The incurable desire for superhero cinema rarely offers anything really noteworthy these days. In the past two years, 13 superhero films have been released and you probably don’t remember most of them. It’s a pretty solid list of movies, quality wise, but also mostly forgettable. What differentiates one from another seems to be dwindling every year. The stories are the same, the emotional beats, the climatic battles, the inability to actually kill anyone of significance. Even the color palettes are all the same. Sometimes there’s a bright spot. Logan was different, though not as much as many people might think. But the fact remains that superhero cinema is awash in redundancy. We see these stories over and over, and regardless of quality, the effect wears off. At a certain point, you just stop caring.
I know that my opinion on the landscape of superhero movies is not widely relevant, and the fact that I’ve largely soured on them has been well documented on this site. But I wanted to get this out before I made the case for a thousand more Wonder Woman films.
So how is Wonder Woman different? Get ready: It’s about a woman. More than that, it’s about women. And in that fact alone you should realize that Wonder Woman cannot be the same film as any of its predecessors. Because this film has never been made.
That’s literally true. There has never been a live-action Wonder Woman film prior to this one, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the titular hero.
But it’s also spiritually true. This is the first modern superhero film made by and about a woman. Patty Jenkins leans on that fact, highlights the matter rather than washing it out. Jenkins draws out the feminine and feminist nature of the character imbued by the original creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston. Gadot, an actress and model from Israel, brings power and beauty to the role in equal parts, but also a earnestness in playing the hero. One gets the sense that Diana wants to be Wonder Woman. Much like Christopher Reeves’ Clark Kent, she makes the part, and the hero, accessible. Jenkins accentuates all of these qualities in quiet moments and on the battlefield.
The efforts of Jenkins and Gadot elevate Wonder Woman beyond the clumsier elements of the movie. One such element is the Justice League-required connecting tissue to other franchise heroes. Another is the political weirdity injected into the story by writer Allen Heinberg (working on a story from Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs). One of those unfortunate political elements is the distaste for the notion of negotiated peace. Bringing an end to the bloodiest war in human history via armistice is probably the most villainous notion in the film, and the political result of that notion is dreadfully unfortunate.
But Wonder Woman is bigger than this junk, at least here, in her debut film. For me, the first third of the film provides the needed antidote to the over-the top political and franchise touches.
The opening third of Wonder Woman is Diana’s history. An Amazon who lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited only by warrior women from the time of the gods, Diana longs to fight like the warriors around her. The military leader of the Amazons, Antiope (Robin Wright) wants to train Diana for the inevitable day when Themyscira is attacked by Ares, but Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) wants to keep her from such involvement.
The debate unfolds in a secluded paradise, hidden from the corrupting forces of humanity. Themyscira is a glorious sight to find in the DC Universe, a generally dark and muddy place full of ugly buildings and uglier action sequences. Here, the sun shines and the sky is blue and the water is crisp. The buildings are appropriately lit and so is the action. Everything bursts with life and light. Until the film’s damsel in distress, Chris Pine, crashes his plane off the coast, and brings with him a battalion of Germans, forcing the world into the paradise of Themyscira.
Perhaps the biggest achievement in Wonder Woman is how well the origin story works. The crushing familiarity of origin stories is absent simply because Diana has her own story to tell. We haven’t seen it on film, and with 75 years of character history to draw from, this story is well formed and profound. Robin Wright’s ferocity and Connie Neilson’s motherly concern pair convincingly with the young Diana’s overconfident behavior and uncertain naïveté. Diana’s eventual departure offers fish out of water humor and freshly minted feminism, later mixed with an understandable sense of let-down when she sees the smoke-filled London.
What’s fresh in the opening, however, is largely gone from the finale. The last third of Wonder Woman–undoubtedly the weakest–is a superhero battle that if predictable, still manages to be enjoyable. It’s dark, contains superpowered bodies flying through buildings and throwing trucks and blowing up random items. It’s even on an airstrip, as if to remind audiences that we are in a superhero film approved location.
Even against those odds, the climactic sequences of Wonder Woman work because they depend fully on Diana’s character-driven changes. That alone separates it from all of DC and most of Marvel’s offerings. Her initial belief that humans deserve compassion is challenged, and her growth is convincing and obvious. What a refreshing change for a genre of films where character arcs unfold in starts, and actualized shifts to one’s interior character are almost anathema to writers who must permit endless franchise expansion and reincarnation.
But where Wonder Woman really succeeds, what marks it as not only a good superhero film but an important and wonderful piece of pop cinema, is the mashing up of Wonder Woman, the unstoppable mythical feminist hero, and World War I, the gruesome slough of 20th century death and waste.
I felt something new while watching the middle third of Wonder Woman, and feeling something new is one of the highest aims of art. Seeing Wonder Woman fight the Germans on the battlefield in WWI, watching history re-written to include a powerful woman laying waste to the men who are destroying the world, moved me in an unexpected way. Feelings of inspiration and empowerment surfaced, especially during Diana’s internal conflict over the costs of war, and her inability to stand by as civilians were killed by unseen distant forces (of men). When I imagine the sensation that these moments will inspire in non-cynical, non-film critic kids who are looking to be wowed, well, needless to say I look forward to the chance to show it to my own daughter and son.
On the whole, what unfolds in Wonder Woman is a sort of revisionist vision of a century of recorded global conflict that largely excluded women, both in our actual history and in our cinematic history. In the mind of Diana, who has never seen war, the distinction between Allied Nations and Central powers is nearly irrelevant. She sees only death and pain. Her compassion is evident, but it is also a motivator of action. Her unwillingness to accept suffering, at any level, separates her from every other hero in our cinemas. Diana’s conviction that we need not accept war is absent in DC and Marvel superhero movies (and, frankly too much of the world).
At one point in Wonder Women, Diana can no longer to contain her interior conflict. She steps onto the physical battlefield to change the outcome of the conflict, not for political purposes, but to help people.
The cinematic results of Diana’s decision to break ranks and join the fray are immensely satisfying, but also deeply emotionally powerful. Wonder Woman fighting the German army is a scenario that audiences have never seen. Hollywood has never given us the opportunity to imagine what the world might look like were a superheroic woman to stand against the forces of evil. And we have been the worse for it. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot in those moments provide a blueprint for how this should operate in the future of popular cinema, and in doing so, they provide an inspiring source of empowerment for audiences of all ages and genders.