People have been trying to bring comic book superheroes to the screen for a long, long time. In 2017, they've succeeded.
Wonder Woman has, it's fair to say, blown audiences away. Critics are raving, and fans are returning to theaters again and again, resulting in the smallest second week drop-off of any DC film to date. But what is it exactly about Wonder Woman that has set it apart from all of the other superhero movies that are out there? Sure, other movies from both DC and Marvel have been good, but none have inspired the same level of fervor that this movie has.
One reason is that it's the first movie to star a female superhero. Sure, The Wasp is coming to Marvel, and Black Widow is a superhero (sort of), but Wonder Woman is the first movie to be about a woman superhero. More than that, though, the director herself is a woman. It’s impossible to discuss all the ways the film succeeds without first acknowledging that it is one of the first movies to be predominantly, well, girly (and we mean that in the best of ways).
There’s long been a standard line of thought among Hollywood executives that said women superheroes will never work. Heck, Marvel President Ike Perlmutter said as much in some leaked e-mails. But Wonder Woman proves them wrong, forever. In the same way that The Dark Knight and Iron Man wrought seismic changes on the landscape of cinema, so has Wonder Woman. For the first time, people can see that women heroes can exist, thrive -- and beat their male competitors. After the male gaze-y (read: butt-centric) Suicide Squad, seeing a movie where there’s no lingering gaze fueling masturbatory fantasies despite featuring tons of beautiful and scantily clad women is a breath of fresh air.
But this film doesn't just aschew traditional male gaze, it also employs some eye candy for women (and those of other genders who dig the heck out of men). Steve Trevor, more than anything, is the love interest of the movie. From his scene in the bath to his dance with Diana, Steve is the one that people watching the movie want to be with. He’s not the hero -- he’s the damsel in distress. Sure, he can kick butt, but his main character trait is to be saved by Diana and die to give her emotions. Steve Trevor was fridged, after being perfect the whole movie -- and that’s one of the coolest things that happened in a movie stacked with cool things.
Of course, all this heterocentricism is ignoring the fact that Wonder Woman is perhaps the queerest superhero movie ever made. Actually, strike that "perhaps." It is the single queerest superhero movie ever made. Not only is the lead of the film a bisexual in the comics, she implies she’s one in the film via her notable line about men not being necessary for pleasure, which baffled male critics who apparently have never heard of lesbians.
Which is weird, since there's actually a lesbian in the movie: Robin Wright's Antiope, the warrior-general who trained Diana to be able to grow into the wonder she becomes. Admittedly one of the strongest characters of the entire film, Antiope is also the strongest warrior on the island (excepting Diana), and she is the first superhero movie character whose same-sex love interest is shown on screen. During the beach scene, we see Antiope’s girlfriend run to her, crying. Something as small and simple as that moment holds a profound meaning to those of us in the queer community.
The movie makes leaps and bounds in terms of portrayal of women and queer people. But even on more than on a progressive level, the movie is stunning. When it’s scary, it’s terrifying. When action breaks out, it’s pulse-pounding. Not to sound hyperbolic, but this movie is a wonder. (Pun entirely intended.) But not only does it strive to do fresh, new things with what is quickly becoming a staid genre, it also succeeds in all the ways its predecessors have failed. It understands what makes a superhero, and doesn’t hesitate to show Diana as one.
Think of the climatic No Man’s Land scene. Everyone’s talked about it: the most dramatic and interesting scene in the film is when Diana, Trevor, and the gang are traveling through the trenches and Diana hears about a city in distress. It doesn't matter that she's heading to stop Ares. It does not matter that these people don’t know her, have no effect on her. All that matters is that they need help, and she can help them.
Her journey through No Man’s Land, deflecting bullets, then shield high, is when we truly first see her as Wonder Woman, and not just because of her costume. This is her first time as a superhero. It’s not just a landmark for Diana, but for film as well, because this is one of the first times we’ve ever seen what a superhero truly is on the big screen. This is perhaps the first movie that really makes you feel like the hero is, well, a hero. Other movies get bogged down in personal conflicts. Will Grumpy Scowl Man win against Weird Gangster Clown? Will Man Who Flies win against Dude Mad at His Dad? All of them end up revolving around weird personal conflicts.
But then came Wonder Woman, and while there is a major villain (Ares) involved in her story, it turns out the war isn’t his doing and her journey was not "meant to be." He didn’t cause The Great War at all, let alone create it in order to bring her into the fray. He did what he always did, fertilizing mankind's own seeds of violence. and as soon as Diana heard of it, she realized she knew what to do -- she needed to help, no matter the cost. You know, like a superhero.
