Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.
Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.
The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.
I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.
So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.
They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.
But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.
And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.
It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?
Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.