A sense of wonder: On Wonder Woman’s strongest weapon

Wonder. Noun. A feeling of surprise and admiration that you have when you see or experience something beautiful, unusual, or unexpected. Beyond the familiar use of the word wonder, there is a literary and intellectual concept. Sense of wonder. Noun. A feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time. These definitions complement each other. And beyond the obvious evocation of that wonder word in its title, it seems an essential word in watching and responding to the way Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman unfolds.

The story is of Diana. She is never referred to as Wonder Woman. She is not of our world but hails from the island Themyscira. It is an island of Amazons, warrior women created by the gods to protect mankind from the wrath of the Ares, God of War. Diana is the only child on an island where the feminine solidarity and peace is broken when Steve Trevor, crashes his plane just off the coast of the island soon followed by  German soldiers in hot pursuit. A new world has collided with an old one and Diana leaves her beloved island. She is certain that Ares is at the root of this Great War and is determined to find him. Her zealous devotion to this cause is a mark of her character and her overwhelming capacity for empathy. This is the very straightforward plot of Wonder Woman. She is not a human vigilante like Batman or Iron Man, she has not grown up on earth since a child and become familiar with our ways (like Superman). Diana is not of this world and as the second act of the film thrusts her into the world she reacts with a sense of, yes, wonder to the culture, the clothes, the food (her reaction to an ice-cream cone is a readily gif-able moment). But it is not just a familiar ‘fish out of water’ trope. For the film to reach its conclusion Diana must be confronted by the foibles and the fantastical aspects of humankind. She must understand the wonder of humanity. And for the film to work, we must be in wonder of her. And we are.

Superhero films are like the 21st century’s own western – featuring larger than life heroic protagonists that we could never be. But the sense of rote which has followed our inundation with superheroes has plateaued into a sort of monotony. One where everything unfolds with little gradations. Monotony seems symptomatic of 21st century in many ways, though. For a state of monotony is antithetical to the ability to find wonder. To allow yourself to feel wonder demands a willingness to be open to things in the world – a willingness to be awed by the things around you, and not be steeped in cynicism. It’s a hard call in the 2010s where superhero fare has become overexposed. It’s a harder call in a real world situation marked by global atrocities and political circuses that strain credulity. The capacity to be open to wonder feels alien in a world marked by sameness. Wonder Woman’s journey to the big screen has been a well-documented one. Development began 21 years ago in the mid-nineties. And finally, a big budget superhero film directed by a woman and about a woman,

From the very first shot of Themyscira, Patty Jenkins’s interest in creating something to invoke wonder is clear. At 140 minutes Wonder Woman is not short but it is committed to its cause. The film intends to deconstruct the common lore of the superhero but lingers instead on the simplicity of things. Its three acts are marked with a major battle sequence in each. Jenkins’s use of slow-motion moves beyond perfunctory use in action films and becomes a metaphor for what the film wants to tell us. The specific moments Jenkins wants to point our attention to are not rote but action sequences become character building moments.

The climax of the central battle sequence features a key moment where three of Diana’s counterparts (all men) use a battered door for Diana to finish the essential bit of the fight. This moment is incidental within the larger power of this sequence, where Diana charges through German troops in Belgium to free a village of innocent citizens from harm’s way. The moment is a tiny, but distinct call back to the first battle sequence that emphasises how much, for Jenkins, wonder is found in the simplest of things. The moment is notable because it shows Steve’s ability to take note of a tiny moment, with that tiny moment signalling a commitment to something beyond the greater good. Diana’s power in this scene is choosing to look beyond the Allies’ plan to allow destruction for the “greater good,” but to place herself in the face of danger for the most common creatures. The power of the sequence builds not with traditional punching of bad guys but resonates in Diana’s ability to simply deflect the onslaught from the troops with her shield. Sometimes heroism is about the lesser good as well as the greater one. Sometimes it is the most innocuous of moments that become heroic and in that become wondrous. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, as Diana and Steve, play off each other with beautiful chemistry. They sell that wonder.

When the film reaches its climax (where it loses some of its momentum, admittedly) and Diana proclaims that love is the greatest thing to withstand the horrors of war, the simplicity of her point is not played for irony or humour. And the moment jars for the unusual. It challenges our notions of goodness in a world that has become about compromise and made me rethink the way we feature heroism. We are not perfect creatures like Diana, but Wonder Woman proposes the possibility of simple, little things being worthy of wonder. It’s a theme that resonates.

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com

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