I was pleasantly surprised by this new female-led superhero movie.

It is no coincidence that Wonder Woman, the superheroine movie set to the backdrop of World War One, was released the week after Memorial Day weekend. The movie, based on the 1941 comic book by Dr. William Moulton Marston, has war as its central theme. And as with all superhero movies, it is essentially a confrontation of good versus evil. But with its uniquely female director and protagonist, there is much more than meets the eye.

While the typical slew of superhero movies—Batman, Spiderman, Superman, et al—depict the struggle between good and evil within fairly predictable parameters, Wonder Woman is more complex. Perhaps not since Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) has a superhero movie’s characters been so nuanced, its dialogue so witty—and its message so challenging. The characters may have been talking about world war, but the 2017 audience was watching a battle of many ideas on the front of gender politics.

Director Patty Jenkins’ movie adaptation starts at the beginning of Wonder Woman’s story when she is still Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the Amazons. Diana lives on an island called Themyscira in the Bermuda Triangle, hidden from the outside world by Zeus and inhabited exclusively by Amazonian women. There, the Amazons live in perfect peace and undergo precautionary training as warriors.

When an American WWI pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes a plane just off the island, Diana comes to his rescue. Diana then leaves her homeland and accompanies Steve to London to fight in the “war to end all wars.” Before she leaves her home, Diana’s mother Hippolyta says to her, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana; they do not deserve you.” 

Hippolyta's warning seems to hit a superficial note at first. As in the comic book, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman wears an armored bodice, headpiece and a very skimpy skirt. Repeatedly Steve tells her that her outfit is too “distracting,” that she must wear something else. But, coming from an all-female society in Ancient Greece, Diana is perplexed by 1910s standards of modesty. The frilly collar chokes her. Her sword and shield don’t match her dress. How can women be expected to fight when they can barely move?

In the 1940s, the Wonder Woman comic book was ahead of its time in a number of ways. In March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature included Wonder Woman on its “Publications Disapproved for Youth,” citing “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.” Over seventy years later, the conversation sparked by such a criticism has a whole new dimension. What exactly does a lot of exposed flesh portray? What gives rise to empowerment, and what simply panders to the male gaze?

Diana’s Amazonian outfit is actually less revealing than, say, the Ancient Greek men clad only in speedos and capes in Zack Snyder’s 300. But in some ways, the conversation around dress and sexuality has declined since the 1940s—from a 2017 audience’s perspective, Wonder Woman's attire is undeniably bound in sex appeal. Interestingly, Diana agrees to wear something else (even if they're not the outfits we see as much in the trailer), conceding that by attracting unwanted attention, she runs the risk of jeopardizing the mission.

Despite the ongoing conversation around Diana’s outfit, on the whole the film manages a nuanced discussion around gender. I appreciated how little Diana’s attire played into who she was as a person. Diana’s obliviousness (or is it apathy?) to the effect she has on men as a beautiful woman is refreshing. She does not attempt to use her sexuality as a weapon. Diana has more than enough personality to assert authority and influence. Her furious intellect—she speaks every language under the sun—and fierce integrity is more than a match for every man she meets. She commands their respect without even trying.

Thankfully, the film doesn't try to paint Wonder Woman as a female superhero with mainly male attributes. In the first battle scene between the Amazonian women and the Germans, the former win despite fighting guns with arrows. Skill, not force, is glorified. Throughout the movie, Diana kills only when necessary. As she runs across No Man’s Land, she uses her shield to deflect bullets and heroically serves as a decoy for the soldiers behind her. Besides physical strength, Diana’s consistent empathy and value of human life are what make her stand out. She says, “I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

That doesn’t mean the power struggle between the sexes reaches an equilibrium. In Diana’s Amazonian society, men have been reduced to the point of irrelevance. Diana, who was the only child ever to grow up on the island, was desired by her mother and then moulded out of clay. The men in the outside world—with the exception of Steve, who reminds us on several occasions that he is “above average”—are predominantly weak and shallow. Men are also the oppressors in this world. Women do not yet have the vote and are not taken seriously in civil society.

Yet the film's most compelling moments are when Diana and Steve’s characters are complementing each other. When struck with the painful sight of war, she is unafraid to show her emotions. And when confronted with a baby for the first time in London, she becomes excited. It is in such moments that Diana’s strength has an authentically feminine quality, emphasized more clearly by her contrast with Steve. When she is passionate, Steve is practical. When she is emotional, Steve is rational. But all these qualities are necessary to the success of their mission.

Despite this sophisticated characterization, though, the plot of Wonder Woman eventually spirals out of control, clumsily resolved (like too many movies these days) by a series of explosions. Without spoiling too much, I can say there is one redeeming example of heroic, if not rather superfluous, self-sacrifice which adds some meaning, at least, to the end of the movie.

Ultimately Wonder Woman is a fusion of contrasts: good meets evil, history meets mythology, cynicism meets optimism, and women meet men. The result of each collision is a rich exchange of ideas and perspectives that is always engaging—often comical and sometimes problematic. In the absence of resolution to these tensions, the movie returns to the theme of war and the problem of evil, concluding with a platitude delivered by the heroine that, in the end, “only love can save the world.” If only the film would have developed a picture of what that looks like.

Despite its imperfections, Wonder Woman surprised me for how much more fun, multidimensional, and un-objectifying it was. In this age of endless superhero movies, is it too much to hope that maybe we’ll get more like this?

Photo via wonderwomanfilm.com