Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut last year in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but from a plot perspective, she didn’t really need to. Her role isn’t much more than a glorified cameo whose main purpose seems to be to set up future films.
Tonally, though, her introduction was crucial. Wonder Woman felt like a glowing beacon of hope in a grim and gritty movie, and her uncomplicated heroism stood in stark relief to the more tormented variety exemplified by her future Justice League teammates.
This week’s big release proves that was no fluke. Wonder Woman the movie does for the DCEU what Wonder Woman the character did for Batman v Superman, offering a different perspective on the franchise that brings its vision into clearer focus. And in doing so, it becomes one of the most inspiring superhero movies since Captain America: The First Avenger.
If Gal Gadot’s all-too-brief appearance in Batman v Superman was promising, she fulfills that potential and then some in Wonder Woman. Diana is a tricky character: She needs to be optimistic but not naive, fierce but not frightening, unquestionably good but not tragically boring, intriguingly alien but not totally inhuman. Gadot, with help from director Patty Jenkins and the screenwriters, get this balance exactly right and gives Diana a disarming warmth that makes it impossible not to love her.
Diana’s unique persona is explained by her upbringing on Themyscira, a secluded island paradise. The setting looks, basically, like a Mediterranean Rivendell, but it’s the population that makes it unusual – this is an all-female community of warriors. It’s a thrillingly unusual setting for a superhero movie, or really even just cinema in general, and it means all the more because of how rare movies like Wonder Woman are. Themyscira offers a tantalizing vision of a world in which female-driven narratives are a pleasant norm, rather than a dramatic oddity.
The Amazons’ creation myth explains why they spend their eternal lives preparing for a battle that never seems to arrive. That is, until the day that American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on Themyscira’s shore, bringing word of “a war to end all wars.”
Steve also unwittingly brings with him a boatload of angry Germans who are eager to get back the intel he’s stolen from them, which leads to a battle on the beach. Jenkins and her team have great fun showcasing the Amazons’ distinct fighting style, which emphasizes precision and agility over brute force (though they’re also more than capable of packing a punch when the occasion calls for it). Her eye for action serves Wonder Woman well until its climax, which eventually and unfortunately devolves into the dreary CG nonsense we’ve come to expect from big-budget blockbusters like these.
The conflict spurs Diana to follow Steve into the world of man, and although it’s a shame to leave Themyscira behind, it’s no less compelling to watch Diana try and navigate our world (or at least a version of it, circa World War I). Wonder Woman has plenty of fun with Diana’s fish-out-of-water situation, and Gadot’s reactions are priceless as Diana learns about corsets, department stores, and women’s suffrage. She’s even better when paired with the hilarious Lucy Davis, who plays Steve’s secretary Etta Candy.
However, Diana’s ignorance of our world also provides much of the film’s pathos. Battle is a familiar sight to these human characters, as well as to us watching in the theater (through pop culture and the media, anyway, if not through actual lived experience). But it’s all new to Diana. As far as World War I pictures go, Wonder Woman isn’t all that graphic or gory. By showing us our world through her eyes, though, Wonder Woman serves up a fresh appreciation for how horrific a concept war truly is – as well as how deeply embedded it is in human culture, and how insurmountable a task it would be to change that.
Because Diana is unused to war, she’s utterly unable to tune out any form of suffering caused by it. When she expresses outrage at a risky military maneuver, British officers shrug that dying in battle is just “what soldiers do.” En route to the trenches, Diana keeps running into devastated civilians and dying soldiers, only to be told “There’s nothing we can do about it, Diana,” and “There’s no time, Diana,” and “We can’t save everyone in this war, Diana.”
These are all the things we tell ourselves to make war palatable. But Diana being Diana, she refuses to accept these justifications. There is no victim too insignificant for Diana to care about, and no mission too daunting for her to attempt. (It’s the kind of mentality that might drive a woman to shrug “I’ve killed things from other worlds before” when faced with an enormous alien monster, for example.)
We, meanwhile, are reflected in Steve Trevor – a basically decent guy who’s been hardened by the horrors of this world, but who retains enough sincerity to be moved by Diana. Pine’s been ill-served by blandsome hero roles in the past, but he looks perfectly comfortable here as the supporting character to a more luminous lead. (So comfortable, in fact, that I fear someone will see Wonder Woman and try to give Pine another Jack Ryan-style role.) He’s charismatic in a way that makes it easy to understand Diana’s fascination with him, and the script gives their flirtation just enough of an edge to make their romance seem genuinely sexy, not just sweet.
With all of the above going on, Wonder Woman‘s villains can’t help but feel like afterthoughts – as if, after completing a really thoughtful script about a goddess who’s forced to reckon with the nature of humankind, the writers were told that they had to include some superpowered baddies for merchandising purposes. There are a few of them, and some of them look mildly cool; none of them are interesting enough to be worth remembering.
But such stumbles are easy to forgive when Wonder Woman gets so much else right. Diana’s origin story functions perfectly well on its own merits, but it’s bookended by scenes set in the present day, as Diana reflects on her role among humankind. “I used to want to save the world, but I knew so little then,” she muses in a voiceover. The closer you get to humans, she observes, “the more you see the great darkness simmering within.”
It’s a speech you could almost hear Batman or Superman making in Batman v Superman – like Diana, both characters have seen the worst of human nature and decided to try and do good in the world anyway. The difference is that while Man of Steel and Batman v Superman emphasized the pain and rage that can drive a superhero, Wonder Woman reminds us that love and joy can be part of that equation, too.