Author’s note: I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum by just addressing the themes and character arcs in broad terms, here. Feel free to read on if you’re interested, but I’d still highly recommend seeing the movie first because it’s awesome.
To preface this review, I’m a Batman vs. Superman apologist through and through.
That doesn’t mean that I try to excuse every misstep and mistake that the movie makes, and I think Snyder’s heavily visual symbolism leaves cold the act of storytelling that a good heroic narrative requires. But after the editorially-butchered flop that was Suicide Squad (seriously, it was so bad I didn’t even want to do an article detailing all my complaints. Too exhausting.), and the hot mess that has been the production of the rest of the movies involved in WB’s ventures into the DC mythos, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for Wonder Woman.
While she had cool fights in BvS, I felt her character was weaker, and felt tacked-on to a story that relied heavily on the thematic connections between its two title heroes. Not to mention that I felt Gadot was also a weaker actor than either Affleck or Cavill. Combine the disappointment behind SS’s debut with the noticeable lack of marketing leading into the summer movie season, I was expecting the worst, along with, I think, most other critics and audience members.
So you can imagine my surprise when the reviews came out… to be almost uniformly positive. Where MoS and BvS immediately tanked in Rotten Tomatoes scores when the review embargoes went up, Wondy held steady in the 90’s, which is a first for the DCEU’s entries, honestly. Against all my fears, I began to feel actual hype for seeing the movie on the Thursday evening it premiered.
And despite trying to temper that hype by reminding myself of the other DC disappointments, I walked out of the theater on Thursday evening feeling that Wonder Woman lives up to that hype 100%.
For characters within the DC Universe, there are several Homeric epithets that long-running, A-list heroes possess that summarize their major characterizations and themes. Superman, for example, is the “Man of Tomorrow”. Batman is the “Dark Knight” or the “Caped Crusader”. Wonder Woman rounds out the third part of the “Trinity” that is usually held up as the three highest-powered, most important heroes within the universe, owing to their long, continuous runs in comics since the Golden Age. But a lot of readers – and a lot of writers, too! – struggle with coming up with a similar epithet for her. One that is commonly used is “the Spirit of Truth”.
If that sounds vague, it’s because it totally is.
In the comics, Wonder Woman has the problem of suffering rewrites and revisions every time she gets passed off to a new creative team. Her original creator intended her to be part-feminist icon, part stand-in for his own views on the sexual revolution to up-end traditional roles in relationships. (Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to my audience to decide.) Since then, she’s remained a symbol of powerful femininity, but as with that concept in real life, different writers have different opinions on what that’s supposed to mean and how to incorporate it into her character.
In other words, how to make her a uniquely symbolic representation of heroism in a way that can’t be fulfilled by her two male comrades – Batman and Superman.
Let’s just say that those struggles have produced more strike-outs than home-runs, and the constant reinvention of the character also means that Wondy tends to a lack a strongly-developed supporting cast or recognizable mythos that the other two members of the Trinity possess. She really only has two “main” villains, and her “family” consists of a character who’s undergone such drastic retcons and rewrites that her convoluted backstory has actually been a plot point in a DC Crisis event. (Poor Donna Troy…)
So as you can see, aside from the woes of the DC cinematic universe in general, trying to make a Wonder Woman movie that is “authentic” to the character is fraught with obstacles.
What makes this film successful then, is its ability to take the simplest possible path, the most straightforward storytelling style, and highlight the broadest, most recognizable themes. The feat of taking all these disparate parts and distilling down a uniquely powerful heroic narrative is an incredible victory, and I’m practically giddy that it’s paid off with positive critic attention and good word-of-mouth praise among audience members.
In this article, I’ll briefly discuss the major themes of the movie and explain why its straightforward, honest style fits right in with that thematic arc itself.
This movie does the layered symbolic narrative that the DCEU is so fond of better than anything else, because both layers of that narrative are so thoroughly un-ornamented. Whereas BvS had a dreamlike quality to it that confused the direction of the concrete action in the present, this movie has the high-concept mythological aspect of the narrative running parallel and complementary to the earth-bound, concrete one. The high concept mythology in this case is represented by Wondy’s conflict with Ares, the god of War, and the more grounded wartime drama represented by Steve Trevor and his high-minded operation to destroy the experimental gas weapon developed by the Germans during World War I.
