Wonder Woman is proof that female superheroes matter

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Forget the stories you’re used to, in this movie it’s the princess who saves the day.

We first glimpsed Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince in last year’s superhero smack-down, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which acted as DC’s introduction to the new cinematic universe built around its Justice League characters. The inclusion of Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman was, for many, the highlight of a grim, overly serious film, and it left audiences ready for her first solo outing since the 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter.

The pressure was on to make Wonder Woman work. The last big female-led superhero film was 2005’s Elektra, starring Jennifer Garner. Before that was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry. Both were savaged by critics, meaning a whole decade passed before a studio decided that maybe it was time to give super-heroines another chance.

Fortunately, Wonder Woman should quell any notions that a woman can’t headline her own superhero flick, or that there isn’t a market for action movies starring and directed by women. Patty Jenkins does superb work behind the camera, never undermining the character by framing her as “sexy”. Gal Gadot is a beautiful actress, and the costume is on the skimpy side, but Diana isn’t an object of desire, or the love interest — she is the movie.

Growing up on the island of Themiscyra, raised by an all-female tribe of Amazons, Diana knows nothing of the outside world, until a World War One fighter jet crash-lands in the bay, and she rescues Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). He’s the first man she’s ever seen, but any romantic tension between the two is superseded by the importance of their new shared mission, which could help end the war. From there, the plot swiftly transports both Diana and Steve from paradise to the grimy, gritty heart of wartime Europe, where men do all the fighting and women just stand around wearing skirts.

If there’s any comparison to be drawn with another recent superhero franchise, it’s Thor. Just like Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder, Diana is the child of the ruler of a mythical realm, who must eventually make her way in the world of humans. And while Thor has his mighty hammer, Diana’s greatest weapon is the lasso of truth.

The supporting cast help to flesh out what is essentially a rather simple storyline. Lucy Davis brings warmth and wit to the character of Etta Candy, essentially a sidekick but also an example of what smart women looked like in the early 1900s. Saïd Taghmoui and Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner are equally charming as Sameer and Charlie, the roguish mercenaries who help Steve and Diana in their mission. And Robin Wright is instantly iconic in the role of Antiope, the fearsome Amazonion general, despite only being on-screen for about ten minutes.

Ever since Buffy graced TV screens 20 years ago, it has felt like in order for a story to be considered “feminist,” the heroine must possess superhuman strength and martial arts training — which is entertaining to watch, but not exactly relatable for female viewers looking for representation on-screen. And sure, Diana kicks ass in Wonder Woman, punching her way through solid rock and throwing the occasional tank, but the film is careful to point out that this isn’t what makes her special. She might be trained for war, but she hopes for peace. Her naivety is played for laughs early on in the film, but the character’s innocence and kindness are never shown as weaknesses. If anything, her status as a fish-out-of-water is what drives the story; she’s a breath of fresh air in a stale, male environment, and her insistence on speaking the truth cuts through the fusty manners of the era to what really counts.

Girls aren’t going to watch Wonder Woman and be inspired by her displays of combat skill (actually, they might, because the action scenes are pretty damn good), but rather the fact that Diana never once entertains the idea that she can’t do something a man can. A demigoddess isn’t particularly relatable, but there’s plenty to connect within Diana’s personal journey; the bravery it takes to leave home for the first time, the realisation that even good people can do bad things, and ultimately, the importance of believing in yourself.

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