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Is she with you?

Wonder Woman is good. Like, Marvel Phase 1 good. In fact, it owes such a massive debt to both Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor that the weird and often toxic fandom around DCEU and their obsession with being “better than the MCU” is even more ironic than usual. However, forgetting about those kinds of people as they so richly deserve leaves the question as to whether it should count against this movie that its creative team bothered to finally learn something from their wildly more consistent and successful counterparts at Marvel. I don’t think so. I think good superhero movies with actual shit to say is a tide that raises all the ships. I have given this current generation of DC superhero movies a lot of shit, we all have, but most of us still want them to be good.

And with Wonder Woman, there’s a glimmer of hope that they can be. People are looking for a fluke reason why Wonder Woman is good, like this success couldn’t be replicated without secret handshakes and spinning around in place an arbitrary number of times before sitting down to write the script or pick up a camera or whatever. It’s nonsense. This movie is good because it gives a shit and the people who made it give a shit. They aren’t embarrassed or cynical about this being a sincere story about heroism. They lean into it. On top of that, it’s probably one of the most if not the most culturally significant superhero movies there is. It’s embarrassing at this point, 10 years into the era of shared superhero universes, that we’re only now getting Wonder Woman. I will talk about Wonder Woman‘s feminism and its impact (including some similar ideas), but I also want to point my readers to a great piece by BMD’s Meredith Borders, who offers a nerdy woman’s perspective on the significance of this movie.

That all said, there are definite imbalances and flaws in the movie. I’ll talk about them below, but by and large this movie stands up well against the MCU, or I should probably say alongside it? Honestly, I don’t think many people would be able to make a meaningful distinction between MCU and DCEU properties using Wonder Woman as a basis. And I think that’s okay, but it may disappoint DCEU fans who are looking for something more distinguishing besides just beating Marvel to the punch on having a movie focused on a woman. Wonder Woman focuses on what works best for these kinds of movies: character, humor, symbolism, and heroism.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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The part of Italy that stood in as Themyscira is jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Wonder Woman‘s first moments feel like a bit of a misstep, actually. It begins with Diana (Gal Gadot) in the present, living in Paris as some kind of archaeologist. She receives a package from Wayne Enterprises. It’s the picture she was trying to get from Luthor in Batman vs. Superman. This is the one bridge to the shared universe that this movie bothers with, thankfully, but it also presents the movie with an unfortunate framing device. Having Diana reminiscing the events of this movie while sitting at a desk staring at a hundred year old photograph just feels weirdly artificial, especially alongside the dull voice over, and probably should have been left for the movie’s epilogue rather than bookending it.

Ultimately, it’s a bit of a false note but a minor one. More of an issue is the dry first act, which features Diana as a curious and energetic child being raised among the Amazons of Themyscira, a paradise hidden away from the world of men. She’s the only child there and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is fiercely protective even as her own sister Antiope (Robin Wright) urges her to begin training Diana against an uncertain future. These scenes are beautiful, with Themyscira’s on-location photography giving the increasingly artificial and CG-laden environments of Wonder Woman an early feel of realness and presence. The Amazons are cool, a clan of ascetic warrior women who remember mythology as history. It’s also pretty cool that all the speaking roles are done in an Israeli accent to match Gal Gadot’s, which also gives this hidden culture a mystique it wouldn’t have if they all used British accents, which is a norm in this kind of thing.

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Nielsen and Wright are excellent in roles that actresses their age simply never get. More roles like this in movies, please.

Hippolyta is reluctant, fearing Diana will learn too much about who she is… which audiences will pick up immediately during a cool-looking but very info-dumpy “bed time story” that sets up the mystical underpinnings of the movie’s story. Ares attacked all the other gods, killing ’em all, but not before Zeus could leave the Amazons with a weapon to stop him if he ever emerged again. It’s pretty obvious where this is going, so again I think it’s another small false note that the movie devotes so much time to setting this up in one of the least interesting ways possible. I don’t want to play the “they should have…” game, but just imagine if instead of Diana in Paris, Wonder Woman opened with a Fellowship of the Ring or Thor: The Dark World style prologue?

