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.