The all-female paradise of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s home island, is introduced in the opening minutes of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman through the eyes of a little girl: young Diana, her face lit up with infectious glee as she watches grown Amazons spar.
She roars in her tiny voice and mimics their movements, punching and kicking ferociously. To her, the only child on the island, this is the norm for what warriors look like: racially diverse, agile and precise, lethally strong—and female. Some of the Amazons are young, many more look over 40. Some are muscular, others more slight. They trade blows with spectacular, staggering power, all in spirited camaraderie. Diana sees herself in them. She wants to be just like them. They are, well, her superheroes.
The scene is Jenkins’ immediate, open-hearted acknowledgement of one of her film’s dearest aspirations. Wonder Woman knows little girls will watch this, the first female-led superhero film helmed by a female director, and find inspiration in its powerful, compassionate, morally righteous heroine (embodied with irresistible humor and warmth in a star-making turn from Gal Gadot). Hell, grown women will emerge surprisingly affected. (I definitely maybe cried one or three or 12 times). It’s a strangely moving thing to finally feel represented onscreen in this male-dominated, universally beloved movie genre. All the more in a story about empathy, understanding, and sincerity over cynicism that resonates so strongly today.
The World War I-era “world of men” that Diana leaves paradise to save is rife with political division, senseless bloodshed, and rampant racism and sexism—evils she doesn’t understand but pins to one source: the god of war, Ares. In Amazon mythology, you see, the women of Themyscira were created by a dying Zeus to be humanity’s last defense against the angry, ambitious god. If Diana kills him, she reasons, she’ll break his hold on men and end war itself forever. She believes people are truly, innately good, as capable of perpetual peace as the Amazons. Out of compassion and a moral obligation to fight for those in need, she dives into battle—in gorgeously shot, exquisitely choreographed sequences that leave no doubt Jenkins was perfect for this job.
British spy Steve Trevor (an insanely charismatic Chris Pine, half of the best superhero film pairing since Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane—a couple the film sweetly pays tribute to) becomes Diana’s pragmatic ally in the effort. Among superhero love interests, he’s a rarity: male, for one, and emotionally complex, funny, and heroic in his own right. He’s well aware he’s no match for the literal demigoddess by his side, yet never threatened by the notion of this woman’s intellectual and physical superiority. (Unlike the stodgy old men in a military meeting too outraged by Diana’s mere presence to function—never mind that she speaks a thousand languages and decodes an old Sumerian document for them with one glance.)
He’s a true male ally, a manifestation of the film’s show-don’t-preach approach to feminism. Diana is more puzzled than outraged at the pointlessly sexist customs of man’s world, most endearingly in fish-out-of-water hijinks where Diana strides confidently into places women are not allowed, and in a dress-fitting scene where she marvels at how women breathe let alone fight in such constricting clothes. She meets a suffragist, Etta Candy (a delightful Lucy Davis), who works as Steve’s secretary and remarks innocently that her job sounds like slavery. She also listens, heartbroken, to stories of racism and oppression from two men of color, Steve’s soldier comrades. In battle, all four men (including a PTSD-afflicted Scotsman) respect Diana’s vision and strength enough to unanimously support her. That shouldn’t feel so rare or cathartic to see onscreen, but it is. (Cue my 13th round of waterworks.)
Trevor isn’t sure he believes Ares is real—not a single “well, actually” escapes his lips regardless—but he does believe in Diana enough to follow her to the frontlines of war. There, despite overly familiar third-act villainy (things get apocalypse-y and go CGI-kaboom), Wonder Woman does something special: It gets real. In a genre sometimes overly fond of black-and-white heroes and villains, this film forces its heroine to confront moral grays. People, she realizes, are neither fully “good” nor “bad”; our egos will always breed conflict, and hatred lives in each one of us. No god made us this way; it’s just who we are, and who we'll always be. Disillusioned, the hyper-idealistic Diana struggles to decide whether humans are still worth saving—whether our ability to love redeems us.
It’s thoughtful, nuanced, touchingly sincere stuff—a mark of Jenkins’ wholehearted embrace of the optimism and classic heroism essential to DC Comics’s legacy, yet missing in its other recent big-screen adventures. (“Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world,” Jenkins told The New York Times this week, sending geek hearts a-swooning. “I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing… I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in the change and betterment of mankind. I believe in it.”) The grace with which Jenkins pulls it all off is a superhuman feat all its own, given the absurd amount of pressure on this film to succeed and the political significance assigned to it simply for existing.
