I walked out of the theatre after watching “Wonder Woman” feeling a complete sense of empowerment and self-belief that I can take on the world. I can’t remember feeling invincible or this elated after any film that I have seen and this is one of the reasons why this film is a global blockbuster success. Grossing $572 million worldwide it has set records for the biggest opening for a female-centric film. Superhero movies so far empowered only half the world’s population. Patty Jenkins, the first woman director of a studio super-heroine movie, empowers the other half.
When I first heard the title, I thought it was corny, expecting the film to just be a male version of “Superman”. I have never been a fan of superhero movies despite subjecting myself to several versions of “Superman”, “Batman” and “Spiderman”, more to humour my spouse than for my own interest. The worlds these movies inhabited were artificial to me and I could never suspend my disbelief enough to buy into these characters. I marvelled only slightly at the special effects and never got involved in the action sequences knowing fully-well who was going to be the victor at the end. But it was magical to feel the goose bumps on my skin and the rush of blood as I watched Diana (Gal Gadot), Princess of the Amazons take on the various men who tried to stop her.
The moment that got me hooked early on in the film, was when her mother Queen Hippolyta, warns Diana about leaving on her mission to end World War I saying, “If you choose to leave, you may never return”. Diana replies, “Who will I be if I stay?” It sounds like just a few simple words strung together by screenwriter Allan Heindberg, but the meaning runs deep. It taps into the underlying and sometimes unmet need of every woman to make something of her life, to be more than the homemaker, to give herself an independent identity devoid of her personal relationships. To be a proud achiever first, a wife and mother, next! Diana fulfills her destiny undeterred by personal ties or the fear of the unknown, a desire felt by every woman.
The well etched and hugely appealing character of Diana is based on the super heroine character from the American DC comics, which I must confess I have not read. However, from my research I discovered that Diana has rightly been titled “The Goddess of Love and War” and was created by the psychologist – writer William Moultan Marston. She was inspired by modern feminists such as Margaret Sanger, a pioneer of birth control who finally allowed women to be in charge of their own bodies. Diana is bisexual and hence her line in the film to Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the male lead, “When it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasure, not necessary”. Even the straight women in the audience applauded.
Her strong feminist leanings are showcased in her questioning of the institution of marriage and the concept of a secretary, who more often than not are female. Trevor’s secretary defines her job as one where “I go where he tells me to go, I do what he tells me to do”. Diana’s response, “Where we come from, that’s called slavery.” The screenwriter speaks for a majority of women in the audience, let alone secretaries, who are subjugated by their spouses and still need their permission to live their life. If there is a Hollywood equivalent to punch dialogues, these are it!
The other appealing element of the film is the underlying satirical humour of an outsider puzzled by the mores and conventions of the women in 1918. Diana tries on the fashionable clothes of that era and is bemused by how uncomfortable they are and make it impossible for a woman to fight and defend herself. After trying on 226 ladies’ outfits, she finally settles for the attire traditionally worn by men!
Diana displays her moral courage in the scene where the British war council meets. She questions their notion of bravery and calls the generals cowards as they sacrifice their soldiers on the front and hide behind walls under the pretext of being the brains of the operation. She plays the just voice of reason and never the stereotypical damsel in distress. Instead, she rescues the male lead from certain death twice and fights where he and other men dare not venture. She is warned by Steve,
Steve: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.
Diana: So… what? So we do nothing?
Steve: No, we are doing something! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.
Diana: No. But it is what I am going to. I cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost!
With this, she sheds her earthly attire to reveal her super hero costume, uses her indestructible bracelet and shield to go where no man dares to go. Once she has destroyed the frontline of attack, she inspires the men through her bravado and gumption to join her in defeating the enemy. Not only is she strong physically, it is her mental strength that is her true virtue. No woman in the audience can resist from idolizing her.
Another magical weapon in her arsenal is the iridescent Lasso of Truth. Which woman will not want a rope that she can use to hold a man captive and force him to speak the truth?
Diana is also capable of love and tenderness. Her heart breaks when she realizes that Steve has sacrificed himself to save others lives. She looks gorgeous, fights better than a man, is intelligent, funny and compassionate – what’s not to love about this wonder woman? Young girls today need a good role model and I can’t think of a better one than her. It is no surprise then that on October 21, 2016, the United Nations named Wonder Woman a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Although this lasted only for a few months, the influence of this character worldwide has been enormous.
