Yesterday I watched Wonder Woman with specific attention to the soundtrack. It is extremely interesting how much this aspect, largely ignored, adds the power to the scenes.
Throughout the movie there is a sense of brooding growth and suppressed emotion. It mirrors the story of Diana, who as a stripling does not know the strength of her powers and is seeking to find them. There is a leitmotif for the warrior Diana in full battle mode, but also for other aspects of her personality throughout.
The interaction of the soundtrack and image in this movie is surprising. For example, the famous No Man’s Land scene, which could be played with loud orchestral flourishes and strident orchestral stabs is instead accompanied by a kind of steady solidity, a growing sense of certainty as the untried warrior first steps into battle.
The fact that it is set in one of the “holy of holies” of warfare – the awful horror of the trenches – makes the scene all the more powerful. Few writers / directors of mainstream film have had the temerity to use this setting, and to do so with a superhero movie could have been a disaster. Instead, the imagery is powerful. A lone woman striding across the fields of death and destruction of the Great War.
When she reaches the other side, she fights with as much emphasis on breaking the guns than killing the enemy, as if she will do what she must, but acknowledging that the enemy is war itself – which is one message of the movie as a whole.
Later, the soundtrack does break out into full action sequence with the Wonder Woman battle leitmotif in full cry. But this sequence works for its auditory restraint. This is an old lesson for writers and works across media: less is more.
SPOILER ALERT: This blog discusses plot points and scenes within the movie Wonder Woman.
Okay, so it’s pretty slushy to admit to crying at watching a superhero movie. They never normally get me like that… but Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman did, and I’ve been trying to work out why.
There’s a complex mixture here, but much of it is not to do with the story but the themes it explores.
Theme 1: The awakening to new consciousness of the idealistic individual.
One of the main recurring themes in the movie is what happens when ideals meet reality.
A set piece early in the movie explains the mythical origins of the Amazons to the young Princess Diana of Themyscira. In the myth, mankind is created both good and noble by a benign creator, Zeus – but is corrupted by Ares, the evil god of war.
It is a mythical representation of the human condition echoed by several myth cycles – though not the Greek myths, which have an ambivalent view of the gods and their attitudes toward humanity.
In the Greek myths, the gods are spiteful, jealous, capricious, devious and vengeful.
In fact, the Greek gods are all the things people are because they are the personifications of the different drives of humanity. They are thus archetypes. So, evil doesn’t really fit easily into their pantheon in the way it does in the myth cycle in the movie.
The myth that most closely correlates to the myth told by Hipolyta – the story of a benign creator god whose creations are corrupted by a malevolent lesser god – is something far closer to home: it’s the Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity. Rather than echoing the realities of human psychology, Judaeo-Christianity presents an idealised humanity that adherents are invited to aspire to.
Hence the Amazonian myth depicting man’s fall into crime and war is a version of Adam’s Fall. So far, so exotic and so familiar. But the Amazonian story differs because Zeus is a limited God, and creates the Amazons to bring love to the world, intending through love to tame the evil of corrupted men. (This is a big departure from Christianity, which sees physical love as an evil and Eve not as a saviour, but a transgressor.) That Zeus’s attempt to bring an end to strife through love should fail and that men become the oppressors of the Amazons, who in turn rise up against them, is a novel mythical element, and radical.
The war that ensues among the Gods leaves Zeus, the creator god in mortal peril, threatened by his son, Ares. In his dying act, he grants to Queen Hippolyta her wish for a child – and animates the clay model she has made, thus creating Diana – and grants to the Amazons Themyscira. The Paradise Island is a place where Diana can grow up in safety, away from the malevolent influence of the injured and weakened god Ares, whom unbeknownst to Diana, she has been created to slay.
But what is interesting about this set piece early in the movie is that this story is told in a story-book way, with story-book images. It is not convincing on the screen, because it is a caricature of whatever “really” happened in the Amazonian past. That ambiguity – the story of a child’s myth and the truth behind it – is central to the film.
One of the strands that runs through the story is Diana’s crucial realisation that her world view which is founded on this simplistic conception of the nobility of man and the valour of war is wrong. She realises her moral view which is that all of what she calls evil flows from a single source – Ares – is simplistic, and misunderstands humanity. Like the Christian who grows up to realise that a Devil is not necessary to make men do bad things, she realises mankind is driven by internal desires for power and domination, and also by love and noble acts. Philosophically speaking, it makes the drives called “good” and “evil” immanent within each human being, and does not make humans the toys of supernatural elements.
Though not in the film, once this question is asked, it leads to further questions. Is there evil? Or is there simply the behaviour of individuals seeking to control resources and have dominion one over the other? Does the whole concept of evil itself collapse? It is that equivocal nature of morality as no longer a simple question of good versus evil that Diana struggles with toward the end of the movie. And it really got to me. I admit it!
