The history of Wonder Woman is, to say the least, fraught. The creation of William Moulton Marston, a psychiatrist and charlatan who claims to have invented the lie detector test and had more than a passing interest in what we'd now call BDSM culture, Wonder Woman was a character of contradictions, preaching love and practicing violence, who was born out of a smoky cauldron of suffragette imagery, proto-feminist ideals and pop psychology.
After debuting shortly before America's entrance into World War II, she became one of the most popular comic book figures in the world, and her popularity only waned after Marston died. Her resurgence coincided with the women's liberation movement in the '60s and '70s (aided in part by a cheesy TV series that ran at the tail end of the '70s), and today stands as an icon for female empowerment as much as she does a princess from a mythical island who clashes with contemporary society.
And her journey to the big screen has been equally imperiled, with development of a "Wonder Woman" film dating back to at least the mid-'90s. The closest she ever got to the big screen happened in 2005, when Joss Whedon was hired to write and direct an adaptation for super producer Joel Silver. Whedon's sensibilities seemed perfectly aligned for the property but it ultimately fizzled out. It wasn't until the DC Extended Universe, the interconnected series of films that began with "Man of Steel" in 2013, that Wonder Woman finally had her shot at cinematic stardom. Following a brief appearance in "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," where she stole the movie from both Batman and Superman, the character is finally getting her own movie in "Wonder Woman," out this Friday.
And forget about any other superheroes at the multiplexes this summer -- "Wonder Woman" is the most essential superhero movie right now (for good reason, too).
"Wonder Woman" is, more than anything else, a typical superhero origin story. Even though she was introduced in the modern-day-set "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (as is the backwards way DC handles its heroes), her story begins long ago, and the only tangential connection to the rest of the extended universe is her reminiscing about the photo she was so keen in retrieving in "Batman v. Superman": a black-and-white portrait of our fair Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, in a peerless performance), with some fellow soldiers (including Chris Pine's Steve Trevor), way back in World War I.
So we flash back first to Themyscira (aka Paradise Island, an idea cribbed from early suffragette literature) and then to her heroics in World War I. This is a straight-up period superhero movie, but unlike most origin stories she doesn't have to learn how to deal with her powers; her fighting abilities don't increase and she is never helpless. Instead, it's more about her figuring out her place in the world and how she can help those who would otherwise be unable to help themselves. One of the greatest sequences in the movie sees her crawling out of a trench and walking across a contentious "No Man's Land" between American and German forces. While she never says it, the implication is there: she is no man. She is woman. Hear her roar.
It couldn't be a better time for a female-led superhero movie. The culture has always had an influence on Wonder Woman and vice versa. While some of the sexual stuff might still be a little icky looking back on it (there's a lot of bondage in those early stories, but the movie is oddly kink-free, besides some mild implied lesbianism on the island), it's dynamically progressive politics are still awe-inspiring. When the filmmakers behind "Wonder Woman" were making the movie (and, indeed, it's led by an awesome female director, Patty Jenkins of "Monster" fame), they probably thought that the movie, opening in the summer of 2017, would be emblematic of a new political openness, heralded by the world's greatest superpower electing a female president. Instead, it finds itself being released amidst looming legislation that would all but strip away some key rights for women.
What this does is turn a $150 million superhero extravaganza, fueled by a huge marketing campaign and part of a larger, beastlier series of interconnected epics, into something that feels personal, powerful, and, most important of all, subversive. (At the screening I attended, the audience full of critics broke into spontaneous applause multiple times.) Wonder Woman's symbolic importance has never been more greatly felt. Now is the perfect time for Wonder Woman. (Thank Zeus it's a great movie, too.)
The other aspect that makes "Wonder Woman" so essential is its apparent commentary on the current age of superhero movies. More and more, it feels like the best superhero movies are the ones that comment on what it means to be a superhero movie, everything from "Deadpool" to this year's exemplary, ashy-bleak "Logan." And, in many ways, "Wonder Woman" does this, too. Earlier this year, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" opened across the universe and was both a critical and commercial hit (and for good reason -- it's a blast). But it was the 15th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Disney's own web of related properties after which DC has obviously modeled their current enterprise); so far, not one of the movies has been focused on a female hero. In fact, there won't be an exclusively female-led Marvel movie until "Captain Marvel" bows in the summer of 2019. That's not great, especially when Marvel Comics has taken so many chances recently, and female characters lead books as diverse as "Thor" and "Iron Man." While "Wonder Woman" doesn't feature any of the fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans of "Deadpool," it is commenting on the state of the superhero movie in its own subtle way.
Wonder Woman has always been a character who has stood for more than what she did in the comics or on television; she has always been a part of something bigger. Whether it's the suffragette movement, feminism, or the current climate of resistance, she's a character who has been able to be a part of and comment on the circumstances she finds herself in. And the movie is no different.
"Wonder Woman" should be seen on the big screen, not because it's a female superhero movie directed by a female filmmaker (although both of those things are pretty cool) but because what she stands for, the battles that she fights, and the conflicts that rage within are utterly and irreconcilably now. This is the most essential superhero movie of the year, and one of the most fiercely entertaining.
Wonder Woman is the hero we need right now, most of all.