The condition to let Diana be trained is that she has to be the fucking best, pushed harder and made tougher than any other Amazon. But Diana holds back, showing her real power only rarely and to her own surprise. There’s a good mix of shock and delight from her as she discovers what she can really do and her slow development from Amazon to Goddess over the course of the movie is treated subtly, with deft hands, making each new feat a revelation unto itself. This is a brilliant and satisfying way to handle it and while it’s not being talked about that much, I think it’s one of Wonder Woman‘s best and most fresh interpretations of superhero tropes.

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The Amazons kick piles of ass. Robin Wright disappears into Antiope and honestly, I never would have imagined her in a role like this. Which is, again, why it’s so great.

Everything’s going pretty well for Diana until the day Hippolyta feared and Antiope anticipated finally arrives. A German plane crashes into the water off the coast of the island, witnessed by Diana who immediately goes down to investigate. She pulls out an American pilot in a German uniform, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Though I said the first act is a bit dry, I mostly meant the pre-Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot parts. When Gadot shows up, Trevor follows not far behind and together they carry most of the rest of the movie on their shoulders. Trevor’s appearance is followed quickly by a force of German soldiers which are in pursuit. They are fought off by the Amazons in a stirring battle scene, but not without great cost. The action in this movie is usually very good, with a bit of dodgy CGI (especially environments) in later scenes. Here, the fight is mostly practical and focused on the ancient tactics and weaponry of the Amazons. It is shot on a real beach, so enjoy that while it lasts.

Trevor reveals he’s a spy who infiltrated German ranks to discover dangerous gas weapons being developed by the movie’s bad guys: a rogue, hawkish general called Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and a sinister, deformed chemist called Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya). They’re trying to disrupt an armistice by proving that the Germans can still win the war if they unleash horrific weapons. When she hears this, Diana is sure that this is the result of Ares’s influence. She’s determined to stop him, hoping to lead a force of Amazons back into the world of men to help them out. She sincerely just wants to help, but her mother forbids it. Before long, Diana decides she’s going to go anyway. This is not the first time someone tells her what to do and she looks inwardly and decides for herself. Her tendency to do that is the heart of her heroism, her feminism, and her inspirational presence in the movie. It’s what makes her her.

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She thinks the sword is more than a sword, which is a cool inversion of the importance of Mjolnir in Thor and thus the influence of Thor in this movie.

She sets off with Steve Trevor, but not before Hippolyta can give her a reluctant blessing. This signals the end of the uneven first act and the beginning of the best part of Wonder Woman, which is so often the worst part of other big action-adventure movies: the second act. When Diana sits on the boat bantering with Steve Trevor about sex, the rules around “sleeping” beside men, and so on, you feel the movie coming fully to life. Gal Gadot also cements her ownership of this role, another irony when a common sentiment among people following the marketing was that you didn’t hear Gadot talking in the trailers much because she wasn’t a good enough actress and they were trying to minimize how much the marketing relied on her. Total bullshit, I’m happy to report, as Gadot breaks out in a major way with this film. She was the best part of Batman vs. Superman (well, her theme song was anyway) and stood out in the Fast and Furious movies she was part of, so I’m not really surprised. I do think, though, that tearing her down before anyone even saw the movie was just more of the veiled or unexamined sexism that has dogged this movie since day one. Gadot inhabits Diana fully. She’s got the heart, humour, grace, and beauty down pat. You can also draw a direct line between her buoyancy and optimism to the quieter, more mature woman in Batman vs. Superman. It’s subtle, but it’s trackable that we’re seeing two different versions of the same woman, separated by time and experience.

It’s also amazing, by the way, that in spite of the fact that the Wonder Woman costume is still basically a cheerleader outfit, both Jenkins and Gadot manage to instill in Diana a sensuality, a femininity, and a charisma that is never gratuitous, oversexualized, or otherwise pandering to the male gaze of the fourteen year old boys you assume the WB would be desperate to appease (given the sophistication of their recent DC movies). Diana is also allowed to express many kinds of femininity throughout the movie. She can like babies and still toss dudes around in a bar fight. My one regret is that they didn’t pause in the Veld scenes long enough for her to learn to like beer. SO CLOSE!