There is also a beautiful integrity to the story in this regard. Remembering that the Amazons were created to bring enlightenment to man through Love, it is therefore apt that her love of Steve Trevor in the end means that she forms a bridge of understanding of mankind. In the end, she recognises the folly in man, but also sees his nobility.
Her internal story of development, the central part of her Bildungsroman, is her movement from a place of naive belief in a myth to a deeper personal understanding of humanity through her own experiences. Because of that experience, she judges that mankind is worth protecting, even though he is flawed.
This awakening to adult consciousness and the redemptive power of love after grappling with simplistic notions of good and evil are central to the story. It is a pretty universal theme, and a mature one.
Theme 2: A fascinating clash of world views.
Another of the main themes of the story is the clash of world views. Diana comes from an ancient warrior culture, full of myth and low in technology. In it, women are the soul arbiters of their own fate and are used to attaining high office and demonstrating physical prowess. It has magic in it, and Diana herself is a goddess.
The world she enters is the world of men, with all its mundane harshness and cruelty, grime and disdain for women. Several scenes jump out to show the jarring interface between the two worlds, perhaps well symbolised by the arrival of Steve Trevor’s aircraft as it crashes through the surrounding mists and magic of Themiscyra. Suddenly, 20th Century culture and technology arrive in 2nd millennium BC Greek culture.
There are numerous examples of the mismatch between the two, which leads to some glorious comedic moments. Congratulating an ice-cream salesman on the product he sells is a beautiful moment of naivety in Diana. The whole set piece of getting Diana clothes suitable for a 20th Century woman is hilarious. The discussion of whether she and Steve Trevor can “sleep together” on the boat away from Themiscyra is beautifully handled in its understatement and as an elucidation of his warm, morally solid character.
Then this clash of cultures shifts into drama. Diana’s lambasting of generals for hiding in an office rather than fighting alongside their men, her shock at the treatment of soldiers and her realisation that war leaves indelible marks on people’s bodies and minds form part of her development. Next comes the dramatic shift, when she arrives on the battlefield and faces No Man’s Land. “It’s called No Man’s Land because no man can cross it,” Steve Trevor tells her. The understatement here is perfect. And so the moment we’ve been waiting for – of the woman hero in battle begins. That scene is just extraordinary. The figure of a woman on the battlefield is so full of conflicting emotions for me that I tear up thinking about it now. It is perhaps one of the greatest emblems of the mismatch of our culture and hers that it so draws the eye – a woman fighter on the battlefield would have been impossible at the time and we know it, and yet we are beguiled by the thought of it and by the heroism of this wonderful and naive hero.
Theme 3: A woman who enters the world of men for the first time.
One of the things that makes Diana such an appealing character is her fearless curiosity and her mental poise. When she sees Trevor’s airplane crash land in the sea, her instinct is to swim toward it. When she sees a man naked for the first time as Steve Trevor gets out of the pool he is bathing in, she assesses his physiology with unabashed curiosity, never having seen a man before. Then she asks him about his watch, and what it does. The scripting is brilliant: “You let such a little thing control your life?” she asks. And yes, we all know that clock and cock are being spoken of in the same breath.
Her curiosity about the world of men leads her to experience its indignities with good humour. She tries on the clothing of the 20th Century woman, bringing her own cultural traits to bear. Looking at a silk bodice she says: “This is what passes for armour in your culture?” The way she is assumed to be an intruder in counsels of war because of her sex is handled without preaching, but simply by showing her confusion at why one should be excluded for being female. She does not rant, she does not rail. She simply rises above the question and stays true to her goal, to get to the war.
Later, the incredibly tasteful way that she takes Steve Trevor as her lover, revealing a kind of vulnerability, is also done with exactly the right tasteful approach. And this is no unnecessary romance bolted on to the storyline. The relationship between Trevor and her, their love, is central to her commitment to the world of men and to her defeat of Ares.
These are just a few examples of the themes in this movie. It repays rewatching with treasure after treasure.
There’s no doubt about it, I too have fallen in love with Wonder Woman.
I just got back from the early morning showing of Wonder Woman, and I’m crushed.
It wasn’t just the brilliant visuals or the well-paced and intelligently thought-through secret origins story. Nor was it only the extreme attention to period detail or the well-crafted dialogue. Above all, the preposterous, extraordinary magical figure that is Diana, Princess of the Amazons – a figure it would be so easy to get wrong – is unbelievably believable.
