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Wonder Woman's box office success offers a message of hope

Gal Gadot. Image: Vimeo/ Buddha Jones

Stronger than a hail of machine gun bullets! Able to leap tall mountains at a single bound! Raised by warriors dedicated to peace and yet the fiercest warrior of them all -- Wonder Woman brings a new wrinkle to superhero movies. Her life is dedicated to bringing an end to war.

In our mundane world, Hollywood's best-kept secret is that Wonder Woman is already the break-out hit of the summer movie season. With a 93 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earning $103 million on the first weekend, so far Wonder Woman comes second only to Jurassic Park for June movies.

Wonder Woman has been around for 75 years as a comic book, says Time Magazine, yet rarely has hit the screen, despite the studios cranking out dozens of comic-based blockbuster movies in the past decade. This is the first Wonder Woman feature film, compared to nine live action feature films for Batman and seven for Superman. 

Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a major superhero movie. She said she's been pitching Wonder Woman to major producers since 2004, after Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her role as a serial killer in Monster, the independent production that put Jenkins in Hollywood's spotlight.

Jenkins has been swimming upstream though. Women aren't even 10 per cent of top directors in Hollywood, not even 20 per cent of the talented support staff  behind the camera. The 2016 "Celluloid Ceiling" report found women's participation had actually decreased by two percentage points from 2015.

In 2015, women were 19 per cent of  "directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films." This dropped to 17 per cent in 2016, comparable to 1998 numbers. Women as directors in this elite group dropped to seven per cent, from nine.

Nor have many action movies featured women as lead actors, until Disney’s recent Star Wars twins, Rogue One and The Force Awakens. Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman TV series ran a scant three seasons in the late 1970s, followed quickly by Charlie's Angels, which ran five years. Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider scored huge box office success but did not inspire imitators.

Gal Gadot brings athleticism and military experience in the Israeli army to her role as Diana, Amazon princess, along with a magnetic screen presence. Her voice is firm, sometimes girlish, but her resolve is always strong. Her new neutral uniform (while scanty) actually allows her to move.

On top of these breakthroughs -- both female director and female protagonist -- Wonder Woman departs from Warner Brothers' recent grim interpretations of DC comics (e.g. Batman vs. Superman) which Vanity Fair dubs "toxic masculinity." Wonder Woman offers hope, not nihilism.     

Although Wonder Woman's story unfolds slowly, there's plenty of action. We start on the white cliffs of the Amazons' secret paradise island, Themyscira. A bird's eye view shows row on row of athletic Amazons practicing their swords and staffs, whirling and thwacking, hitting and getting hit, falling and getting up again.

We watch Diana, the only child, scamper through them, and then return to take part in training. We watch her grow and practice, racing freely across the white cliffs and blue lakes. It's hardly any stretch when her leaps turn into flight. And yet, she remains a sheltered child. Her heart breaks when the outer world intrudes and kills her aunt, her instructor. 

Along with a superscoop of special effects and CGIs, Wonder Woman the movie offers Diana, the three-dimensional character, with strengths and insecurities, successes and losses. Vanity Fair says, "The cruel irony is that what Wonder Woman really is, is a pretty good Marvel movie," instead of a DC comic movie, since Marvel's superheros are known for their sensitivity.

But there's more, says Vox. The movie never collapses into sexism. Women actually talk with each other, and have lives of their own. "Again and again, Wonder Woman subverts and undermines the casual sexism and erasure that's become de facto in even the best superhero movies -- and with a radiant smile besides."

On the other hand, perhaps the movie's peace theme is part of the attraction too. Once Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve Trevor (ably played by Chris Pine) we are plunged into the horrors of World War I -- the trenches, the gas warfare, the starving and wounded civilians, the mortars bursting nearby. We walk closely with WWI's senseless carnage,  on all sides.

Diana's enemy is War itself, in the demonic form of the Greek god Ares. Steve Trevor is more of a sidekick than a love interest, along with a diverse gang of outsiders (including an Alberta Blackfoot man who introduces himself in his own language in the movie).

Ares is an apt metaphor for the horrendous war machine that controls the Western world's economy. As Addicted to War (another comic) argues, basing our economy on stoking the war machine costs way too much in human losses.

On the battlefield, Diana battles her way through pounding machine gun fire to reach her target. At the lunch counters, pacifists shielded themselves from beatings and water cannons as they held their ground.

Diana's weapons are defensive: her wristbands, the shield, and the lariat of truth. (Created by  pacifist William Moulton Morrison in 1941, Wonder Woman only added a sword in the 1980s.)  Peacemakers' tools are similarly non-violent, shielding the vulnerable and wringing out compromise.

For a feminist icon to appear in the U.S. during the Republican war on women and non-binary folk seems subversive, but maybe that's its appeal. For Diana to fight for something instead of against something, in #45's divided nation, undermines everything 45 stands for.

Patty Jenkins told Rolling Stone that's exactly her message: "We need a new kind of hero," she said. "It's not easy to be a hero. You do it because of what you believe, not because of what other people deserve. I wanted to talk about the fact that we can't defeat the evils upon us by slaying one villain...if we're going to come to a world of peace in the future, we have to lay down the past and become responsible heroes ourselves. Often what that requires is love and peace instead of battle. That is a hugely important message to the world right now from my perspective."

There really is a history of people yearning for peace -- like the parallel women's history left out of most books -- which is as deep and urgent as the need to celebrate war. My co-editor Patrick Crean and I found that yearning for our 1986 coffee table book, Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books). Then, a movie called War Games helped influence public opinion away from building more nuclear weapons. Today, with 35 million people displaced in the world, and 20 million suffering from famine, perhaps the public's embrace of Wonder Woman reflects the innate human hunger for harmony and peace.

Image: Vimeo/ Buddha Jones

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