Wonder Woman: The Movie- A review
Rebirth has brought the Amazing Amazon back to her roots, but this would only be a partial victory had the Wonder Woman movie been a failure along the lines of Dawn of Justice.
We had nothing to fear. Not only was Patty Jenkins’ vision perfectly true to Diana, but Gal Gadot surprised everybody by being the perfect casting for Wonder Woman. At its current standing, the movie is the leggiest superhero movie, holding up better than other superhero movies in the past fifteen years.
Wonder Woman is a tremendous success, easily Warner Brother’s third-highest earning superhero movie. We all remember, several years ago, how Diane Nelson told us over and over again that the public would find Diana difficult to understand, that the movie with all of her mythical elements would be problematic.
People love Wonder Woman all over again, and they love her movie. A lot.
I said I would write a review of the movie, but I don’t want to do a play by play. Rather, I think that a full review would go over territory that has been already tread by many, and it would be pointless. What I think is important is to pause and reflect on the reasons why Wonder Woman has inspired viewers, why it has made them cry at moments like the No Man’s Land (guilty as charged), and why they keep coming back for more.
Of course, the themes of empowerment and sisterhood, and the total lack of sexualization of the female hero in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster movie are two huge points in the movie’s favor. While we have seen some tremendously heroic women in the realm of Science Fiction (Ellen Ripley, we love you), the genre of superhero movies is a whole different thing: it is pure, idealized heroic fantasy comparable to the sagas that Wagner drew upon (minus, you know, the incest and other things.)
In this genre it is customary to see the powerful bodies of male superheroes highlighted dramatically as a source of inspiration and empowerment, whereas the female heroes who fight alongside them have their bodies leered at by the camera, with a special fixation on their backsides and cleavage. Whether it is Elektra walking away from the camera that is perfectly poised to catch her derriere and hips swaying, to Harley Quinn’s daisy dukes being almost pornographically ogled by the camera, to Black Widow being the only Avenger to have a movie poster designed to show off those assets, the female superhero body seems to exist purely to be sexy, not powerful or inspiring.
And then came Wonder Woman- the first female protagonist in the superhero live-action movie genre to shatter this trope. There are plenty of examples throughout the movie, but I will stick with one of the prominent ones seen in the trailer. Diana shatters an enemy rifle using nothing but her biceps and her back. It is a moment of sheer, inspirational power that highlights the Amazon’s physique, but it isn’t done as an excuse to sexualize her- this moment (among many in the movie) sees her treated exactly as a male superhero would be treated. It isn’t material for titillation, it’s as awe-inspiring as is the crossing of the No Man’s Land and all of Diana’s feats.
But the glory isn’t solely showered on one Amazon, but all of them: the Amazons are treated with the same reverence, and seeing Hippolyta jumping into battle with her army is a joy.
However, feats of strength and martial prowess only go so far. Without the right heart, it all becomes so much empty bombast. What is special about Wonder Woman is the very same thing that made her special when she first touched down on the shores of Man’s World 75 years ago, guided by the typewriter of the brilliant and eccentric William Moulton Marston.
[SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE, THIS IS THE PLACE WHERE YOU SHOULD STOP READING AND COME BACK AFTER YOU HAVE SEEN IT… REALLY, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? THIS MOVIE IS AMAZING, GO. NOW.]
Diana of Themyscira is an excellent example of the principle of ἀρετή (Arete, pronounced /a.re.tɛ̌ː/), a Greek term that Aristotle (among others) identified with moral virtue:
“Virtue (arete) then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II vi 15
In Aristotle’s conception of virtue, the virtuous action is always found in the intermediate state between deficiency and excess: too much and too little are always wrong, with the right kind of action in the right kind of measure being defined as the golden mean, contextually appropriate to both the situation and the individual in question.
So, what does this mean for Diana? When Diana learns of the terrible things that are happening on Man’s World, she feels incapable of obeying her mother’s orders to do nothing while innocents die. Her compassion is fueled by her sense of justice- can she truly stay behind in her idyllic world while innocents are slaughtered, when she knows she is an Amazon and, according to legend, especially trained for such an occasion along with the rest of her sisters?
Diana comes to the world, even if it means turning her back on her mother. She could have sent Steve back by himself, but that would have been too little, and convincing the entire Amazon army to leave Themyscira and thus leave it undefended would have been too much. One single, albeit extraordinary, Amazon coming to Man’s World to fight Ares was clearly the right choice.