I'd go as far as to argue actually featuring Ares in the film at all, almost weakens it, but in the end it works. We get to see Diana falter at her discover of the weakness of man and get to see a special effects laden battle that, weak as it is at the beginning, is a fitting end to the film for reasons that will be made clear below.
Even discussing the film separate from other superhero movies, essentially separating the film from its history, it remains astounding and supremely enjoyable. It’s filled with real stakes, real heart, real joy, real fear... and real terror.
The world Wonder Woman inhabits feels genuine, and so do all of the people in it. The world of Themyscira is beautifully built and has such a sense of history. The WWI-era London feels real, filled with an incredible amount of detail despite so little of the movie taking place in it. Then, once we get to the war, Wonder Woman becomes heart-breaking.
We’ve all seen the dehumanizing, violent side of warfare before, but seeing it from the perspective of someone who won’t put up with the banal brutality of it, someone who will stand and say, “No more.” It’s... I really don’t want to keep saying "wonder," but honestly, how else would you describe it? It’s an amazing scene, regardless of your emotional connection to Diana.
The action scene following No Man’s Land is one of the most powerful and fast-paced since the (now cliche) lobby gunfight in the original Matrix film. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that two of the best action scenes of our time have been directed by women. In fact, the movie's visual effects are stunning overall, though the special effects are all pretty standard action movie effects -- until the ending.
During Diana’s battle with Ares, the landscape seems to change, becoming nothing but a broken field of fire and destruction. The background transforms into something that isn’t naturalistic, something that eschews depicting reality in favor of what is happening emotionally. Comics do this all the time (and anime, too) but this is the first time a big budget summer film has so heavily betrayed the logic of a scene in order to portray its emotional reality.
But, of course, that’s because Wonder Woman is pretty much perfect. Perfect on its own.
Yes, while all of the other superhero films are attempting to “build a Universe” Wonder Woman stands apart, tying into the DCEU in the smallest of ways via a small scene with hints of Bruce Wayne's presence. The film's story works on its own, divorced from any other superhero movie, which hasn’t been true of any superhero movie since perhaps the first Spider-Man. And like the first Spider-Man, this movie is coming out at just the right time -- a bright spot in what has been a dismal time for the Universe to which it belongs.
Another note, however small, is that this is perhaps the first superhero movie where the romance plotline doesn't feel shoehorned in. It’s a known trope that in Hollywood, every movie needs a romance. Most of the time, this comes off as poorly done -- see The Dark Knight -- or vaguely sexist -- see Guardians of the Galaxy -- but in Wonder Woman, the romance between Diana and Steve Trevor feels perfect and natural, filled with heart and warmth. Seeing these two characters -- two soldiers, warriors -- bond was one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. Having a romance become one of the biggest draws for a supehero film is so alien, it feels weird to say it, but there you have it.
The romance is one of the best we've seen in a superhero film since the original Superman: The Movie, which brings us to the only film that can compete with Wonder Woman for the title of Best Superhero Movie Ever.
Richard Donner’s 1978 film was a revelation, and perhaps the only other movie that got its hero right in the same way, to the same degree that Wonder Woman does. Of course, there's more similarities between the two than how they understand their title characters.
Like Wonder Woman, Superman’s big screen birthplace is populated with Hollywood legends, the first third of his movie takes place in this other world, and it is all about a young superhero doing good (and being beset by a ridiculous looking villain with a much cooler girl assistant). Heck, Wonder Woman openly draws inspiration from this film, replicating the mugging scene from Superman -- where he catches the bullet -- with Diana blocking a bullet in order to save Steve.
For the first time since Superman: The Movie, a superhero film has been released that understands that being a superhero is about having amazing powers and doing good, selflessly, for others. Also, for the first time since Superman, we have a movie with a vivid and believable love interest, special effects to astound, and an actor who is perfect for the character.
It's appropriate that the best movie since Superman is Wonder Woman; sadly, it took almost forty years for it to happen. Hopefully it won’t take another forty years for another movie to join their ranks. (c'mon Batman -- complete the Trinity!) Aside from those two, no other movie has been able to fully replicate what is great about superhero comics. As enjoyable as many of them are, all of them have been thrillers or action movies with weird, sometimes colorful coats on top. Wonder Woman and the original Superman are the only two that are truly super.
But Wonder Woman is the best. Perhaps it’s because it came later, perhaps it’s because it had a woman director and woman star. Perhaps its because its villain’s plot doesn’t boil down to “real estate.” There are lots of reasons, and you can argue them all, but in the end, Wonder Woman is the most powerful superhero movie we've ever seen. It's one of the best acted, best directed, and supremely beautiful blockbuster movies ever made. And while that’s still not enough to make up for the fact that Diana had to wait so long to have her own solo movie, it’s a good start.