I confess I have not seen Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor do I have any plans to do so. I’ve both read and heard a lot about why critics, as well as many fans, took issue with them. It isn’t just their limited color palette (all gray) or their lack of humor; these are parts, but not the whole. The heart of the problem is that these are movies about heroes made by a filmmaker who doesn’t believe in heroes. Brave deeds are pointless, and idealism a waste of time. How else can one explain Superman’s indifference to the safety of bystanders as he fights Zod in Man of Steel? Carelessness with the lives of innocents is something we’d expect from Zod, not Superman. The line between hero and villain is muddied. While this kind of moral ambiguity can be intriguing when done well, pardon me for thinking it’s not what we go to superhero movies for.
On the surface, the latest DCEU film, Wonder Woman, might seem like more of the same. For the part of the movie set in Themyscira, home of the Amazons, the sun is shining, and the landscape full of vibrant green. Yet when our heroine, Diana, accompanies soldier-spy Steve Trevor to World War I-era Europe on a mission to kill the war god Ares, the dark palette takes over. As Diana moves through the trenches, she’s confronted on every side by human suffering, and we can see it pains her. She wants to help. What good is she if she can’t help? If she can make it across No Man’s Land, maybe she can liberate a captured village and restore starving people to their homes. But Steve, who has been through the worst of the war, tells her it’s a fool’s errand. No point in trying. He can be easily forgiven for thinking that. Anyone who knows much of anything about World War I and trench warfare would share his view.
So, what does Diana choose to do?
Go over the top. March across No Man’s Land, evading bullets with her shield and gauntlets, or magic bracelets. Take out the machine gun nest. Save the village. All because she categorically refuses to accept there’s nothing she can do.
And here the difference between Wonder Woman and its DCEU predecessors is clear. Here we have a movie that actually believes in heroism, the balance of which takes place in a time in history when heroism did indeed seem futile and pointless. Heroism is hard. It may mean death, and even if it doesn’t it can carry a cost. But it’s always worth a try. As Steve says, “We can do something, or we can do nothing.” The movie comes down hard on the side of “something.”
Wonder Woman hit me hard, almost as if it had been specifically designed to give me what I’ve been longing for. I’d been praying it would be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. A few things I love most about it:
Diana herself. Any screen adaptation of Wonder Woman’s adventures would only be as good as the actress playing the title character, and Gal Gadot delivers. In point of fact, however, Diana engages our rooting interest before Gadot takes over the role, indeed the very first time we see her, a little girl watching her elders move through their combat training exercises, imitating their moves with the energetic grunting kids her age always think should accompany a good fight. She admires what they’re doing and wants to be a part of it. But fighting must always have a key purpose. As Diana’s mother Hippolyta tells her, the Amazons were created by Zeus to defend the world. They fight so others won’t have to.
Diana’s commitment to this purpose prompts her to leave the relative safety of Themyscira and follow Steve Trevor into war. And here is part of the movie’s genius: while we admire her commitment, we see her naivete. She thinks stopping World War I will be as simple as killing Ares, and of course the situation is a lot more complicated than that. She has to learn this, as she comes face to face with the darkness in the humanity she has sworn to defend. In the course of her journey, she fights, protects, and rescues, but she also makes mistakes. Yet the strength of her character is such that even with all the horrors she has seen, she can sill say, with perfect conviction, “I believe in love.” That’s a hero worth rooting for.
The love story works. Much of what we need to know about Steve Trevor can be seen in his first good scene, after his plane has gone down in the ocean and Diana has saved him from drowning. He’s missed Death by a whisker. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, or how these mysterious superwomen are able to hold off an attack from an armed German platoon. What he does know is that one of those women saved his life, and she and her people are facing danger, and he should join the fray on their side. He steps up, because that’s what he does. This makes him a worthy partner for Diana.
Though he’s played by Chris Pine, best known as Captain Kirk in the recent series of Star Trek films, Steve is no Kirk-esque playboy. He’s a good man with a job to do, a purpose and a drive compatible with Diana’s, and it’s no wonder each quickly comes to admire and respect the other. It also doesn’t hurt that Gadot and Pine have a very sweet and earnest chemistry. The “snowfall scene,” in which Steve and Diana share a dance in the heart of the village they’ve just liberated, hits my romantic-sentiment button.
The supporting characters. For the movie’s first third, women, lots of women, dominate the screen. Diana has two wise female mentors, the graceful queen Hippolyta and the badass general Antiope. These women matter, and Diana carries their wisdom with her into a situation that might otherwise overwhelm her. I’ve heard complaints about Diana’s becoming a “Smurfette,” surrounded only by men (barring a few brief but delightful appearances by Etta Candy, Steve’s “gal Friday”) once she follows Steve to Europe. I loathe the Smurfette Principle, yet in this case it makes some sense, in view of the amount of time spent on the battlefront, and the opening sequence on Themyscira has built up enough good will for me to overlook it. The good news is that the men she befriends are an interesting and sympathetic lot — Sameer, who longs to be an actor, Charlie, who prides himself on his marksmanship but has trouble hitting anything, and Chief, who fights because he no longer has a home. (It’s telling that while he may blame Steve’s people for the loss of his home, he’s still a friend and comrade to Steve himself.) Much of the humor springs from Diana’s interactions with these men, particularly the rakish Sameer, who, when Steve tells him about an island full of women like her, asks the most logical follow-up question: “How can we get there?” The fact that we see Diana in strong friendships with women and men is yet another thing to admire about her character.
The action sequences. The excitement of a cinema action sequence is difficult to convey on paper, so I’ll settle for saying that my favorite high-octane scenes, apart from the march across No Man’s Land, are the battle on the beach of Themyscira (featuring multiple women kicking butt) and the battle to liberate the village of Veld, which shows Diana vaulting into a tower to do some major damage.
World War I, an ideal setting for an anti-war message. Another favorite moment of mine sees Diana berate a group of “armchair generals” for conducting this brutal conflict from the safety of the sidelines. Where she comes from, she declares, “our leaders fight alongside us.”
The rousing musical score. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams knows how to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping and touch our hearts as well.
And perhaps my favorite thing of all, this movie is making money, disproving the notion that audiences aren’t interested in seeing a superhero movie with a female lead. Clearly, audiences, regardless of gender, are plenty ready to embrace a good superhero movie with a female lead (and a female director) — just as some of us have been saying all along.
P.S. While there is no post-credits scene (a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe), stick through the closing credits to see who gets a “special thanks” credit. The filmmakers studied the character’s history and one individual gets a deserved shout out.