Wonder Woman has always straddled the line between pin-up girl and symbol of female empowerment. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who…should rule the world,” the superhero emerged as a utopian feminist. At the same time, the character’s visual design was inspired by erotic cheesecake, and the early comics abound with highly suggestive images of bondage. What began life as a fascinating, highly idiosyncratic vision of the New Woman has run through countless iterations since, not all of them as interested in women’s liberation as Marston’s original creation.
If it eschews the bondage fixation and star-spangled panties of the character’s origins, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is, like Marston’s original conception, a deliberate attempt to define the character as a symbol of female empowerment, a brilliant, headstrong warrior uninterested in playing by the restrictive rules of a man’s world. Hailing from Themyscira, a mystical island inhabited solely by an all-female race of Amazonians, Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up in an idyllic paradise of horseback riding, impossibly blue waters, and all-day battle-training sessions. She’s never even seen a man in the flesh until Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American doing counter-intelligence work during World War I, crashes into the ocean near her home.
After Steve reveals to her the horrors of the war, including the German military’s plans to use chemical weapons developed by a plaster-faced scientist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), Diana accompanies him to London to deliver intelligence to Britain’s top brass. But when the Brits fail to do anything to stop the attack, Diana and Steve step in, bringing together a rag-tag group of outcasts and charging toward the front lines. And along the way, Diana continues to believe that she will find Ares, the god of war, and by killing him put an end to mankind’s eternal cycle of violent conflict.
It may be damning Wonder Woman with faint praise to point out that it’s the best entry in the DC Extended Universe to date, but it’s worth noting that it achieves this status by largely shunning the unremitting grimness and portentous bombast of previous entries in the franchise. As the first studio film centered on a female superhero in over a decade and the first directed by a woman, Wonder Woman carries a significant weight on its shoulders, but its greatest asset is a willingness to go light. This is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana and Steve to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg are particularly fond of scenes in which Diana coolly emasculates the men she encounters simply by being better than them. Gun-toting villains are no match for her quick moves and bullet-repelling bracelets; British generals are confounded by her command of dozens of languages; and a huge swath of the German front line falls victim to her unparalleled strength and agility. Even Steve—a hyper-competent soldier and intelligence-gatherer—is first introduced as essentially a male damsel in distress, mildly embarrassed about the idea of having been saved by a woman. This male anxiety at feminine strength is threaded throughout the film and interwoven with its complement: the erotic charge of the idea of being dominated by a woman. In a callback to the bondage themes of the early comic books, Steve practically orgasms when Diana binds him with her lasso of truth. This theme is perhaps best encapsulated by a male character’s declaration, upon witnessing one of Diana’s demonstrations of her physical superiority, that he’s both threatened and aroused.
At its core, Wonder Woman is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album.
This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Gadot brings a coolly self-assured swagger to the role, but Diana, like so many cinematic superheroes, is ultimately an idealized abstraction more than a fully rounded character. Potentially mind-bending questions about how a woman raised in a world without men would react to a world dominated by them are suggested by the premise, but they’re never explored beyond a few glib scenes of comic relief. Wonder Woman is a strong, at times even rousing, application of the superhero film formula, but it ultimately can’t transcend the constraints of the genre.