Remember last summer? It’s tough, I know, things felt so different. Last summer, I bemoaned a dearth of good blockbusters. A lack of good popcorn movies worth stowing away for inside an air-conditioned movie theater happens. You have bad summers. I didn’t have AC last summer either, but anything can change.
This year, we have too many. Every weekend, two blockbusters: bigger, messier, longer (why) than ever before. Who can complain, I suppose. We love excess. I even got AC this year. Regardless of quality, though, I see most of these movies. The Marvels, the DCs, the Spider-Mans in all their iterations and ages. And these movies are fine—some of them are even quite good!
I had no expectations for Wonder Woman because as a woman (as a queer person, also, and as any marginalized faction of society often is), I am disappointed at these big splashy movies all the time. That’s okay! I still love them, because movies are a net good. In its opening minutes, as Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), surrounded by various artifacts in what appear to be the offices of the Louvre, opens up a briefcase sent from Bruce Wayne, I leaned back in my chair and thought, “Ah, of course, a fucking framing device.” I mean, there’s even a voiceover. I’ve seen this a thousand times. I see it in the Thor: Ragnarok trailer. I don’t mean to be unkind; I’m just familiar with these things. It’s unremarkable.
Moments later, however, as Diana’s memory takes her back to her home island of Themyscira, to a vibrant memory of her as a child running through the cobblestoned streets where every Amazonian woman knows her name and greets her, I burst into tears. I didn’t expect to. It caught me off-guard. I don’t know what it was; it just seemed really, really nice.
It’s not long after those first few shots of Themyscira that we see the Amazonians training under the guidance of Antiope (Robin Wright). The sequence is nothing short of astounding: women of multiple races and ages flipping backwards off of galloping horses, throwing spears into jars of dust that explode into the air, shooting multiple arrows at a time. These acts are played for spectacle, and what a spectacle they are.
Antiope’s second-in-command is named Menalippe and she’s played by Lisa Loven Kongsli, who was the mom in Force Majeure, a fantastic movie I write bad tweets about nearly every week of my life. I cry because it’s good to see her on screen again, and because I feel validated in a way I cannot fully articulate. I really did not intend to spend the first ten minutes of the movie in tears.
I know this is inconsequential—a deeply specific observation to Me and Me Alone in a movie full of moments worthy of dissection and analysis. But this is what you hope for, what you look for, in a movie touted for its universality, its hero’s journey. Not all of us go through a clean life with a three act structure, nor do we learn and grow at an always positive rate. Superhero movies are myths, and yet, you want some detail to feel specific and true to you—in my very particular case, it’s the casting of a Norwegian actress with no name recognition stateside, but really, it’s anything for anyone. She’s on screen in less than five scenes, speaks under ten lines, but I felt an unparalleled warmth seeing her, as if the film was speaking directly to me.
Diana is a remarkable heroine, not just within the realm of comic book movie heroines, but for female protagonists in general. I don’t know what it is about the hardened woman that became so appealing in the past ten or so years, but it exhausts me. The unflinching, the uncaring. It’s a trend across all genres. To be a woman who leads, you have to be unlikable and make enemies and wear a tank top that says “IDGAF.” Heroines who care on paper, not in practice.
It’s fine if that’s you. It’s not me, though, by any means.
Diana is funny and wise and, above all, compassionate. Compassion has gotten a raw deal as of late. It’s weakness, it’s embarrassing. The altruism of Diana is mocked, of course, by the other characters in the movie. She’s disgusted when she learns a military general often sits behind his desk rather than go to war with his troops. But here’s the thing: she’s…kind of right.
Hero’s journeys involve learning, typically, and a lot of the superhero ones revolve around the titular hero shedding their ego, learning to care and listen and collaborate with others. But Diana doesn’t really do that. The things she learns are about war and the realities of pain, but her altruism remains steadfast. A note I scribbled down while watching it just says, “BELIEVE WOMEN.” I laughed at it after the movie: it’s dramatic, and the force at which I wrote this note sent ink bleeding all over the page. But that’s the thing, Diana doesn’t lose faith in herself. She doesn’t doubt, even though every man around her does. She doubles down on her compassion and her honor, so much so that everyone around her is forced to take her at her word.
