Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003) mapped a descent into hell. In Wonder Woman, the journey is reversed, beginning on the ground and moving full throttle towards the heavens.
In one symbolic sequence in the origins story of how Amazonian warrior Diana evolved into Wonder Woman, the titular heroine (Gal Gadot) flies to the top of a church, smashes a sniper’s hideout and floats in the sky, sealing her foretold demigod status.
Best known for directing Charlize Theron as a prostitute who becomes a serial killer, Jenkins has applied her keen eye to the boilerplate superhero movie. She flips the predestination trope so dear to the comic book universe to suggest that Wonder Woman isn’t only fated to change the world, but that it might become a better place with her in it.
Jenkins balances hippy-dippy sentiment with the muscular imperatives of the big-budget action spectacles drawn from comic books. Jenkins’s screen version, which is set against the backdrop of World War I, channels the iconicity of Zack Snyder’s films and the politically astute updates applied by Christopher Nolan to popular yet dated material. Gal Gadot’s titular heroine’s dismay at the state of things – warmongering and weapon-making, sexism, the lack of empathy for the victims of battle, the absence of diversity and tolerance for different races and nationalities, and the general absence of peace – is deeply political and current. Diana’s tender romance with her mentor and love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is also on an equal footing, and allows Pine his standout moments in a movie that is Gadot’s show all the way.
Protected by her mother (Connie Nielsen) and trained in warfare by her aunt (Robin Wright) on the remote Themyscira island, Diana finds the perfect excuse to put her skills to use when Steve’s aircraft breaches the barrier that protects their world. She joins Steve in winning World War I from the Germans, who she is convinced are being controlled by Ares, the God of War.
Diana is an innocent, having been shielded from the real world all her life, but even though she has not had any contact with the opposite sex, she knows how the dating game works. Men are merely for procreation and are unnecessary for real sexual enjoyment, she informs Steve in a paean to self-pleasure that is rarely found in a tentpole movie.
Pine also sportingly lets himself be used as a sex object in a moment that the Indian censors have blurred out.
It’s not all subversion. Jenkins stages some truly spectacular fights, including an arresting tableau that explains how the Amazonian women came to inhabit Themyscira. The richly textured production design has a vintage matt-finish feel of the original comics like Snyder’s Batmans Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice did. The action sequences are grandly orchestrated and, in fact, allowed to drag on in case Diana’s proto-feminist worldview is deemed to be too preachy.
The beautifully old-fashioned romance between Steve and Diana allows Steve to coach Diana in the one thing she knows nothing about – the sexiness of slow dancing.
Raj Kapoor famously said about his movie Satyam Shivam Sundaram that audiences would rush into cinemas to gape at Zeenat Aman’s cleavage and leave with memories of her performance instead. Kapoor didn’t deliver on his claims since he had no intention of doing so. The inherent sexualisation of Wonder Woman – her barely there skirt, prominent breastplate armour, and perfect curvature – is inescapable, but Jenkins upends the situation with humour. Diana tries out a series of suitably feminine gowns after accompanying Steve to London, but rejects them all. How is one supposed to fight in these, she asks.
Diana’s beauty rarely escapes attention. Am I supposed to be frightened or aroused, asks Said Taghmaoui’s Sameer, one of Steve’s buddies. The answers to both are available in Jenkins’s intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable reimagining of the superhero genre. The director balances spectacle with contemporary concerns, and even though the movie tips towards political correctness – Steve’s companions all represent marginalised communities – and gets its plotlines a bit muddled up, the filmmaker ensures the one element missing from several recent comic book adaptations – wide-eyed wonder.
In a movie filled with striking imagery (the accomplished camerawork is by Matthew Jensen) and visual effects, one of the most empowering shots is of Diana emerging out of the trenches, ready to fulfill her destiny and rewrite received Hollywood wisdom on a woman’s place in the movies in the process.