This column discusses the plot of “Wonder Woman” and its big ideas.
In the days since I saw “Wonder Woman,” Patty Jenkins‘s buoyant, sharp take on the iconic character and arguably the best movie in the faltering DC Cinematic Universe, I’ve thought a lot about the moments when I learned that being a girl (or a woman) meant taking on a series of sexist ideas and expectations. There was a pink, smocked dress I despised. A series of nasty incidents on my high school debate team, where I was the only girl in my graduating class to make varsity. The first time someone shouted something ugly at me on the street. None of these experiences crushed me, of course, but I do wonder what it might have been like if they hadn’t happened.
The power of Wonder Woman, and one of the things that gives Jenkins’s adaptation of the character such a lift, is in the answer to that question. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) doesn’t have any idea what women and men are — or aren’t — supposed to do. Even when she does encounter other people’s ideas about gender roles, she doesn’t automatically accept them, and she never lets anyone stop her. And the movie goes a step further and argues that it’s not merely little girls all over the world who stand to gain if they can grow up free of the distorting influence of misogyny: a world like that would be liberating and wonderful for men in lots of ways, too.
Though we first met Diana in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Wonder Woman” gives her a proper origin story.
She grew up on Themyscira, the island city-state that is the sanctuary of the Amazons, an all-female society where women train to take up the fight against the god of war, Ares, should he reemerge to cause trouble. There, little Diana’s (Lilly Aspell) education and conduct are governed not by any sense of what girls may and may not do, but by a philosophical debate between her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Hippolyta, who knows her daughter is no mere Amazon, but a goddess, fears that training Diana as a warrior will make it easier for Ares to find her. Antiope believes that Diana should be prepared and made the best version of herself; responding to Diana’s enthusiasm, Antiope begins training her niece in secret. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, who looks as much like a cartoon pilot as it’s possible to look and still be a human male) crash-lands on Themyscira bearing news of World War I, Diana heads off with him, convinced that she can find Ares, kill him, and stop the conflict.
To describe what comes next as a fish out of water story undercuts its sweet, funny power. When Diana gets to London, she doesn’t just encounter her first new city (“It’s hideous!” she declares, used to the sunny skies and crystal waters of Themyscira.). She has her first experience with the Edwardian era and all that comes with it: men who whistle at her in the street, a political system that doesn’t given women the vote, revolving doors that don’t accommodate swords and shields, men who don’t understand what a woman is doing in a meeting, corsets.
The clarifying power of feminism in general, and Diana’s perspective in these scenes in particular, is that both pick up on things that others take for granted and render them ridiculous. She may approach the world with a supremely open heart: her first experiences with human babies (she was the only child on Themyscira) and ice cream may make you see each with a new sense of delight. But Diana isn’t a naif when she asks why anyone would think women “need to keep our tummies in,” or wonders why a talented woman like Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) is toiling away in service to some man. Diana is the one who sees clearly. It’s the world around her that is absurd.
I would be sorry if you read this and thought I was describing a 141-minute-long think piece. One of the best things about “Wonder Woman” and its script by Allan Heinberg is its lightness, sense of discovery, and the way it flips the script on anyone who ever nattered on about how feminists are ugly, man-hating prudes. Anyone who walks out of “Wonder Woman” feeling threatened enough to want to put Diana Prince in her place is only revealing their own fearfulness.
And though that same sense of levity and goodness also makes “Wonder Woman” closer to family-friendly than some of its grim contemporaries, it’s the first genuinely sexy superhero movie of the modern era — and thus one of the few genuinely grown-up ones. These are adults who are fighting fascism and debating gender norms: it’s inevitable that sex comes up, and in keeping with the movie that it’s hysterical when it does. Diana may not have grown up around men, she explains to Steve, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t studied their anatomy and function. After reading a 12-volume series on the subject, the authors “came to the conclusion that when it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasure, not necessary,” Diana tells Steve pertly. (Spoiler: she changes her mind on that one.)
She’s fortunate, of course, that Steve is, as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott put it, “the living embodiment of the phrase ‘not all men.'” All women would be lucky if the first man they met was this secure in his masculinity, and thus this relaxed by washing up on whole island full of competent, strong-willed women. But Steve is also fortunate that in Diana, he’s met a woman who has no qualms about letting him bunk down next to her on a boat journey, can handle her load of the fighting, and whose dedication to doing the right thing means he doesn’t have to carry out a lonely mission against Germany’s chemical weapons program unassisted. Because Diana has no clear expectations of him — “Does the average man not sleep?” she asks at one point — he’s free to be his best self.
Maybe it’s a little unnerving to have a woman stare you down as you emerge, naked, from a luminescent hot spring on a seemingly magical island and ask you “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” It can be liberating, too, if you can’t possibly give a wrong answer.