Both sides of the narrative draw inspiration and perspective from each other when they come into contact. It’s Steve’s advent on the island that brings war – but also a chance for Diana to fulfill her destiny in ending Ares’ dominion over humanity. Similarly, it’s Diana’s power that allows Steve and his ragtag bunch of misfits the opportunity to safeguard the tenuous peace that would end the mundanely horrifying blight of war in the world of mankind. Both of them working together elevates one side, and grounds the other. In addition it also reflects the larger themes of the movie regarding the importance of love – that is, personal relationships – in understanding the value of individual humans.
Really this movie deals with two opposing views of humanity – neither accurate – in competition, and Diana eventually finding a middle way that simultaneously upholds the value of human life while honestly assessing its flaws. The creation story Hippolyta tells to Diana at the start of the movie describes an oddly Christian take on pagan Greek mythology, stating that humanity was made in the image of Zeus and was perfectly good and peaceful before they were corrupted by Ares’ spite. Ares himself – taking the role of a Miltonian Lucifer – differs on that account, and describes humanity as hateful and evil from the start, justifying making war against them and within them in order to reveal that evil so that they might destroy themselves.
In Diana’s interactions with Steve, her participation in one of the most horrifically destructive conflicts in modern history, and the bonds she makes with other characters, she finds a balance between those two extremes. Humanity is capable of great evil, she concludes, through no other fault but their own fallacious actions, but they are also capable of following a better path to fight for what’s true and just instead. So while she goes into semi-retirement at the conclusion of the events of the film, she decides to stay in the world of mankind and work to influence it towards that better nature. This provides the framing for the movie, where while Diana is working at the Louvre in Paris in the present-day, Bruce Wayne sends the historical photograph taken of her, Steve and their crew after liberating a small Belgian village during the war.
Diana’s development arc sets up a pretty unique dichotomy between her and Ares. In fact, the major twist of the movie (although it’s a really obvious one from the beginning) is that Diana is a demi-god herself, and was entrusted to the Amazons by Zeus as a weapon to kill Ares after his defeat and banishment from Olympus. Ares, wounded and de-powered after getting wrecked by big daddy Zeus, spends the next few millennia whispering and cajoling humanity into designing weapons of mass destruction and instigating needless conflicts. In Dr. “Poison”, a twisted chemist who is creating gas weapons for the German army, he finds someone who shares a similar passion for destruction. He never forces her hand, but merely gives her divine inspiration to better these chemical weapons as the war drags on.
Similarly, Diana pairs up with a representative from the mundane world who shares her own ideals, but these ideals instead justify the importance of protecting human lives from the horrors of war.
Steve Trevor is, to be quite honest, the best part of this movie.
While Gadot, like most critics have mentioned, has a winning smile and a graceful style in the action sequences that sells her character as a superhero, she’s a little hesitant and wooden in the sadder, more emotional scenes. Chris Pine on the other hand is amazingly believable, instantly likeable, and creates one of the most memorable characters in the burgeoning DC cinematic universe as a result of his stellar portrayal.
He’s awkwardly disarmed around Diana, compared to how smoothly he lies and reads situations with his job as a spy. The scene in the first act of the movie where he’s being interrogated by the Amazons with the Lasso of Truth is ,again, well acted, but also shows where his character begins. It looks to be incredibly painful to resist the lasso’s magical truth-telling charms, but he desperately holds out for as long as he can to try and keep his identity as a spy for the Allies intact.
Steve’s example and his reasons for acting as a spy and soldier fit in well with the major themes of the movie and Wondy’s role in it herself. We see that her strength and passion leads others to strength and courageousness through her example. But at the same time, it’s Steve’s unfailing commitment to his ideals – despite his shady operations to uphold them – that keeps Wondy afloat when she hits the major conflict of her character at the climax of the movie.
When Ares reveals that humanity’s own capacity for evil is what’s driving the war, and will continue with or without him, she doesn’t know what to do or how to fight against this threat. That is, until she sees how much Steve is willing to sacrifice in order to protect innocent lives.
