Ah, nothing like a good homeschooling environment to get a wide-reaching education and a solid sense of self.
Not that Diana really had another choice.
Public schools aren’t really a thing on the mystical, isolated island of Themyscira. Even if they were, they’d be sparsely attended. Diana’s the only kid on the island, and has been for ever so long. Themyscira’s populated entirely by women, which certainly pares down procreative activities. Even Diana wasn’t conceived in the usual way: Her mother, the proud Amazon queen Hippolyta, fashioned the girl from clay and begged Zeus, chief god for this island stuck in the classical past, to give the sculpture life. And so he did.
That’s great for Diana and all. Better to be a little girl than a hunk o’ clay, surely. But she doesn’t have any playmates her own age, so she funnels her time into the Amazons’ strict, classically based education curriculum. She learns (no exaggeration) about 150 languages. She studies biology, learning what she can about men even if she’s never actually seen one. And, when her mother’s not looking, she sneaks off to get some good, old-fashioned warrior training from her aunt and the island’s intimidating general, Antiope.
If Hippolyta had her way, that’s how things would go for, literally, ever. Her daughter’s safe on the island. And as Diana grows into a strong, smart, brave woman, Hippolyta wants to preserve that cocoon of safety as long as she possibly can.
Hippolyta knows all too well that the outside world is dangerous—more dangerous for Diana than perhaps anyone else on the island. You see, Ares, the god of war and the Amazons’ mortal enemy, has been looking for Diana for a long, long time. Their destinies are inexorably tied. He will find her … someday. And when he does, you can bet Ares wants to do more than just lunch.
Then one afternoon, a rickety aircraft crashes into the ocean near the Themyscira shore, carrying Steve Trevor—pilot, spy and handsome man-about-town—into the water with it. Diana, now all grown up, rescues the mysterious flyer and drags him to the beach. They don’t have much time to get acquainted: Heavily armed German fighters trundle into the island’s sacred space, forcing the Amazons into action. Soon, the beach is filled with dead Germans, dying Amazons and the onset of a cold reality: The god of war might not have found Themyscira just yet, but his handiwork sure has.
Steve tells Diana about the horrors of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” Diana, who’s heard about Ares since she was a hunk o’ clay, sees the god’s fingerprints all over that conflict. The Amazons have to seek out Ares and destroy him. And if Hippolyta refuses? Well, Diana will search for him alone.
Oh, she’ll take Steve along for the trip, of course. After all, Diana’s adventure includes more than just simply slaying a malicious deity. She’ll be leaving her comfy, sheltered environment and entering a brave, utterly confusing new world. And if anyone can tell her the practical purpose of a corset, surely it’d be Steve.
Modern superheroes tend to be an angsty lot. They brood over their losses, struggle with their personal demons and grapple with their self-worth. Most could use some counseling.
The exception? Diana. She has perhaps the greatest moral clarity of any superhero we’ve seen on screen (with the possible exception of Captain America) in the last decade.
While her friends and allies talk strategy and plot the most prudent course, Diana is motivated by pure, shining idealism: The world is racked by the disease of war and conflict, and she will do whatever it takes to thwack that disease at its source. She sees suffering and yearns to help. She sees injustice and longs to fix it. But Diana’s no pacifist. Far from it. She knows that one must confront evil boldly and, at times, with lethal fury.
Diana comes into the real world with a certain charming naivety—like a child with a clear sense of right and wrong that cuts through all the vagaries of adult life. And while the movie sands away Diana’s innocence, it never blunts her sense of truth and justice. Even when she realizes that the human race will never be as good as she’d like it to be, she still sees something in these mere mortals worth loving … and saving.
Diana’s purity of purpose is contagious: She encourages her sometimes selfish, tortured compatriots to look beyond themselves to see higher goals beyond. Some, though, don’t necessarily need her example. And when Diana wavers from her own purpose, Steve sticks to his: staying on task to stop a war and save lives, even if it means risking his own. “You can either do nothing or you can do something,” he says. “And I already tried nothing.”
Diana’s backstory (both here and in DC comic books, where she first appeared in print in 1941) is rooted in Greek mythology—though little of it resembles, really, anything the ancient Greeks believed.
We hear a lot about Zeus (ancient Greece’s top god) and Ares (the god of war), and about a war eons ago between the two. Ares, we’re told, killed off most of the gods before Zeus alone stopped him. But the battle left Zeus mortally wounded, and his last action was to craft a sword called the “God killer,” capable of terminating Ares if and when he returned.
Or so Diana is told, anyway. Throughout the film, though, various people question the validity of these myths: It’s not so much whether they’re true or false, but rather how much is true. We don’t need to give those details away here, but be warned: This movie includes lower-case gods—who are repeatedly referenced as such—that live and fight.
All that said, it’s also important to note that Ares actually resembles Lucifer far more than the Ares we might read about in Greek mythology. He’s prideful and deeply jealous of humankind, wondering why Zeus had such affection for such broken, flawed creatures. The nature of sin and the power of love are both discussed here (albeit under pagan superhero trappings), and viewers don’t need to work too hard to see those themes.
Elsewhere, Amazons “give thanks” to the gods for their blessing. In a moment of peril, men seem to gather around each other and bow their heads, possibly praying together.