Throughout Diana’s journey, she finds herself faced with the quest for the right action- she cannot abide the paralysis in the trenches and thus crosses No Man’s Land, everywhere she goes she seeks to enact the right action because she ultimately loves humanity and wants to help. Unlike the cinematic incarnations of her fellow Trinity members, she does not agonize about whether she has the right to take action or whether she is capable of knowing what is the right course to take. Diana embarks on her quest with the certitude that she will find the right actions, even if she has to correct her course to account for new knowledge. Her sense of justice will simply not allow her to consider inaction.
It is rather fitting, then, that Arete was occasionally personified as a deity in Ancient Greece and portrayed as the daughter of Justice herself: Praxidike, whose other daughter and Arete’s sister was the goddess Homonoia, the goddess of concord.
At the end of her journey, Diana is faced with the knowledge that man’s nature was not entirely what she thought it was, that man was not wholly good… that is, that humanity is not exactly the pure race that the myths painted, incapable of atrocities unless influenced by outside forces. She has grown up believing in the sole goodness of humanity, and Ares then tries to expose her to his cynical view of humanity, which is that of utterly corrupt and irredeemable creatures. And for a moment, it almost seems possible that she will embrace this belief.
But, just as before, when caught in the pull between two extremes, Diana always returns to her center. With her new realization of humanity’s nature, she says to the sneering Ares:
“They are everything you say. But so much more.”
Diana’s knowledge has expanded. Humanity is neither a demon awash in corruption nor a perfect being incapable of evil, but a people perpetually poised on the edge of possibility armed with nothing but choice. Each individual holds different measures of Elysium or Tartarus within them, unleashed by the choices they make- with those falling outside of the range of the golden mean bringing about terrible consequences. The golden mean-which might as well have as a physical representation Wonder Woman’s lasso of Hestia, which seeks to remove falsehood in the quest for the truth- and it is knowledge of true things that informs the correct action.
“It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
Diana’s next line may puzzle some, and some have dismissed it as a platitude or a cliché, but this is one of the truest statements about the character of Wonder Woman, and she means it in a different way than the lazy interpretation some might ascribe to it.
From a philosophical point of view, especially from an Aristotelian perspective, the idea of ‘love’ is tied to virtue and the notion of ‘the good’. Virtue does not, as some would have you believe, exist for its own sake, but rather it is the right action aimed at attaining that which is valued and loved. It is impossible to enact virtue without being capable of loving. Diana loves Truth and therefore seeks to act honestly in order to uncover it, she cannot abide tyranny and therefore seek to enact Justice to bring freedom. She loves humanity as a whole and wishes to see it prosper, and thus seeks to uphold Peace- even if she must fight to achieve it.
(Aside: That last example is not a contradiction in her standards, because one must never allow one’s virtues to be turned towards one’s own destruction. If Diana embraced complete pacifism, then those who initiate violence against the innocent would easily be able to exterminate those who are not violent, if no-one were to defend themselves.)
Therefore, everything that Diana does, and the force that carries her truly through the end of her journey is her intense ability to value and to love, intensely.
Her final realization in the movie is also one that many superheroes do not seem to achieve- Diana is very aware that only humanity- individuals themselves- can truly make a better world for themselves through the choices that they make. She is also aware that, as long as there is such a thing as freedom of will the struggle between good and evil choices will go on. She now knows that her mission in Man’s World is to protect ( others against violence) and to teach (her values), but she is not here to ‘fix the world’ in the way that some authoritarian dictator might, by imposing a conduct through force. She lets the world make its own choices, and is the advocate of everything mankind can be- and which some individuals achieve in varying measures.
Even though she is a ‘child of fate’, she is completely unaware of it and chooses the path for herself long before knowing she was born as the only being capable of destroying Ares. She takes the trope of the ‘chosen one’ and turns it upside down. Wonder Woman, essentially, disregards deontological ethics and places virtue ethics at the fore. And this is what makes Wonder Woman as a movie, and a character, stand apart from her male colleagues in the Trinity. Whereas Batman’s tragic orphan-hood shaped his thirst for justice and Superman is marked by the loss of a world and people he never knew, Wonder Woman’s origin story is unmarked by tragedy: she was born from a mother’s love, and she is moved by a love of people and of the world.
And this, even if it is only dimly perceived as a vague undercurrent by some, is the core reason for why Wonder Woman has been such a smashing success. The Amazon’s incredible fortune is reminiscent of the impact she had when she first made her debut in All-Star Comics #8 in 1941. Back then, the world embraced the champion of Themyscira as a unique hero with a unique message.
It has been a long time coming, but she has finally come home again, and many are embracing her as others did, way back when.
Here’s to Warner Brothers for finally giving us what we’ve been asking for all these decades. And here’s to Wonder Woman 2.
pictures from the Greg Rucka Rebirth run and Wonder Woman: The Movie official publicity stills.