In addition, the character is genuinely funny and charming, helped mostly by Pine’s natural charisma and chemistry with Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman. There’s a number of genuinely funny scenes between Steve and Diana, where Steve is disarmed and vulnerable at Diana’s earnestness and assured confidence. One interesting thing to note, you can see how their characters change in relation to each other by looking at how their body language shifts during the movie. At first, Steve tries to protect Diana, by unconsciously putting himself between her and dangerous situations. Perfectly admirable and chivalrous in his own world, but once he sees how adept Diana is at protecting not just herself, but him as well, Steve moves towards treating her as a true equal in a fight.
That’s enough gushing about one of the strongest leading men in superhero films, let’s talk about the titular star of the movie. Diana herself starts off naïve and sheltered, and her character initially is TOO honest and open about everything and her opinions of the world around her. Her development deals with understanding that living in the world necessarily requires sacrifices or subterfuge at times, but not out of discouragement in the effectiveness of ideals, but the understanding that human nature is ultimately flawed, and she can’t force people to change by simply barging in and wrecking everything. Gal Gadot juggles equally the steely-eyed determination to protect lives, with the wide-eyed idealism that sees the preciousness of children and snowflakes, and that goes a long way to making her character likeable, as well as building that chemistry with Steve.
While the dynamic between Diana and Steve, and how it parallels the major themes of the movie, is really the centerpiece of this story, there are other characters I want to take note of as well, the Amazons themselves. They typically get a poor treatment in the comics, because it’s tough to justify the existence of a hands-off perfect warrior race in a shared universe. But here, again, they’re straightforward and simple, to their benefit. They’re also only seen in the first third of the movie, but it sets the scene and effectively establishes Diana’s own character before she strikes out on her own. We more easily understand her perspective on things when we see how she was raised and taught about the world outside the island.
At first, that perspective is needlessly simplified as I explained – Hippolyta describes humanity as fundamentally perfected in nature, but corrupted by outside influences – but it wasn’t taught to Diana with malicious intention towards humanity. All too often, comic writers try to justify the Amazons’ isolation from the main world with a selfish, unearned elitism, and that’s thankfully not the case here. Their mistrust of mankind’s world is well-earned, and they fear the spectre of war because they’ve lived through some of the worst examples of it already.
In summary then, one of the biggest reasons why this movie works over Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman, is the fact that the characters are clearly-written, consistent, and easy to empathize with and relate to. It’s this consistency of thematic illustration across all the characters and their interactions that helps to sell the larger mythology of the story better than Snyder’s entries into the DC cinematic universe.
This simplicity and honesty of presentation also shows up in the cinematography. I’m a BvS apologist as I mentioned, but the editing and some of the scene writing drives me up the wall by purposely muddying its own themes and recurring motifs, or padding out unnecessary elements within them. This movie is unadorned in execution and style, but that keeps the pace moving along well. It didn’t feel like a two-hour movie at all, as opposed to BvS which REALLY dragged in parts, and could’ve stood to be a half-hour shorter at least. The characters in Wonder Woman say what they mean, mean what they say, and demonstrate actions that clearly reflect on those intentions.
Similarly in contrast to Batman vs. Superman, there’s a stark difference in tone and lighting in the art direction of the scenes between sunny, tropical Themyscira and the cold, bleak Western Front. But the colder hues never become impenetrably muddy or dark, and only serve to make Wonder Woman’s costume pop more visually against the grit.
Overall, this movie is the DCEU’s answer to Captain America: The First Avenger, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s not a direct rip-off, since the high mythology of the character’s background lends it a different angle than the pulpy sci-fi of TFA. If anything, I would put Wonder Woman slightly ABOVE that movie because it lacks the pacing problems of its predecessor. But both are a great combination of serious themes, likeable characters, and a good dash of comedic relief that create a remarkably solid viewing experience. In addition, they both deal effectively with real-world history and events in a way that doesn’t cheapen them, or become preachy. Both movies work to appeal to a broad audience because they both present broad, important lessons about heroic virtue without hitching them to specific prescriptive politics.
Wonder Woman is a movie that firmly knows it is a superhero movie, and doesn’t apologize for it or hold airs about itself in order to distance itself from that genre. But at the same time, it doesn’t use that genre as an excuse to skimp on good storytelling or character development. Instead, it does what a good heroic narrative should do – reaffirm the ability of humanity to do remarkable and courageous things in the face of despair and evil.
So yeah. Go see Wonder Woman this weekend, it’s easily the best superhero movie we’ve gotten in years.