Superheroes are not the be-all and end-all of cinema. But, with their mega-budgets and endless promotion, they’re a huge part of what keeps your local multiplex alive, a big deal for kids and parents, and an important fraction of studios’ income. Having a female superhero lead, in a big summer blockbuster directed by a woman (Monster’s Patty Jenkins), matters. So, it is an immense pleasure to report that Wonder Woman is wildly entertaining and its leading-lady strong enough to make your feminist heart sing.
Despite Jenkins’ talent, that wasn’t a given. Wonder Woman has been in development for the big screen for 20 years, but one attempt after another foundered because it was too big in scale (the studio wanted to keep control of the budget with a “risky” female lead) or too faithful to the comics (for many years, there was resistance to a period piece). Finally, Zack Snyder dipped a toe in the water by giving the character an extended cameo in last year’s dreary Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman provided the only bright spot in the film. Now, 76 years after Wonder Woman’s first comic-book appearance, she gets her own movie.
She was born Princess Diana of Themyscira, the only child on a magical island populated entirely by women. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), tells her that they are Amazons, created to help mankind achieve peace by being, er, kickass warriors ranged against the malign influence of Ares, god of war. Look, don’t worry about the backstory – it’s fantastical and cool and 100 per cent female. Diana trains to join the Amazons with her formidable aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), and all is going well until a World War One spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes a plane just off-shore. When Diana learns about the Great War, she is convinced that Ares must be responsible and decides to smuggle Steve home in return for his help in stopping the god of war once and for all.
If you’re a fan of superhero cinema, you’ll recognise shades of both Thor and Captain America in that plot, which is no bad thing. But something of the tone of this film harks back further, all the way to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, with a good-hearted hero setting out to do the right thing and protecting a world that is not his own. Diana also leaves her home – perhaps for ever – to help us.
Unlike all those wisecracking super-dudes, she cares deeply about humanity and is unwilling to accept that anyone is merely collateral damage
If you don’t like superhero films, this one might still be worth a look. Like Christopher Reeve before her, Gadot’s Diana is insanely charming as she blunders through the “World Of Men”, trying to figure everything out – not least the impractical fashions of the 1910s. She has a love interest worthy of her attention in Pine’s Steve, who adds a lot of the humour and who’s secure enough to just sit back in admiration of Diana’s super-antics. Most importantly, Jenkins gives her characters room to breathe and laugh and fall in love, so this doesn’t feel like just another a string of special effects strung together with an occasional quip.
It helps that Gadot is so engaging as Diana. She sometimes seems like a precocious teenager, convinced she’s got it all figured out, and then the next moment will realise how much she doesn’t know and face a disillusionment that’s heartrending. Unlike all those wisecracking super-dudes, she cares deeply about humanity (and animals) and is unwilling to accept that anyone is merely collateral damage. She is often torn between competing goals, but always strong, passionate and intelligent. After all these years, we got an interpretation of the character that lives up to the highest ideals of the comic book and indeed of feminism. Make no mistake: Gadot is outrageously good-looking and scantily dressed, but her performance doesn’t feel like a male fantasy; she feels like the kind of person we’d all like to be.
The film does have flaws. It’s a little too long and there is an effects-smothered, super-powered punch-up towards the end that is familiar from dozens of other superhero films. There are other ways to end a blockbuster – think of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade’s puzzle-solving or The Poseidon Adventure’s escape scenes. Diana’s such a good character that she doesn’t need so many bells and whistles.
But there is such power to seeing a woman up there, facing down armies and bounding into the air to smash a tank or take out a sniper, that it hardly matters. If you have daughters (older than five or six, say), bring them along – this will make young girls feel like they can fly. There have been 30 superhero films since 2005 and every single one had a male lead. Studios thought women just couldn’t lead superhero films. Wonder Woman proves them wrong.