I saw Wonder Woman over the weekend and, like my co-workers and millions of other people, thrilled to the sight of a well-realized DC Comics superhero. To me, the best part of Patty Jenkins’ movie was its deep understanding of Diana of Themyscira’s symbolic importance.
Wonder Woman manages the very neat trick of grafting an origin story onto a compelling journey of belief. From the earliest scenes of her as a little girl wanting to learn how to become a warrior, we see that Diana has a sense of her own destiny. She believes in her own purpose and doubles down on that belief, once she’s told the Godkiller story. For the first half of the movie, we see Diana learn her beliefs and put them into action. She knows what she’s supposed to do and pushes back hard against anything that stands in her way, even once she’s on the uncertain ground of the early 20th Century. The reason that the No Man’s Land sequence is so memorable is because it shows superhuman clarity of purpose.
Director Patty Jenkins demonstrates that clarity of Diana’s purpose even more when Wonder Woman and Trevor’s motley crew liberates the town from wartime enslavement. What’s most important about that moment is how Diana’s altruism inspires the soldiers to fight for a better world. When the movie’s back half shows Diana’s beliefs get shattered, we see another aspect of the symbolic power of the superhero concept. When she completes the task she thought would change everything, Diana is crushed to see senseless carnage continuing. It’s a moment where she could become despondent and give up. But, watching her recommit to her ideals to win the day is, again, an example of what fictional characters like Wonder Woman can do at their best.
All of this might sound extremely self-evident but it bears mentioning because of how clearly this allegory shines in Wonder Woman. Too many other superhero movies take for granted that we know what its characters stand for, and we get speeches that feel perfunctory and/or heroic deeds that feel obligatory. Wonder Woman makes no such assumptions and explicitly shows how its character improves the lives of those around her by serving as an aspirational figure.
Wonder Woman unfairly bears the heavy load of having to communicate a bunch of lofty ideals, like how women can be equally as competent or powerful as men. But it shoulders that outsize burden extremely well. Even more, it reminds newcomers and old fans alike of just how powerful the simple idea of preternaturally good people can be. It’s a movie that tells us to look up into the sky, not just to see someone else in the clouds but to know that we can be the ones flying high, too.