better off without them. Diana has seen plenty of evidence of human evil at this point, and she does have to think about it for a second. But she has also seen the good people are capable of, and she ultimately decides that this good redeems them enough to deserve her protection. It’s a radical act of love.
This really hit home for me, because in grieving someone with whom you had a difficult relationship, you are constantly confronting the good and the bad in that person’s legacy, and in your history together. Every human embodies both good and bad, of course, but for me my father is the most the clearest and most visceral example of the fight between them. At times, Dad was capable of true generosity and love. He was a devoted father who gave me endless amounts of time and attention, and who showed up for me at certain important times. He also did some terrible things in his life. He was quite capable of hurting others, and did; there was abuse in his past which he perpetuated. I was not the recipient of that abuse, but for me there were other kinds of hurts and damages. When he felt emotionally cornered, he had a way of lashing out, and some of those incidents stick with me to this day. I’ve never believed he acted out of malice, but rather out of fear, and conditioning. But neither can I quite let some of the residual anger and disappointment go.
Forgiveness, after all, is a kind of superpower. Wonder Woman has it. Me, I don’t know.