So, of course, by the time they reach the front lines of the war (it’s World War I, by the way, please keep up), she storms out into the fray, confident she’ll be the one to overtake the German army and free the town of Veld, which has been held hostage for who knows how long. She walks across the battlefield, stoic, confident, assured. Fat tears once again rolled down my face. The men follow her, not to stop her, but to flank her, to support. And when the battle is won, she doesn’t slink off, horrors of war replaying in her mind; she enjoys a beer and a dance, marveling at her first ever snowfall.
Gal Gadot is astounding: sincere and strong.
After I ask him what he thinks of the film, a friend says to me, “It’s really [Chris] Pine’s movie.”
I laugh, bitterly. “No, it’s not.”
It is, of course, worth noting and praising Pine, who plays Steve Trevor, an American spy working for the British to get intelligence on the German army’s chief poison, uh, concocter—whose name, obviously, is Dr. Poison. (It bears noting that Dr. Poison is worth an entire essay dedicated just to her.) Steve washes ashore on Themyscira, where Diana rescues and subsequently marvels him. “You’re a man,” she says with awe, a sentence I usually utter with disdain.
The relationship between Diana and Steve is the hallmark of the film. It was astonishing to me the extent to which it played out like a romantic comedy, except, unlike in the Apatowian age of sex-driven, lewd rom-coms, these two people (well, a person and a god) seemed to genuinely like each other. They listen, they laugh, they flirt, they fight. Never once do they neg each other, thankfully. Steve is purely in awe of Diana, and why wouldn’t he be?
Wonder Woman runs at 2 hours and 21 minutes. This is too long, objectively, for a superhero movie. Allow this to be the one thing I am a very old person about: if your movie is 2 hours and 21 minutes, you’d better earn all those minutes. Wonder Woman does not earn every one of those minutes, but that is fine, because its best scene is one essentially devoid of plot, almost so unnecessary that a stalwart editor would have left it on the cutting room floor.
As they depart for the front lines, Diana and Steve walk through a crowded train station. An ice cream vendor offers her an ice cream cone, and Steve pays for it. He asks how it is, and Diana, having never had ice cream before, says “It’s wonderful.” She turns back to the vendor and says, “You should be very proud!”
It’s everything: inessential, perfect, necessary. It’s the key to the movie, the entire reason Jenkins and Gadot pull it off. It, of course, meaning an overstuffed superhero flick that reduced me to tears on multiple occasions. There is time in Jenkins’ movie for this anecdote, this detail. From Steve’s simple gesture of buying the cone for Diana, to her instant love for the treat, to her immediate acknowledgment of the person responsible for it, to Steve’s small and quiet pride in Diana’s joy. It felt so real, this bit. It felt nice.
Steve’s final line in the film is: “I wish we had more time. I love you.” He’s chosen to sacrifice himself so Diana can push ahead and lead the world towards peace. I cried (of course, obviously, you understand what this essay is about) at that line, both as he said it and as I recounted the simplicity of it in the movie theater foyer afterwards, mucus clogging my throat.
Okay, One Final Thing
When I knew I was going to write this essay, I took myself to see Wonder Woman for a second time. I had non-stop bragged about my emotional reaction to my first viewing, and I expected to cry at least eight times the second time around. This time I’d definitely tear up, oh, who knows when: when the Amazons fight the German soldiers on the beach? Sure. During the ice cream scene? Why not. But instead, I was oddly stoic; merely watching, observing. The movie felt more standard to me this time around. More traditional. Like something I had seen before (because, in fact, I had). I still loved it, no doubt, but the magic of that first viewing was gone.
But two girls I didn’t know sat a seat over from me. When Diana walks out onto the front in the midst of the battle, one of the girls instinctively—almost violently—reached for her friend’s hand. Here come the waterworks.
Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.