The Particular Cathartic Ecstasy of Watching Wonder Woman

Lynn Shelton on her very personal – and emotional response – to Patty Jenkins' game-changing superhero movie.

Bonding with my teenage son is the perfect cover for indulging in the guilty pleasure of seeing nearly every action-adventure blockbuster that Hollywood churns out. By “guilty pleasure,” I mean to say that I’m not there to see great art; I’m there to have my brain melted with ridiculous, over-the-top spectacle, and I adjust my expectations accordingly.

I was pleased to hear that Patty Jenkins was going to direct Wonder Woman because it’s high time more women are given the opportunity to direct big-budget studio movies. Period. And to have not used this particular film — with a main character and a title so pungent with femaleness — to hire a woman “helmer” would have been truly, laughably damning. So, good for you, Warner Bros., for not screwing that one up.

Whether or not Jenkins would be able to pull off a coherent, well-told movie was a whole other matter. Not because she is a woman, but because of the frankly abysmal track record (rare exceptions such as Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road notwithstanding) of that generally unwieldy, bloated genre of the big-budget action movie.

As it turns out, she killed it.

Wonder Woman is an absolute pleasure to watch. It is solid, human storytelling, with characters you care about, emotions that feel earned, and all the endorphin-releasing thrills that a good action movie should contain.

What’s extra special about this rare feat of a blockbuster that contains the best qualities of well-told cinema (along with a refreshingly anti-cynical, anti-war, pro-love heart) is the particular, cathartic sweet spot it hits within a certain subset of women viewers, myself included.

I began to cry the moment the young Diana came running straight at me, with a fiercely determined little girl look on her face. As the screen revealed a warrior training ground, with no-holds-barred sparring taking place upon it, my tears flowed more copiously and I may have even gasped, as I realized that each and every one of the strong, athletic, capable bodies I was looking at belonged to women.

When I recognized Robin Wright, playing the fiercest, most battle-scarred badass Amazon of them all, I thought of the iconic damsel-in-distress role she’d played at the beginning of her career in The Princess Bride, and I wept even harder.

The movie rolled on, and, just as my sobbing was about to abate, some new scene (usually involving women fighting) would start it afresh: the Amazons in battle with WWI German soldiers on the beach, Diana saving Steve Trevor’s ass in the alley, the insanely moving No Man’s Land scene, etc., etc., etc.

By the end credits, I was a spent puddle, exhausted from blubbering.

What the hell had just happened to me?

This film didn’t just make me cry in the way that movies sometimes do. This film hit me on some kind of historical, cellular level. It filled a void within me that I’d been carrying around for so long, I’d forgotten it even existed.

I was an avid reader growing up, and was drawn to books that carried me away into the fantasy of grand adventures; on pirate ships and spaceships and horses among knights in shining armor. While I’d loved these books, and while I had been transported by them, I’d also, simultaneously, felt shut out from their pleasures; I knew that I was not truly invited in. Because the heroes and the protagonists were nearly always male. There was no Hunger Games back then; there was no Golden Compass. If I wanted to feel a part of the stories I read, I had to close my eyes and pretend I was a boy. Which I did. And which I got so used to, it became second nature. But my secret shame was knowing, in my heart of hearts, that I was an imposter; that I didn’t really belong there. (This feeling only continued as I grew up, and fell in love with the writings of Jack Kerouac, and with French New Wave cinema; I felt like such a kindred spirit with these artists, but they belonged to a boys’ club that I knew I wasn’t really invited into.)

The catharsis I felt as I watched Wonder Woman hit straight into the heart of the grief that had been building within me from decades of being shut out from all the fun. Each and every one of those gorgeous, spare, balletic fight scenes fulfilled some ancient need within my deepest self, to feel powerful, to feel strong, to be adventurous.

To be the goddamned hero of the story.

So thank you, Diana. Thank you, Patty Jenkins. Thank you, Wonder Woman.

I just hope the box office success of this film means a whole new wave of similar movies are coming down the pike that make me feel this way. ‘Cause it’s a mighty good way to feel. And it’s about time.

Lynn Shelton has directed six feature films (including HumpdayYour Sister’s Sister and Laggies) and numerous television shows (including LoveFresh Off the BoatCasual, Master of None and Mad Men). Her films have garnered honors from multiple sources, including the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals, and from the Independent Spirit and Gotham Awards. She is based in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Megan Griffiths)