Diana is part of the tribe of warrior women called the Amazons derived from Greek mythology, who inhabited the ancient Greek town of Themiscyra. A fictional matriarchal society of super humans, they guarded themselves against patriarchy and their mission was to provide a bridge for humans to reach a greater understanding. Known for their aggression, they had magical weapons bestowed upon them by the Greek gods. The Amazon women have always intrigued me and I have wondered what living solely in the company of women must be like until I read an article recently about a group of 500 women, widows and the destitute, who live together on the outskirts of Kabul unable to endure the stigma forced upon on them. Victims of the war, they have chosen to break away from society and this sisterhood has been growing in size and strength since the 1990s. Isn’t this tightly knit community of women who look out for each other’s safety under the nose of the Taliban, the modern day Amazons? This is the second reason all audiences are able to relate to the film. Despite being set in a fictitious world, its relevance to our current times is unmistakable.
Diana moves out of her fantasy paradise homeland into a more recognizable world of London in 1918 to fulfil her mission to kill Ares, the God of War. Having just visited London and witnessed the tragic emotions in the aftermath of the Manchester suicide explosion, I couldn’t help but connect the recent events to the film. In today’s world of widespread, senseless, random violence, where one can become a victim in any part of the world, the desire for a super human character is palpable. A wonder woman who can not only destroy evil but has a heart filled with love and compassion for humanity, fits the bill. It is this void in the audience’s mind that “Wonder Woman” fills.
Set in war torn WW I Europe, one of the antagonists is Dr. Maru, a German “poison” doctor creating a new weapon in the form of a toxic gas capable of destroying the human race. This reminded me of the several other Nazi era films that I have watched in horror where without an exception these heartless, vile German scientists have always been male. Another departure from a typical film, Dr. Maru in “Wonder Woman” is female. She is depicted as ugly both externally as well as from within as a complete contrast to the protagonist. She wears a partial mask to cover her facial disfigurement, possibly the result of her own experimentation. Wonder Woman was created to save humanity and the evil woman was equipped with the brains to destroy it. It is not a typical female-centric film where all the antagonists are male.
The scenes of the poison gas being released by Dr. Maru, took me back to the several holocaust movies where innocent Jews, old and young, are called to take a shower and unsuspectingly subjected to the cruelest form of death. If only there was a superhuman who could have stopped the extermination of 6 million Jews, what a different place the world might have been today! There are news reports of mustard gas being used to kill civilians in Syria even recently and the threat of poisonous gases being deployed by terrorists anywhere in the world is real and unnerving. The film constantly reminded me of the current threats faced by us and the complete helplessness we feel every time there is a terrorist attack. The world of the film parallels that of the audience and we are able to connect and live the emotions of the characters. How I wish Diana could have leaped her way into the burning Grenfell tower in central London and saved the lives of the poor, innocent victims of negligence by the city council!
Combining fact and fiction is a stroke of genius by the writer. Diana is a mythical character in the context of present day atrocities. As our heads of states look on helplessly at the serial destruction by terrorists, we are looking for a superhuman to come and rid our world of them as we cannot fathom a mere mortal succeeding in this task.
As the main antagonist Ares, the God of War says “Evil does not reside in one man”. He is a metaphor for the terrorists of our time who appear to be one of us but turn against us and commit the most heartless crimes. Annihilating Ares ends the war but the enemy we face today is like Hydra from Greek mythology with multiple heads capable of regeneration. Against such an antagonist the slayer has to be a super human and in this case, why not a woman? The film completely feeds into the need of the hour.
A great background score complements the climax where Wonder Woman fights the God of War while Steve sacrifices his life with the rationale, “I can save today, you can save the world”. She screams in agony at losing him but finally channels Steve’s love to destroy Ares.
The resolution of the film told through Diana, rings is my ears long after the theatre lights come on. She describes mankind as being weak, cruel and unjust but more than that they are capable of love and only love can save us. After the Manchester stadium explosion in May, the resident Muslims came out to help the city cope with the tragedy. A Muslim taxi driver did innumerable free taxi rides from the stadium to hospital in a bid to save as many lives as he could. A Muslim surgeon worked 14 hours straight operating on the wounded in a desperate attempt to reduce the casualties. It was a show of love in a time of great distress. This film leaves us with hope and restores our faith in humanity that indeed we can overcome even the worst evil of our time, if only we can love one another unconditionally.
Wars are no more fought between countries but with the demons promoting terrorist ideologies within our countries. If we do not operate from a position of compassion and tolerance, we might just witness the end of the human race. A recent survey within the UK has revealed a 100% rise in Islamophobia. As Mahatma Gandhi said “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. Diana ends the film saying, “I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, forever. We are a bridge to a greater understanding.”
This is why the film works for me. It has a compelling character, it is a period story with contemporary relevance and finally it leaves us with the hope that we actually can save ourselves. I am curious to know what aspects of the film do or do not resonate with you, the reader.
– Lata Murugan