When it comes to cinema, I prefer to read and hear a plurality of voices. To contribute in a small way to that variety of voices, I have invited some other writers to review new and classic films on this website. I am thrilled that the first-ever guest critic on FictionMachine is Australian science fiction and fantasy editor Tehani Croft, and can think of no more appropriate film to feature than Patty Jenkins’ smash hit Wonder Woman.
By Tehani Croft
I watched Wonder Woman twice at the cinema. I probably would have watched it again and again, but I now live several hundred kilometres from my nearest movie theatre, and it was just luck that I happened to be in two different capital cities over the first week of its release. (Who am I kidding, I definitely would have taken a day trip to the nearest cinema just to watch this film.) I was never not going to see it on the big screen. (That said, I didn’t quite expect to be able to see it twice, once in 2D, the second time in 3D on the world’s biggest IMAX screen in Melbourne, an experience I highly recommend, so that was indeed a bonus. And if you are not one of those people who has issues with 3D films, it’s worth seeing it that way — the action scenes really pop.)
So obviously I loved it. Truly loved it. And it’s fine if you have seen it and you didn’t love it, and it’s fine if you would like to discuss the flaws and problematic elements of the film. I see them. I know they are there. I’ve read the critiques. But I loved it. And here’s why.
From the moment the film really starts, not in the opening scene, but when we first see Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, I was immersed in a narrative that is about a woman. A powerful, intelligent, gorgeous woman who is not only the centre of her own story, but central to the stories of those around her as well. If you don’t understand why that is so amazing to me, let me see if I can explain.
Bracketed with the framing narrative set up of the wider Justice League story and modern day, we briefly see Diana (played so perfectly by Israeli actor Gal Gadot) in a glossy Paris scenario, receiving a gift from Bruce Wayne. This brief interlude made me nervous, because too many superhero narratives in recent years have been derailed by the filmmakers trying to shoehorn into a larger universe. But thankfully this, and the closing scene that mirrors it, are brief, and serve not to intrude on Diana’s tale, but to introduce it. I won’t call it an origin story — I think we only get the smallest flash of that in a montage of Themyscira (and I’d be delighted to have an entire television series of Young Diana, thanks DC…). What we get is Diana’s awakening story, one which draws on the existing comics mythology without being constrained by it, and cannily so. Diana’s existence, the story of the Amazons, the way she leaves the island, all familiar to readers of the source material, but refusing to be slavish to a narrative spanning more than seventy years, and all the problematic elements it entails.
The opening training scenes are astonishingly good and I watched them with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat because this! This is what we never see on our screens — those powerful, athletic women in action, not simply on screen but more metatextually the actors portraying them with such skill. Watching it the second time I was shocked at how short these first scenes actually are, because the first time around, I was just like a little kid, wide eyed at the panorama in front of me. And it wasn’t just seeing a bunch of women in battle mode — it was also the variety of women, appearing young to middle-aged, of a multitude of racial backgrounds, with scars and crows feet and muscular bodies that portrayed strength even as they portrayed beauty. How often have you seen that in the media?
Meeting Diana, seeing Themyscira through her eyes as a child, an adolescent, a young (for a given value of young) woman, is in itself an unusual event. Director Patty Jenkins has done something with this film that we rarely experience, and despite the fact the Amazons and their island only appear for a relatively short span of the 141 minute running time of the film, they leave a lasting impression.
I think one of my favourite parts of the film, which begins on Themyscira but evolves over the course of the plot, are Diana’s delight in the discovery of the extent of her power, the almost casual ease with which she stretches her limits and builds on the years of training she has had to craft her arsenal (how many years we simply can’t know, which is a very clever element of the film — clearly the Amazons do not age as humans age, if at all, and the vast array of languages and knowledge Diana has implies the character is far older than she appears). The scene in No Man’s Land (and the entendre implied there just hit me…) is a culmination of this discovery, but not the end of it, and each new realisation is reflected in Diana’s exhilaration as she strides across the screen.
And I think that is one of my favourite parts of the film. In Wonder Woman, there is a sense of joy that has been missing from DC’s cinematic universe, something akin to, but more mature than, that we see in the Supergirl television show. Diana’s naïveté is offset by her formidable intellect and education, to say nothing of her strength of character and physical prowess. Gadot’s portrayal of this is sublime, and is perhaps the key part of what makes the film work so well.
Do I need to talk about the plot? When Diana’s hidden island is accidentally invaded, first by intelligence agent Steve Trevor (played more subtly than I’d feared by Chris Pine, who seems to be maturing into his craft) and followed by German troops, Diana chooses to leave Themyscira and travel with Steve to the Western Front, in hopes to find and defeat Ares, the god of war and eternal enemy of the Amazons. There are war zones to wade through, allies to meet and foes to face. Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Steve Trevor’s secretary and one of the few women to get lines in the film after Diana leaves her island, is an under-utilised delight, if one drawn a little more stereotypically than she deserves. Isabella Maru (also known as Doctor Poison, played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya) was also a strong presence on screen and deserved more story time. Diana’s determination to find Ares is core to the plot, and one from which she refuses to be distracted. Steve Trevor’s persistence to his own goals, no matter the cost, was also interesting — from his initial acceptance of Diana’s help to leave the island, to trying to stop her from going to the war, to his belief her abilities was not central to her journey, but to his, because Diana was going to do what she believed she needed to regardless of Steve’s help or approval.
Among many pleasing differences in this film is that while some actors in the film are from the United States, and of course Steve Trevor is a Yank spy, the film is set entirely outside the US, giving it both a broader scope for international appeal and avoiding some of the problems inherent in the superhero jingoism of US based heroes, especially in this political climate. Could more people of colour be better utilised? Yes. Could more women (and particularly women of colour) have speaking roles (after the scenes on Themyscira)? Yes. Are there some problematic elements in the way some characters are portrayed (particularly the final scene with Doctor Poison)? Yes. But none of that stops me from loving this film, and believing strongly in the positive nature of both itself as a work of film and the effect it has had at the box office. Because we have not had anything like it before.
That is not to say we have not had successful female-led or female-directed films. They exist, and many are very fine films. It’s not to suggest in any way we have not had kick-ass female heroes on our screen, giving girls and women powerful role models. Of course we have, in both film and television. But this is a superhero film in a market near saturated with them, and the first of its (female-led) kind to be not only critically but also commercially successful from the opening weekend. It’s not ‘just’ an action film. It’s not ‘just’ a female-led film. It’s not ‘just’ a superhero film. It’s a film that puts a woman front and centre on the screen and doesn’t flinch from her. It’s a film given a good script and a decent budget and a damn fine director and cast, and allowed to be what it should be.
I am not suggesting movies by and about women should be exempt from critique. The problem is we have so few of them, the tiniest fraction compared with the plethora by and featuring men, that to pick one to pieces (as some pundits are so generously doing) is to imply that all films by and about women are inherently flawed. This is of course a fallacy but until we have the same multitudes to examine, it is disingenuous to suggest Wonder Woman should have done more, should have been more, or should have shown more. First there need to be more, and then we can find within those multitudes all the things we can examine.