“Hast du das gesehen?!” the villager gasped. As Wonder Woman hurtled through the air to pulverize a bell tower containing a German sniper, her thighs rippled and her hair streamed. She had just leaped from a car door repurposed as a springboard. As with so many other moments in Wonder Woman, we saw her from below, a muscular giantess. A little kid sitting next to me turned to his dad and echoed the war-stricken peasant on screen. “Did you see that?!”
In fact, there is much in Wonder Woman that we have seen before. This new offering from DC Comics takes place during World War I, one of the two great wars of the twentieth century that have become fodder for the Hollywood superhero entertainment complex. Wonder Woman is supposedly an “Amazon,” a people who, in this universe anyway, dwell on a vaguely Greek island where the steely older babes of Hollywood practice knife-fighting. After an American (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine) stumbles upon their timeless haven and causes a beachside conflict between these ancient hotties and Germans with guns, the hottest among them joins him to find and fight the mythical villain who is behind all this destruction.
It’s a classical comic book interpretation of history, in which random fragments of the past are patched together to create a hero of perfect ideological specificity. It’s as if a five-year-old were let loose in the Encyclopedia Britannica then allowed to draw boobs and a heart of gold on his findings. As a result, the plot is both absurd and comfortingly familiar. Emerging from this mess—a hodgepodge of myth, twentieth-century American propaganda, and sentimentality about the power of love—comes Wonder Woman to save the world.
As Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana, Gal Gadot is extremely well cast. Her face is beautiful, of course, but in a way that is different from other women; she is an individual rather than a replicant. Her body is long and lithe and strong-looking, as is her hair. Since she joins the fray from an island beyond time—literally, she doesn’t know what a watch is—Diana has an extremely limited understanding of anything. Her moral compass and sense of mission do not waver, but Diana comes across as fairly stupid a lot of the time. She walks through machine gun fire on the Western Front with admirable fortitude but little foresight.
The movie’s light relief comes in the form of two silly British characters, played by Lucy Davis and Ewan Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting). You may recall Davis as the pretty receptionist Dawn Tinsley from the original U.K. version of The Office, or as Dianne from Shaun of the Dead. In Wonder Woman she is the bewigged foil of gorgeous Diana, which is strange to see for those of us who remember her as the leading lady. Next to Davis’s zip, Chris Pine is about as funny as a brick, although he does chiseled manliness pretty well. Over on Themyscira, the Amazons’ home, we meet Connie Nielsen as Diana’s mom and Robin Wright as her trainer. I’ve waited for years to see Claire Underwood fuck up some bad guys on a beach, and the real thing is delicious. Overall, director Patty Jenkins (who also made 2003’s Monster) has found sterling tools for this job.
Amazons and Germans fighting on a beach: It’s the kind of flattening of history and distortion of scale that leaves the mind reeling. To combine a war from living memory with a myth from antiquity is a baffling proposition. The movie invokes a vision of the past that makes it very unclear from where we are doing the looking.
Looking around at the kids stuffed densely into the theater, I realized that this movie paints with the big, bold strokes of childhood. It’s a movie for kids, a movie intended to teach them what it means to be an American hero. That’s the political sensibility of the DC Comics world, no matter how different or exceptional its superhero protagonists, or how often the word “feminist” is used to promote its movies.
Wonder Woman is very strong and beautiful. She fights against an evil woman with a tremulous voice who covers a facial injury with a mask. An American man leads this strong woman into conflict with Germans. Germans are evil and Americans are good. Disability is evil and beauty is good. Weakness is evil and strength is good. Friendship and idealism will win the war, and some immortal demigoddess protects our freedom.
The engine of American ideology drives Wonder Woman, which is in the end a movie about violence. It is also a surreal movie, because of the way it draws upon the world’s past to make a distinctly American fiction. Wonder Woman has no use for global history except as grist for American exceptionalism, which animates the storylines of so many heroes in the comic book universe, from Captain America to Superman. And so the surreality at the heart of American identity gets recycled, producing comic book movies to feed our least noble hungers.
By painting the meaning of military victory in World War I in these colors, Wonder Woman explained to those children huddled with me that political morality has an aesthetic and a sexuality. Beauty, strength, goodness, bravery: These are your values, and here is how your values must look. This movie is a document of political indoctrination. It’s great to watch a hot woman punch through walls. It was also a privilege to witness giantess-fetishes flower in so many young minds at the same time. But the idea that we should debate how “feminist” Wonder Woman may or may not be is, despite its female director and star, laughable.