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Lucy Davis steals every scene she’s in. Oh and Pine is pretty good too.

The second act is worth examining in detail. This is the part of the movie where Diana is dropped into the war-torn Europe of the early 20th century. She resists the prescribed roles for women right out of the gate, sometimes humourously and other times in a way that will make you want to pump your fist and cheer her on. She barges into places she’s not allowed, she openly challenges the decorum of an aristocratic and cowardly elite, and she refuses to, as Meredith Borders said, stay put. You can basically play a drinking game out of all the times people, especially Steve Trevor, tell her to not do something or to stay somewhere, and she just ignores them or argues with them until they back down. This stuff has major baggage, which some viewers will be unaware of. Women constantly get shit for speaking up for themselves and their points of view, and often they don’t have the power Diana does to just step past or outside the institutions, norms, and power they are challenging. Which is why Diana is inspiring. She does her.

The flagship scene of this movie, the moment when Diana first assumes the full mantle of Wonder Woman, is a scene just like that. She is in the trenches, finally seeing the front of the war she’s been trying to get Steve Trevor to show her. There’s horror in spades, and the lines are frozen by German guns even as their compatriots pillage nearby towns. A woman begs Diana to do something about her village, behind enemy lines. She wants to climb up out of the trenches and take the field, but Trevor says “no man can cross that”. She goes anyway, and kids, it’s fucking triumphant.

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Spoiler: the bomb asplode.

This was my favorite scene in the movie, a great big spectacle sequence of whiz bang heroics supported by a very simple thematic heroism. Diana sees injustice and she gets up and does something about it. This is so much in the vein of MCU’s Captain America that it becomes painfully obvious that this kind of selflessness and bravery is exactly what the “heroes” the DCEU have been missing. I really hope WB is smart enough to double down on this in their future movies that feature this character. Build them around her, not fucking Batman.

What also helps this sequence, and the second act in general, is that it takes the war about as seriously as a comic book superhero movie can. It’s far from the cartoon of Captain America but it’s not quite All’s Quiet on the Western Front either. I was impressed by Jenkins’s willingness to pause on moments of pain and horror, because doing so is exactly what makes Diana’s inspiration meaningful both to the characters in the movie that follow her across No Man’s Land and to the audience who will likely remember this scene long after they forget how fake looking the CGI sets are.

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This movie also makes an earnest and mostly successful effort to make its secondary characters feel like real characters.

The squad Trevor and Diana put together for their mission to stop Ludendorff and Maru is made up of character actors getting to do some juicy stuff in roles that are usually underwritten to the point of meaninglessness. To compare Wonder Woman to Captain America: The First Avenger yet again, I challenge you to remember anything about the Howling Commandos except Bucky and the dude in the bowler hat (yes I know who he actually is). Here, we get a diverse bunch of “smugglers, liars, and murderers” that all have more going on than their first appearances, which to be fair are a bit problematized by an over-reliance on markers of their otherness. For example, the American First Nations character is referred to as “The Chief” (Eugene Brave Rock) and we should be past that even in an historical movie where it’s probably likely a Native’s white buddies would call him that. Sameer’s  (Said Taghmaoui) fez hat and Charlie’s (Ewen Bremner) ostentatious kilt are slightly less egregious examples of the same kind of iconographic shorthand that feels lazy. I’m unsure if Jenkins was trying to make a point by juxtaposing these images with the depth of the characters in the actual script, but that I’m unsure suggests that any efforts toward that end were unsuccessful.

If we set aside those issues, there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about these three. Sameer reminds Diana that many people struggle in their identities, that skin can be as limiting in an oppressive world as one’s plumbing. Charlie boasts about his killing prowess, but screams in the night with memories of his victims. Chief, meanwhile, is thoughtful and aloof, preferring to take no sides and make his way as best he can. They all represent, along with the roguish but well-meaning Steve Trevor, different sides and dimensions of the masculine types that we all see all the time, that we all take for granted by aspiring to or modelling. They are all also damaged. Sameer can never be what he really wants to be, Charlie is a direct criticism of the Call of Duty style glorification of war and killing, Chief is an example of tough guy stoicism hiding deeper pain, while Steve Trevor has to learn that he doesn’t have to always save the day, “be the guy”, that helping is sometimes enough. It’s a big deal that all these dudes choose to fight for Diana, that they are somewhat healed by her and by helping her. Sometimes that just means getting out of her way, other times it means listening and supporting. Buried within the spectacle of Wonder Woman is a primer on the better ways men could treat women if we could only stop placing ourselves above them.