Wonder Woman seemingly doesn’t get to be just a movie. It’s the first female-fronted film of the now 10-year-old modern superhero boom, and the first to be directed by a woman. That alone has unfairly saddled it with the job of proving that a female-led tentpole can be profitable domestically and internationally—and you can bet how profitable it is (or isn’t) will be parsed to death, too. The future of women-oriented blockbusters, we’re told, hinges on this one film. It's ridiculous. And yet it may be a reasonable fear: The failures of Elektra, Catwoman, and even the 1984(!) Supergirl were still being used as excuses by studio heads for not investing in more female superheroes as recently as 2014. We see you, Ike Perlmutter.
Jenkins herself, described in the trades as a “gamble” for helming the $150 million project with only one feature film under her belt (Monster won its lead actress Charlize Theron an Oscar and grossed more than seven times its $8 million budget, but OK), is more than familiar with the narrative. She’s described turning down creative duds, most notably Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, not on behalf of her own career, but on behalf of all womankind: “If I take this knowing it’s going to be trouble and then it looks like it was me, that’s going to be a problem,” she recalled recently to The Hollywood Reporter. “If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake that the studio made. But with me, it’s going to look like I dropped the ball, and it’s going to send a very bad message. So I’ve been very careful about what I take for that reason.”
That’s a level of pressure men in the industry are largely spared. Studio heads didn’t wring their hands about the future of male-led superhero films because Green Lantern flopped. David Ayer, who cobbled together DC’s most incoherent and critically maligned entry yet, Suicide Squad, has multiple high-profile projects already lined up. Likewise, the failure of Batman v Superman hasn’t affected Zack Snyder’s prospects as a director. But because there are so few female directors granted opportunities to work big-budget, live-action films—just 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing domestic movies of 2016 were directed by women, a disheartening 2 percent decline from 2015—the spotlight borders on blinding whenever figures like Jenkins step in.
In fact, because several those films flopped, Wonder Woman is also tasked with reinvigorating the foundering DCEU brand itself. The studio’s previous trio of high-stakes outings, beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel, often strayed from character authenticity and ranged in critical and box-office reception from lukewarm to disappointing. Then there’s the obligation to the 76-year history of Wonder Woman herself, a feminist symbol beloved by generations of comic-book fans yet neglected onscreen ever since Lynda Carter’s iconic 1970s TV show went off the air. An entire generation knows Wonder Woman’s costume but knows little about her backstory, her motivations, or what sets her apart from Batman or Superman—largely because she’s been absent onscreen.
The film’s theatrical release itself, meanwhile, has been dogged with an unfathomably inane controversy over a handful of all-women screenings at two Alamo Drafthouse locations a week after its premiere. Mewling man-children’s outrage at the idea of a temporary space that does not cater to them has become a rallying cry for far-right men’s rights activists who admittedly had “zero intention” of watching the film in the first place. One of them filed an actual civil-rights complaint. Carson Daly is involved? I don’t know. It’s too dumb to warrant more mention than that. But it is depressingly familiar to the misogynist hysteria surrounding the release of Ghostbusters and Mad Max: Fury Road, two more female-led action films never allowed to simply exist.
And yet, Wonder Woman is set to defy the odds. Currently this summer’s most anticipated release according to Fandango, the film is tracking north of $75 million for its debut weekend, with $90 million to $100 million possible with a boost from good reviews (sure enough, it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with 93 percent—the highest for a DC/Warner Bros. movie since The Dark Knight Rises). That would certainly be a signal to risk-averse studios to get over their fear of female superhero cooties. But Gadot’s and Jenkins’ sweetest triumph is the sorely needed warmth of the film itself. It's a beacon of unabashedly heartfelt emotion and hope.
This Diana Prince laughs in delight at her own power when she discovers her ability to break through stone by hand; she marvels at her first snowfall and first ice-cream cone with appropriate wide-eyed wonder; she feels others’ pain deeply and personally, and absolutely believes in the redeemability of mankind. And she’s so good, so inspiring, that she makes you want to do the same. She can save a franchise, and the world, backwards and in heels—with bullet-deflecting bracelets to match. That is a hero worth rooting for.