If there was one saving grace in last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice it was the deliriously cool guitar riff that heralded the big screen entrance of Wonder Woman in the third act fight scene. Dawn of Justice was supposed to be this grand showdown between the two biggest comic book superheroes of all time. Batman and Superman onscreen at the same time. Finally. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being an exercise in too much of… everything really. Overly serious and humourless, overly complex and overly try-hard in laying down the groundwork of this massive new cinematic universe that hoped to capitalise on all that Marvel money.
Wonder Woman arrives fully formed, there is no raging macho-beef or light philosophising on the nature of alien gods and men, she’s just there to save the day and kick seven shades of crap out of the big ugly space monster. She gets kicked to the floor, she staggers a little bit, grins to herself and leaps back into the fray – sword in hand. She’s a superhero and does everything you expect a superhero to do. She carried no baggage, unlike Bats and Supes.
Whilst there have been plenty of female superheroes throughout the decades, from Xenia to Buffy there haven’t been many that have successfully taken the lead in big screen movies. Even after 15 Marvel movies, the studio have mainly kept their female heroes as supporting characters. It won’t be until 2019 that we see Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. DC/Warner Brothers may have stumbled callously with their first 3 movies, but with their latest release, Wonder Woman, they have beaten Marvel to the punch. What’s more, with Patty Jenkins at the helm, this is the first one of these big superhero movies to have a woman at the director’s seat as well.
And it makes all the difference, Wonder Woman is a pretty great movie.
Having already introduced Wonder Woman in Batman V. Superman, her standalone movie begins in the modern day where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) enters her office within the Louvre, in which she receives an old black and white photograph from super-friend Bruce Wayne. The photo shows Wonder Woman standing with a squad of soldiers during World War I. The photo serves as a touchstone, whereby Diana explains her origins story. It’s a nice change of pace, lowering the audience gradually into this new world rather than a big action sequence.
Similar to the Kryptonian prologue of Man of Steel, Wonder Woman introduces us to Themyscria a magical island hidden away from the rest of the world populated by an all-female society of Amazonians. Reigning over this society is Queen Hippolyta, who regales her daughter Diana about the story and mission of the Amazonians, placed on earth by the Greek gods to stave the hearts of men from becoming corrupted by the god of war Ares. As Diana grows into a woman she wants to become a warrior so she may better fight defend the planet from Ares, her mother is hesitant and would rather have the Amazonians care for their own little corner of the world. Whilst the outside world goes on oblivious.
After witnessing a plane crash into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot Steve Trevor(Chris Pine) from drowning. The first man she has ever met. Before she has time to dwell on this, a troop of German soldiers come after Steve. Fighting alongside her Amazonian sisters, Diana cuts down the invaders but not before experiencing the destructive power of mankind’s weapons. After the bloodshed, Steve informs the Amazonins that the outside world is in the grips of a massive global conflict (World War One) where dangerous chemical weapons are being made with the potential to destroy thousands of lives. Taking up her duty as an Amazonian, Diana believes Ares is responsible for the calamity and leaves her home with Steve in the hopes to end all war altogether, an adventure that will take her from her Greek Island home, to wartime London and the trenches of the Western Front.
Wonder Woman has been receiving a lot of praise since it came out. Aside from being the first legitimately great DCU movie, Wonder Woman is the first legitimately great female superhero movie, it’s the movie you can take young girls to and have them see a woman onscreen as the central hero rather than the token love interest or supporting character.
Had this movie starred a male superhero instead of a female one, it would probably just be an average movie, but this misses the point entirely. There is great power in seeing Wonder Woman in action. As Chris Pine’s character goes down with his plane he stares upward hopelessly at the surface to see this strong womanly spectre staring down at him. This is quickly followed by the spectacle of an army of Amazonian women on horseback fighting off the Germans in broad daylight with swords and bows. You see Robin Wright’s mentor character do this awesome slow motion jump into the air and fire off three arrows at once – and it looks fantastic. What’s more because of Patty Jenkins at the helm, there are no leery wandering upskirt shots or questionable placement of camera to emphasise certain body parts. There’s just so much imagery of women doing badass stunts and its exhilarating to watch.