As mentioned, Diana has never seen a man before. Thus, her early interactions with Steve are filled with clinical, curious and unmistakably sexually charged interplay. When Diana sees Steve naked (he appears on screen nearly so, with just his hands covering his privates), she asks if he’s fairly typical of his kind. (He says he’s “above average.”) And when she asks “what’s that,” referring to Steve’s watch, he thinks she’s referencing a specific part of his anatomy. Steve and Diana talk about procreation—something she has book knowledge about but, obviously, no practical experience. (The books also told her that when it came to pleasure, men were essentially unnecessary.) The two discuss marriage, and Diana initially wonders what the point of it is.
Later in the movie, though, Diana dances with Steve and asks him again about what it’s like to get married, have kids and grow old together. Steve says he doesn’t know … but that he’d like to find out. The two go into a room at a nearby inn, shut the door and kiss. The camera leaves the scene thereafter, but movie clearly insinuates that they slept together.
Diana’s Wonder Woman outfit obviously reveals a lot of skin, from her legs to her shoulders to her bust. (Other Amazons wear similarly revealing garb.) The movie mines laughs from Diana’s struggles with modern fashion—lifting skirts above her waist and high-kicking in tight dresses, shocking many an early 20th-century onlooker. She’s ogled by men on the street, too, and she’s called a “distraction” for the guys around her. When she throws a drunken man across a bar, one of her new allies says to himself, “I’m both frightened and aroused.”
This is a superhero movie, and it unleashes plenty of violence. Most of it is bloodless, but it can still be jarring.
Diana, Steve and their cohorts want to stop Germany from introducing a terrible new chemical weapon into battle—one that infiltrates gas masks. It inflicts dozens, perhaps hundreds of casualties, often innocent civilians. (We see some lying lifelessly in the street.) Its creator (“Dr. Poison”) experiments on one hapless man: When the gas is less than effective, she yanks off the mask and allows him to die.
Others die by more conventional means, too. Bullets and arrows are both lethal projectiles here, with countless victims succumbing to their bloody pokes. Someone’s impaled by a sword; still others perish in explosions.
Wonder Woman, by the way, has no problem killing her adversaries. She uses her sword, shield and magic golden lasso to overcome her enemies, and sometimes she uses her bracelets to deflect bullets right back into the shooter (or, in one case, the shooter’s gun). She punches, kicks and performs all manner of acrobatic fighting techniques—techniques we see her and others hone during elaborate training exercises back on Themyscira. Super-strong Diana smashes through walls and church steeples and can easily pick up and throw trucks and tanks.
A bar fight leads to one guy being bloodied and knocked around. Another man gets thrown across a room. Long falls prove dangerous. We see and hear wounded soldiers groan: Some are missing limbs.
A spy swallows a cyanide pill, killing himself. We hear that 25 million have died thus far in World War I.
Five uses of “h—” and one each of the British profanities “b—er” and “bloody.” God’s name is misused three times.
Characters imbibe beer and other alcoholic drinks. Only one of them, the war-scarred Scottish sharpshooter Charlie, drinks to excess.
For the better part of a decade now, DC superheroes have been playing catch-up to with the Disney/Marvel cinematic juggernaut. The heroes collectively known as the Avengers have made billions for their creators, and satisfied both critics and audiences.
Warner Bros./DC’s latest efforts—Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad—have also made billions. But fans and critics have been, shall we say, less than enthusiastic.
That changes now.
Wonder Woman is a fun, thrilling, surprisingly rich summertime romp, filled with heart and wit and laughs. It’s high time Hollywood gave a female superhero her own stand-alone vehicle, and this one doesn’t disappoint. But I think the reason why Wonder Woman succeeds where DC’s other recent properties have failed is surprisingly simple: Wonder Woman gives us a genuine hero.
In Man of Steel, Superman questions his destiny and ultimately commits a sin that Superman traditionally would never countenance: killing someone. I liked Steel better than many, but it was still pretty disappointing. Meanwhile, the Batman introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was more than just a grim, brooding superhero: He was a sadistic one, prone to picking up guns and killing his opponents, too. Again, both huge departures for the character. Batman, in his latest incarnation, was hard to root for. Supes was a hard one to care about.
Wonder Woman is a departure from DC’s recent template in that she’s not really a grim, edgy departure at all. She stays true to the emotional roots of the character. Moreover, she stands for something: She believes. She inspires. In an entertainment landscape obsessed with flawed heroes, unlikeable heroes and antiheroes, Diana is—unapologetically—a real hero. Full stop. How delightfully refreshing.
But for all the wonder we see in Wonder Woman, we must also wonder about some of the film’s more problematic elements. Diana’s classical mythic backstory will be a hurdle for some. Diana’s sexually charged interplay with Steve can make for uncomfortable moments, too. And then, of course, you’ve got the violence, which is completely inescapable here.
Still, it’s nice to see the DC extended cinematic universe gain its footing again. And it’s all because this movie allows a superhero to be what a superhero is meant to be: an inspiration.
“Fighting does not make you a hero,” Diana’s mother tells her. And it’s true. It’s what you fight for that does.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.