Posted on June 21, 2017
Lucky for us, it seems like we get one of these a year now. A movie in which everything goes right. An engine banging along on all cylinders that takes you in immediately, pulls you along for the ride, and then kicks you out into the night, blinking unbelieving at the real world.
Superhero stories are never going to be unique. Joseph Campbell spent most of his life pointing out the tropes of the hero’s journey — and that’s fine. We don’t need them to be unique. As a matter of fact, I would say that we need them to be refreshingly familiar. Telling these tales to ourselves over and over reassures us that nobility and courage and selflessness are a part of our heritage even as we watch the majority of us wallow in greed and self-absorption and ignorance.
What we need is a fresh take on the familiar superhero story. Whether it’s Deadpool or Star Trek (2009) or Rogue One or Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, we know the cadence of moments that make up a hero’s journey movie without being able to recite the names Campbell gave to them. What makes the good ones so invigorating to the spirit is that they tell the story of people who happen to be heroes and it’s getting to know those people that is so pleasing to us.
Whether it’s Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter or Diana Prince and Steve Trevor, we need them to be the people we aspire to be. We need their tragic love story to be our own. We may ooh and ah at the special effects and movie physics, but the emotional connection is what separates an Iron Man from a Michael Bay movie.
And, in a world where an all female reboot of Ghostbusters caused a near national panic, we can’t ignore the gorilla in the room. Wonder Woman turns a very obvious paradigm on its head — somewhat. Gal Gadot’s WW doesn’t save Steve Trevor the way Lynda Carter’s repeatedly did on the 1970s TV show. It’s more like they work together as teammates to pull off a big victory.
I would argue that’s not far from the relationship that Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers had in The First Avenger. We don’t need a Lois Lane who is constantly being carried away from danger by her super boyfriend. That’s from a different world and, besides, we’ve seen it enough.
Women are seeking and getting more agency in our society every day. That should be reflected in our pop culture. But different segments of society are on board with that idea to differing degrees, so it’s still like threading a needle to get it right.
Getting that thread through the eye falls heavily on the stars in this case. Gal Gadot must be as beautiful as she is strong (that’s fair, we expect our male superheroes to be handsome and muscular and have the first name Chris) but she also has to need Steve Trevor. This was the failing of the 70s version. Trevor was made to look like a bumbling fool on a weekly basis. He was, essentially, a male Lois Lane.
Pulling off the trick of being the male lead but second banana took a certain kind of performance from Chris Pine and he should be commended for it. And I would just like to take a moment to tip my cap to Pine for being a Captain Kirk who can also play Steve Trevor. Can you imagine Shatner playing second fiddle to a woman? Me, neither.
The brilliant stroke that makes it all work is the realization that Diana is new to our world so she needs a guide. She may be a goddess from a secret island paradise, but she doesn’t know our culture or understand the war that’s raging through it at the time. That’s where Trevor becomes needed. He gives focus to Diana’s power. He shapes her mission to fit within our reality.
Lastly, a shout out to Patty Jenkins. She did a marvelous job as director. She was an experienced and successful filmmaker before this, but not one from this slice of popular culture and she came in with fresh ideas and knocked it out of the park.