This all rises to the epicentre of the movie, the most talked about scene, when Wonder Woman steps up in her full superhero form. On the Western Front she defiantly, climbs a ladder and goes over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land and deflect German bullets. It is a symbolically huge moment. This then leads to an action sequence in which Wonder Woman basically does her thing and clears an entire occupied village of German soldiers. It all leads up to the hero jumping up and smashing into a church tower and ends with the inhabitants of the liberated village all staring up at her in awe. It’s a fantastic sequence. It’s that one great scene that you recognise from other classic superhero movies. It’s Batman standing on top of a skyscraper in Batman Begins, it’s Peter Parker stopping the out of control train in Spiderman 2, it’s Christopher Reeve entering that revolving door changing into Superman and taking flight to save Lois Lane for the first time.
You suddenly realise, that’s it, that’s what these superhero movies are all about. It’s about showing great strength embodied by this human being or variation of the human being. Something powerful and good, yet extraordinarily but also crucially a representation of ourselves, a figure we can relate to or look up to. There’s been so many comic book super heroes by this point, not many have that crucial defining moment.
Like both Christopher Reeve in Superman, or Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, Wonder Woman is grounded by a towering leading presence. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman, she’ll forever be Wonder Woman to generations of girls and boys from here on in. Her character is this very pure embodiment of righteousness and sense of morality but at the same time there is a naivety which makes her slightly imperfect and gives her something of an arc to grapple with. She goes out into the world with a noble if wholly unrealistic cause, to end all war all together. As she gets there, she gradually learns that it’s not as simple as that.
It goes without saying that Gal Gadot is very beautiful, but then everybody in this movie is so very beautiful. Most importantly she smiles a lot, and it just goes a long way to lighten the tone despite being set in the troubling conflict of World War I or indeed the DC universe as it currently stands where nobody ever smiles, not even superman. She is this powerful being but she loses that sense of femininity, it could have been very easy to make her this cold detached warrior princess, but you delight when she delights upon seeing a baby for the first time.
That brings us into the other crucial essence of this movie. It’s funny! Throughout the first half, Wonder Woman is played as a fish out of water story. Diana comes from this all female world, where females are in power and enters this very different world at the beginning of the 20th Century. She functions as this modern feminist ideal within this period drama where women are only just about to gain the power of voting. We see her grapple with the concept of trying on dresses and coming to terms with the definition of secretary.
Chris Pine effectively plays the straight man next to Diana, a kind of world weary cynic with the boundless charisma he used in his role as Captain Kirk. He essentially serves to act as the audience to enhance the fish out of water story beats. And again, it’s nice to see a romance develop between the two. It doesn’t feel forced, the film makers don’t retreat from it. Finally it gives the movie real stakes.
If there are problems they are only very minor. Into Wonder Woman’s third act, the movie does deteriorate into an all out assault of mass digital destruction. Some of the effects when Wonder Woman is in action do come across as a little ropey, as if Gal Gadot’s face has been super imposed onto another woman’s body. Storywise it may have been better if Diana’s realisation of the true nature of the world at war was more gradual rather than just a third act revelation switch.
Next to the glaring problems of Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, it’s refreshing to see the DCU get a movie right for a change. Wonder Woman is remarkably stand alone, there is little in the way of teases for future movies or shoehorned introductions of characters or elements that are yet to be expanded upon. It has a story to tell and focuses on telling it. No scene feels wasted, no scene feels boring or underwritten, it’s funny when it wants to be there is a equal balance of light and darkness, whilst still preserving all the grand superhero spectacle, which suddenly becomes more important through the vision of this all powerful female hero. Even when the film descends into third act spectacle it never loses the characters within the storm.
There are so many super hero movies being released today. Some have knives for hands, some can decrease their physical size to an ant, some shoot white sticky substances out of their wrists… Some superheroes have already rebooted countless times already and will be rebooted many times in the future. Some are light and quippy with no sense of conflict or stakes, some are dark and brooding like a teenager who refuses to clean his room when asked. It’s becoming very easy to write these comic book movies off because of their frequency, however like Richard Donner’s Superman or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2, Wonder Woman reminded me of why these super hero stories are important and stands up with the best of them.
It was surprising that the DC/Warner Brothers stable managed to make a movie worse than Batman Vs Superman last year, but they did with Suicide Squad. What’s suprising about Wonder Woman isn’t that is just steps over the low bar placed by those dumpster fires. It does the high-jump over the bar, it pulls off the triple front flip and lands flawlessly on the other side and it does it all so effortlessly. Gal Gadot is surely destined to become an icon, forget Batman and Superman, I can’t wait to see more Wonder Woman.
And that guitar riff is still cool as fuck.