Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman. DC’s trinity of chief superheroes all now finally have a film that will define them forever. That’s not overstatement or hyperbole. I’ve been skeptical about the DC Extended Universe of films, though hopeful at recent developments. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Wonder Woman going into the theater. I’ve read a lot of comics, and there’s the Lynda Carter TV show, but if you asked me yesterday I couldn’t have picked out a defining Wonder Woman story and said THIS is the character. I can now. Wonder Woman is one of the best (if not THE best) films of 2017, one of the best comic book movies ever made, and the best ANYTHING Wonder Woman ever written or filmed. It’s. That. Good.
Wonder Woman has always been a difficult character to get a handle on; to find an angle with her that makes her not seem silly or isolates her from the rest of the DC Universe by wholesale immersing her in her Greek mythology roots. Then there’s the problem of the origin itself. Everyone knows Superman’s origin, Batman’s, Spider-Man’s, etc. Wonder Woman’s origin has changed multiple times (three I think in the last 15 years). She doesn’t have a defining run in the comics. I would go so far to say that she’s probably the most difficult character to write in the DC pantheon, and that’s why it has taken 75 years for her to get a definitive movie. There’s also the gender wall. Can a female superhero carry a film that’s a hit? For all its successes, Marvel has failed to grant a solo female film to any woman and doesn’t have one scheduled until 2019 for Captain Marvel (when a Black Widow solo film could have been a hit years ago). Not only is Wonder Woman‘s success important for the DCEU, it opens the door for a host of other characters to finally get their due.
Wonder Woman is the first film in the DCEU since Geoff Johns was put in charge of the shared universe. They were on the right track long before then, but there’s a definite Johnsian touch to the film. Geoff Johns is a good comic book writer because he, without pretense, sincerely presents each character he writes as unique an amazing. “Sincerity” is why this movie works. That sounds tremendously unexciting, doesn’t it? I suppose it is, but it’s the key to cracking the Wonder Woman riddle. She’s presented completely earnestly. No dark or gritty angle, no modern spin, no tongue-in-cheek, absolutely no cynicism. They use the current origin, which has nods to the past, that Diana is the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, an all-female warrior tribe who live on an enchanted and protected island, isolated from man’s world. That isolation is broken in the late stages of World War I (as had been hinted at in Batman vs. Superman) when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a plane into the waters off of the island and Diana rescues him. From him, she learns of World War I and is convinced the god of War, Ares, is behind the conflict and returns with Trevor to England, and by doing so, banished forever from her home isle.
The DCEU has gotten way too grim and gritty. Diana is not a gritty character. She’s an immortal Amazon princess who fights with a sword, shield, magic bracelets, and a lasso that compels the truth. Ares may be the film’s villain but the menace, the evil, and the heartbreak in the film come from that woman being dropped into one of the most pointless and bloody wars in the history of humanity. While World War II can most certainly be looked at as a fight to save humanity, World War I was a senseless, ethnic land grab. It was ugly, dirty, bloody, and the use of chemical warfare so horrified humanity in retrospect that nearly every country on Earth banned it (the horror of chemical warfare is a large part of the film’s third act).
The war is never portrayed as anything other than awful, but it’s balanced by Diana’s acclimation to “man’s world”, the humor of her perspective on things, the resulting absurdity, and the great chemistry Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have. I had seen Gadot in the Fast & Furious films she’d been in and in Batman vs. Superman, but I had no idea from that if she could carry a movie like this on her shoulders. She’s absolutely wonderful. She manages to be innocent and wise, funny and fierce, and carry this ethereal sense of gravitas that the character needs to have to overcome all the things in her origin and arsenal that could easily come off as hokey or just plain stupid. As her powers grow, she becomes a formidable warrior with strength on par with Superman’s and fighting skills rivaling Batman’s. There are some truly amazing action set pieces in this film (my favorite is the lasso fight and the final battle with Ares). Gal Gadot puts her stamp on this character in the same way that Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. It’s a completely iconic performance.
Wonder Woman is 145 minutes long and I could have watched it again as soon as it was over. There’s not an off note in the picture. Patty Jenkins directed a beautiful film, Gadot and Pine head a great cast that completely buys into the tone of the film, it all feels like the best DC comics I’ve read. That they don’t need to modernize or revolutionize everything about their product. People have loved these characters and their world for almost a century because the comics are earnest and believe their world is real yet fantastic. The Flash, Arrow, and The CW shows captured a lot of that tone, and it’s no small part why they’ve been so successful. Wonder Woman is the first DCEU film that ventured outside of Gotham or Metropolis and into that wider DCU. Not only did it succeed in bringing home one of the best comic book films of all-time, it showcased the real heart of its shared universe successfully for the first time. Hopefully, this rolls over into Justice League and future films on the schedule. I can’t emphasize how pleased I am by what they managed to achieve with this film, and I honestly can’t think of a single thing I’d change. It’s as magical a film as the character it features.