I should make a confession. I grew up on DC and Marvel comics even though school friends sneered at the men in tights and teachers mocked their “simplistic moralistic tone”. Those teachers had never encountered the adaptation of the entire Ring Cycle in the pages of The Mighty Thor, in which an ambivalent creator-god embroiled his own son in a tale of incest and betrayal. Nor had they met a Bruce Wayne driven to attempt to murder his alter ego, The Batman, due to a mixture of psychosis and stress, as occurred in The Untold Legend of the Batman. “Simplistic moral tone” indeed. There were no safe places in these tales that had matured out of the old Silver Age comics in which there were indeed many a jolly jape, and Biffs and Thunks a-plenty.
Strangely, the most sneery voice of all was reserved for Wonder Woman. It was a girls’ comic, clearly. It had a woman as the central character and who did Diana Prince think she was, venturing onto the boys’ reserve? She was never going to be as tough or as badass as the big beasts also in her DC stable: Batman and Superman.
I didn’t agree with that assessment. There was something special about Wonder Woman that intrigued me. It wasn’t just that as a kid in my pubescent hypersexuality I responded positively to the line of a woman’s leg even if it was inked in four colours on cheap paper from the USA. The fact is, Wonder Woman was like no other female superhero.
Look at the others: Supergirl, The She-Hulk, the Spiderwoman. These female heroes were simply twists on established male counterparts.
Then there were the likes of Storm, Jean Grey and the Invisible Girl. These were in their different ways emblematic of what powers the male writers were comfortable in giving to women in their own right. Storm was elemental, a child of nature who worked at a distance on the weather – she was a nature archetype. Jean Grey, The Phoenix, was someone who messed with people’s minds and was not about physical power. The Invisible Girl, one of the first generation of female characters from Marvel’s The Fantastic Four didn’t have the brute power or physicality of the boys in the team. Nope, her big thing was she could make herself invisible. If ever there were an emblem of the traditional way that society thought women should be unseen and that their power should remain hidden and indirect, Sue Storm-Richards was it. Literally.
Yet Wonder Woman was completely different from these other female superheroes. Indeed, I am comfortable in calling her a superheroine, because she is so powerful and physical that there is absolutely no possibility that the feminine diminutive undermines her. What I always thought about the boys at school who sneered at her was that they were stuck in an old-fashioned view of what a woman might be. Wonder Woman was in a class of her own.
This is the starting point of the new Gal Gadot movie. From her early upbringing in the mythical Paradise Island of Themiscyra in which she is trained by a fearsome all-woman group of warriors to fight, there is a toughness and brutality in her story. The society of women warriors among whom she lives is visually believable. They have body language that is fast, no-nonsense, direct and harsh. In councils of war, they set their jaws and walk with a swagger one usually associates with men. This is an all-woman society conceived along Spartan lines.
There are many images from Themiscyra that stay with me. One is of an Amazon warrior jumping from a cliff and firing an anchoring arrow with a rope attached to it in order to swing into battle more quickly. The body language is direct and pragmatic and speaks of centuries of training. Another is seeing Diana’s Aunt, Antiope firing three arrows into three soldiers at once. The look of deadly concentration on her face is utterly real. This is no comfortable stars-and-stripes bikini-wearing 1950s image of domestic womanhood that I’m sure influenced the parents of my schoolboy friends and instilled their cultural references when it came to women. These Amazonians would only lift an iron to work out how best to kill you with it.
Gal Gadot herself is pitch-perfect as Diana. She enters the world of men with that simplistic moral tone my teachers thought she had. But her story is one of a Bildungsroman, in which the idealistic young hero who sets out to do good has her ideals broken by the complexity of the world – and yet continues to strive to do what she thinks is right.
At another level, she is funny and charming – and of course, she is beautiful. Long gone are the days when commenting on this woman’s physical attributes in any way undermines her seriousness. The whole DC Universe is indeed serious with flashes of light – and Wonder Woman epitomises that mixture – indeed, embodies it at its best.
What is it that makes Wonder Woman so impressive in this film? It dawned on me that in this version of the DC story, Wonder Woman is pre-eminent, the foremost beast in her stable. She has the brawling capacity, the speed and the fight training demonstrated by the Batman, and the brute strength and godlike presence of Superman. Indeed, she goes one better than Superman. She is a goddess. Literally. Thus Wonder Woman combines the very best of these two heroes into one exquisite, brilliant, intelligent, charming, idealistic, thoughtful, brutal package. When she hurls men across the room with a flick of her hand, it looks real. She looks like she means business. There’s no ironic flick of the eye, no sense that this woman could not do this. And yet, you also don’t doubt that she also really does speak hundreds of languages and have a literal Classical education.
I said at the outset that I was crushed by this movie. I am. There were moments when, upon seeing all the potentials I have always known Wonder Woman possessed coming to life on the big screen, that I was close to tears. This story is cruel, beautiful, tough and harrowing. It is a suitable introduction to the world of Diana Prince, Princess of the Amazons. It is by far the best movie from the DC Universe to date.