A major problem with the last two movies set in the DC universe – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad – (among quite a few other problems, especially with Suicide Squad) is that they were dark and gritty just for the sake of being dark and gritty. And these bleak outlooks on existence maybe wouldn’t be so grating if not for the fact that the world we live in has become so bleak. So, no, it’s not exactly “fun” to buy a ticket for a Superman movie and walk out after so bummed out – and then remember, “Oh yeah, the world is terrible in real life, too.” The fictional dystopias don’t seem quite as fictional anymore.
This is why I maintain a movie like 1978’s Superman would play pretty well today. There’s no cynicism in that character – he’s just pure good. And you want to see him win because he stands for what’s right. Marvel has figured this out with Captain America. Remember when the first Captain America movie was announced? People rolled their eyes and couldn’t understand how such an earnest character would succeed in a new superhero world where every hero is damaged and flawed and skirts the boundaries of what’s right and what’s wrong. And then we kind of all realized we needed Captain America (and not to mention Chris Evans himself, who has sort of coopted the role of a moral crusader himself on social media).
Watching Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, I felt that same sense of overwhelming good emitting from Gal Gadot’s portrayal as I did with Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Again, there’s no hint of cynicism coming from Gadot’s Diana (Jenkins — who we interviewed recently — thankfully doesn’t even try to come up with a reason why anyone would refer to Diana as “Wonder Woman,” so that title is never spoken) – we just know she stands for good. And, my gosh, is that a refreshing surprise. It seems in this ever-expanding cinematic DC Extended Universe, Wonder Woman will be playing the role of Superman – the true north of DC superheroes.
Don’t misunderstand: Wonder Woman as a film has little in common with 1978’s Superman. There certainly is some of that darkness and grittiness in the film. It’s set during World War I — a particularly brutal war known for its use of gas warfare, which plays a big role in the film, so it’s hard to avoid that subtext — but the characters aren’t dark and gritty. They’re not sad and full of angst because their parents were murdered 30 years before. Both Gadot’s Diana and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor are surprisingly hopeful, just trying to do what they both can to put an end to the hellscape they find themselves in.
Diana lives on Themyscira, a hidden paradise of an island where there are no men. They were hidden by Zeus to protect them from the atrocities of the world that man has created after being infected with the need for war by Ares. (Yes, the beginning of the film is filled with exposition, as it’s being told to a young Diana, but as far as these things go it’s not too taxing.)
One day a plane crashes into the waters surrounding the island and Diana rescues the pilot (Pine) – but he’s being chased by a battalion of German soldiers, who bring the war to Diana and her people.
Though Diana’s mother is against the idea, Diana cannot sit back and do nothing while millions of civilians are dying. She agrees to leave with Trevor in an effort to end “the war to end all wars” in their own ways. (Trevor, a spy, needs to deliver the plans of a secret poisonous gas mixture to London; Diana is convinced Ares is behind this whole thing and vows to kill him.)
Wonder Woman has a vibe reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger (a shield-welding superhero in the middle of a World War) meets the first Thor (a powerful god has to learn to fit in with humans and is a fish out of water). The backdrop of war is grim, but the characters remain true and finally here’s a DC movie with real warmth and humor – mostly in the form of banter between Gadot and Pine.
If we are comparing this to Marvel movies (which I guess I am right now), Wonder Woman does suffer from the same problem Marvel often runs into: the not-so-great villains. Here we get General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, playing a the real-life German general) and Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya) who don’t have a ton to do expect talk about how this poison they are making will turn the tide of war in their favor. In a way it’s weird they are even in the movie because the film makes it pretty clear that the enemy is war itself and the tendency of humans to eradicate other cultures. (There’s a scene where Chief, a smuggler of Native American descent fighting alongside Diana and Steve, mentions to Diana that it was Steve’s people who took his home. There’s a theme throughout Wonder Woman in which Diana slowly learns that there’s a lot of awful in this world and she has to decide if she’s willing to fight for it regardless.) And near the end there’s a final showdown that doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the film, but it’s interlaced with the most emotional scene of the movie.
Wonder Woman is coming out at a good time. This is the movie a lot of us need right now and Wonder Woman is the hero we all kind of need right now: you know, the one who actually makes us feel good. I left feeling like maybe there’s still hope in this world. (It didn’t last long, but still.) We see assholes on television every day – our so-called “leaders” – so it’s nice to enter a world where at least one person wants to do the right thing, even if she’s fictional.
Wonder Woman is the fourth movie of the DCEU and it’s easily its best (and I say this as someone who liked Man of Steel). Wonder Woman will give hope to people hoping for a well-made DC movie – but it also puts even more pressure on Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Because Patty Jenkins just proved it’s possible to make a great DC movie.
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