I’ll admit, when I first saw the Wonder Woman trailer, I was typically quick to judge and muttered (OK, I probably sneered) “Oh geez, hope I don’t have to review that”. Gal Gadot had been the underwhelming cherry on top of the underwhelming Batman v Superman debacle (which I actually hated less than most viewers), sucked into a tight dress and ridiculously eye-candyish for a supposed heroine who would go on to save superhero blockbusters from themselves.
Then I heard about the Women’s Only screenings in the States, and actually had a discussion with my feminist, cinephile husband about how I didn’t go in for that sort of thing, being the sort of woman who’d never really felt discrimination on the basis of my gender and all, and though that’s fine for some women if they want to be apart from men, we’d just go to a normal screening at our local multiplex and be done with it.
And so we went. And I settled into our perfectly-chosen, up-close-and-personal seats and relished not having to scribble notes/write a review/think about it afterwards, and began to let Wonder Woman wash over me.
And then, some time around the first major battle scene, I felt myself choke up, tears welling (although they did not fall) at the same time as I experienced a totally unexpected sense of elation. And I wished there were more women in the audience so I could “whoop!” at the top of my voice. Oh, the irony.
Here’s the thing. As a DC Comicbook adaptation, blockbuster, superhero movie, Wonder Woman is solid 4-star fare. Narratively, it droops just before the final act, as most over-long superhero movies do. But it has terrific performances from a varied cast headed by the aforementioned Israeli model-turned-actress, who effortlessly portrays her Amazonian ingenue as deliciously naive, yet feisty and principled, in a way that feels completely authentic and acceptable (to both female and male audiences). There’s the American Chris Pine (Star Trek) who suffers in real-life from being the least recognisable of all the Hollywood Chrises, but here proves he has at least as much comedy in him as “Thor” Hemsworth and “Captain America” Evans. We get a delightful cameo from Dawn-from-The-Office Lucy Davis, whose witty repartée with Gadot’s Diana Prince teases the age-old assumptions about women working under men. Scotsman Ewen Bremner puts his Trainspotting Spud to rest once and for all, while Moroccan Saïd Taghmaoui articulates what we’re all thinking – that Diana is the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen – and for some reason that doesn’t feel offensive or clichéd – it just feels, well, true.
And that’s the other thing. There’s no denying Gadot is an exceptionally beautiful woman. Normally I would lament that Hollywood actresses had to be gorgeous; that strong female roles had also to be attractive to the male audience for which their movies were intended. That we were implicitly fat-shaming if we didn’t show women on screen who had actual thighs. (Go Amy Schumer! You may sport other dubious qualities in your efforts to show women as equal, but you have great, real-woman legs.)
But the other night, in my trance, I noticed, but didn’t object once as Diana would rear up from a fight with her lipstick still intact and mascara unsmudged. I let my female gaze caress her thigh gap (a feature I used to dream about, quite literally, and then wake up from that cruellest of nightmares to realise I was still denied). I ogled Robin Wright’s sinewy arms and evocative scar; I marvelled at the blonde body-waves and fishtail plaits that the Amazon women clearly still had time to perfect in between combat classes. I even started to wonder how I’d look in a Wonder Woman costume nowadays, remembering the paper cuffs Little Sarah made as a 5-year old, to run around the garden and force the neighbour’s boy to profess “I love you with all my heart”. (I rapidly decided the WW costume ship had sailed.)
So what of the overwhelming feeling of empowerment that surged through me as I watched all these women, but Diana in particular, kicking butt in a confident, accomplished manner? We’ve seen strong women before – The Bride in Kill Bill, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Strong teenage girls who know how to handle themselves are two a penny in YA dystopian literature. What made Diana Prince different?
I’m still not sure, but I’ll tell you what I think. First off, the most surprising thing is apparently I’m not alone. Scarcely 12 hours ago this article was published online, and it would seem that Wonder Woman is not only making an impact due to its tangibly ground-breaking qualities (first female superheroine lead; in a film directed by a woman; not crap and forgettable like Catwoman or Elektra) but on an emotional level, too. And I think this has to do with how Wonder Woman has been written: in particular, her provenance, and her especially female world-view.
Unlike many of her admirable forebears, Diana Prince isn’t a strong woman who has to act like a man. She was raised in the absence of men, by confident women. She knows about the world (through being well-read) and she understands what matters, but she isn’t remotely jaded. Rather, she is open-eyed, open-minded, open-hearted. She goes into battle because it’s the right thing to do in order to stop the War and bring peace. She has no personal agenda. She never once sneers at anyone, not other women, not the baddest baddie. She cries. She cares. She coos over a baby. She enjoys trying on pretty dresses but she has to be able to do a high kick in them.
And she fights like a boss. I can’t remember what I felt watching Black Widow fight (probably very little, as I’m sure she received a sixteenth of the screen time in any of the Avengers movies) but when Diana and the other Amazonians slo-mo speed-ramp into a low-leg side-swipe or a bow-and-triple-arrow hit or Diana crosses a battlefield pinging bullets off her cuffs, Little Sarah’s heart leapt.
And Big Sarah’s going to go see it again.