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Gadot skeptics will be won over by the payoff in her relationship to Charlie. Her “but who will sing for us?” line is delivered with such openness, empathy, and affection that it could break your heart for both of these characters. And it’s a moment so small and so masterful that it could be easy to miss. So don’t miss it.

The second act is really just great. It’s the third act where the deficiencies in the script, on a structural nuts and bolts level, really start to show. Wonder Woman‘s weakest element might be its script, but even so it’s a script that is rich with symbolic intention (to be fair, a lot of that could have come more directly from performance and direction). Up to the point where Sir Morgan (David Thewlis) reveals that he is Ares, not Ludendorff as previously alluded to, I think it’s fair to say that the script is far from the most important part of the movie anyway. Often a movie lives or dies by its script, but Marvel proved that you can have movies with weaker scripts and make it on great characters, rich themes, and the charisma of performance. For a long time, Marvel movies had only passable or outright bad third acts where all the whiz bang superhero shit would coalesce into an obligatory CGI battle that lacked a certain spark, or over-relied on the MCU’s signature underwritten villains. Wonder Woman has this problem, which the MCU has largely begun to fix in its own movies, but it isn’t enough to bring down the whole enterprise.

However, it’s still a blight on the movie, so here we go: Steve Trevor’s sacrifice is a cringe-inducing lift from The First Avenger and represents the movie trying to have its cake and eat it too (has Trevor really learned to be an ally if he rushes off to play the self-sacrificing hero first chance he gets?) and feels divorced from Diana’s storyline at that point. This is made most clear by the bizarre choice to show the same scene of his last words to Diana twice, once with her unable to hear him and the second time, in her memory of the moment, able to. It’s bizarre and cheapens the impact of his final act, hackneyed though it may be. Pine sells it all pretty well, and in focusing on Gal Gadot I have somewhat marginalized just how good he is in this movie (he’s really fucking good), but ultimately this is a thing that a good character/performance can’t patch. It would be a different story if what Diana was doing felt as consistent with the preceding movie as what Trevor and the squad are (trying to destroy the evil gas bombs). Instead, Ares shows up and gives Rote Villain Speech #946 before using a bunch of generic and unmotivated super-powers to try and kill Diana because, you guessed it, she won’t join him in killing all the wicked humans.

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Ohai obligatory Snyderverse Christ imagery! I guess it counts for something that it’s a lady-Jesus this time.

This Ares stuff is pretty goofy. However, they are able to redeem it partially with a pretty rousing (if sentimental) speech from Diana about what she believes in, in the end. It’s love, love, love. This will seem silly to the precious edgelord fourteen year old demographic, but they lack a nuanced understanding of the word love. They’re also busy boycotting the movie over “women only” screenings. Many people of all ages seem to have these issues. Oh well. It’s not about them anyway. For once.

Diana says love and she’s talking about empathy, compassion, kindness, self-sacrifice, altruism, and belief in common decency. She’s talking about looking at the young men taking off their gas masks and waking up from Ares’s influence and feeling love, not vengeance and hate. She’s, in other words, talking about the exact opposite of the retaliatory barbarity of aggressions carried out around the world in the name of higher principles, but never in the name of love. Gadot is Israeli so whether or not she personally (some have had a problem with her politics it seems, but I don’t know much about it) believes what Diana believes doesn’t really matter. This movie believes it, and it says it way out loud. I wrote a list of all the things we do in this world in the name of higher principles, but never love, but I’m not going to include it because hey Evan, calm down. It’s enough that the movie believes it, and I think it’s as big a moment as any other in this movie. I think it’s one of the things I’ll remember, and definitely an idea that I hope remains in future DCEU movies, especially if WB learns the right lessons from Wonder Woman. Because I want them to be good.

 

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