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First of all, I am going to write about the movie Wonder Woman here, and before I do, I want to make something clear: I didn’t have to love this movie. The fact that up to now the DC Extended Universe has been (By most accounts; this writer admits to having only previously seen Man of Steel) various degrees of dreadful, even though it is disappointing beyond measure to a DC fan like myself, has no bearing on the praise I will momentarily lavish upon its fourth installment. If this movie only succeeded where its predecessors failed by being adequate, then I would praise it for being adequate, and express hope for continued improvement. I would not love this movie if I did not truly feel it merited love. So, let us put aside all context, disregarding the Randian nightmares this franchise has heretofore produced, and talk about why Wonder Woman, with an integrity and determination very much reminiscent of its titular character, rises above not only the rest of its series, but most of its genre.
On the surface, the obvious reason for the proliferation of superhero movies over the past decade is nostalgia. These are iconic characters, which not one but several generations grew up with, and seeing a long-beloved character break free of the comic page or the animated series and do battle against evil on the silver screen holds a very wide appeal. But that reading of this juggernaut of a trend, while strictly speaking probably true, disregards what makes superheros appealing in the first place. These guys and gals in capes and tights weren’t always icons; once they were bold, new pieces of creativity, which lodged themselves in the public consciousness like few things ever have. Once, also, there were not reams upon reams of semi-academic discussion on the subject of superheros being modern myths, how they’re the 20th century’s mount Olympus, and the lofty and admirable ideals which they can represent at their best. That relatively recent reappraisal of the superhero concept is certainly vindicating for anyone always knew these stories were a bigger deal than their parents thought, but it has also put creators in an awkward position. It indirectly lead to Man of Steel, a movie which tried to give its audience a myth and an ideal without first writing a compelling story, attempting to take a shortcut to an Alan Moore-esque deconstruction by overlooking all the aspects of its source material which make it worth deconstructing. Regardless of what it means for us as a culture that we like to cheer for superheros, we do. It doesn’t seem, to me, that we always have to question that.
Wonder Woman has no such deconstructionist agenda, which puts it above the failed attempts at deconstruction it follows. However, unlike most of its franchise’s biggest rival, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wonder Woman also has some interest in what a superhero even is, and why they are worth telling stories about. The MCU tends to treat “Being a superhero” as a basic character trait, to be attained through personal growth or struggled with during personal crises. It knows that the superhero archetype is so recognizable that we won’t question the existence of a character who falls into it, and so it doesn’t waste too much energy on providing motivation for everything its heroes do outside of “Becoming a superhero” or “Continuing to be a superhero”. These movies are better than their DC counterparts because they are not confused about or ashamed of what they are, and they adapt their source materials into faithful representations that also work as fun, occasionally compelling action flicks. But their confidence in how worthwhile superhero stories are often allows them to coast on what they know works, letting both their source material and their franchise carry an individual movie which wouldn’t have made sense if we didn’t all understand what a superhero was.
What puts Wonder Woman above all these, what makes it a great superhero story instead of a good one, is that it was made as if it had to sell its audience on this whole superhero thing from the jump. It has a passion for and belief in its subject matter which is fervent and strong, and it goes about sweeping up its viewers in that passion as if there was no guarantee that they would recognize it as the familiar passion for superheroism. Ironically, with the saturation of the market with cape flicks over the past few years, many people have become so burnt out on the genre that things have come full circle: we, the audience, did need to be sold all over again on a movie about someone flying around in a silly costume punching bad guys. Not because we find it ridiculous, as many readers did when these characters were first created, but because we find it boring. It takes a startling clarity of vision and a certain lack of self-consciousness to put together something so winning, so engaging, that it breaks through all of the monotony this genre has fallen into. Wonder Woman has both, and much, much more.
So, how does this movie manage to be such a fresh take on a tired genre without deconstructing it? Well, in short, Wonder Woman is a film about, primarily, saving people. It’s strange, to make that distinction, since ostensibly that’s what this whole genre is about, but not a minute goes by in Wonder Woman when the protagonists are not motivated to do the extraordinary things they do by the desire to save innocent people from harm. That’s why our heroine, Diana, leaves her paradise home in Themyscira: people are dying, and she can help them. That’s why Steve Trevor, her American spy sidekick, breaks ranks and goes on a dangerous, unordered mission to the front of World War I: people are dying, and he can help them. That’s why the ragtag crew of Charlie, Sami, and Chief agree to help them: people are dying, and they can save them. Diana’s love for the European populace she is attempting to rescue from the horrors of war is always in the forefront of her mind, and the minds of her allies. They are driven to defeat their enemies not by a vengeful vendetta or to fulfill a destiny, but out of pure moral outrage that any would dare harm the good people in this world. Seeing the princess of the Amazons fight on behalf of these people is reassuring and inspiring, because it makes us feel–as stories about these heroes were always supposed to–as though she could be fighting on behalf of us.
There is a story at work here, of course. A fragmented version of the Greek mythos gives us the island of Themyscira, populated by the Amazons, a race of warrior women whose responsibility is to protect the human world from the corrupting influence of Ares, the god of war. When word of the first world war, the “War to end all wars” reaches them, in the form of a downed (And criminally charming) pilot named Steve Trevor, Diana is the only one who is willing to leave the island and end the war, she presumes, by defeating Ares. The complications surrounding Diana’s mission and how her expectations are challenged gives the film some riveting twists which I won’t spoil, but the theme here is obviously war, its nature, its causes, and its effects. World War I was a particularly cynical war, in which millions lost their lives not for a righteous cause or even a grand folly, but a series of petty political disputes. Diana’s battle against this total war is a triumph of comic book romance and optimism over the bleakness of a world in senseless turmoil; rather than being absorbed by the gritty backdrop, Wonder Woman shines in its midst, a colorful beacon of hope and courage standing for something better, something greater than all of this rubble.
Short of the infamous invisible jet plane, every trope associated with the Amazing Amazon is out in full force: the golden lasso is pulling bad guys to their knees left and right, the shield and bracelets deflect bullets like ping-pong balls, and Diana’s superhuman strength and leaps over tall buildings in single bounds are jaw-dropping. Again, these are all action beats we have become deeply familiar with in the wake of The Avengers and its ilk; the difference here is that every punch and kick is one we’re emotionally invested in. The film exudes a profound sense of joy, primarily emanating from Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot’s performance is the film’s anchor; we feel her struggle, and her frustration, and in the finale, her agony, but she drags the film upwards, not downwards. When I think of Wonder Woman in this film, I think of someone smiling. I think of someone guided by a fundamental sense of justice, which she can draw joy from even in the most dire straights. I think of someone who plants herself, in front of both the chaotic world of the early 20th century and the post-modern and divided one of the early 21st and says “There is no force more powerful than love.” If that’s not the hero we all need, I don’t know who is.
While being a profound–if somewhat simple–statement on the subject of what can redeem humanity and why it matters, Wonder Woman is also a terrific adventure film. Patty Jenkins, the film’s director, has a Spielbergian sense of how to include everything a damn good time of a movie could need without any elements overcrowding the others, resulting in a perfectly balanced Hollywood epic. The opening setting of Themyscira is quixotic and beautiful, and the culture there is as intriguingly alien as it is utterly understandable. The gaggle of side-characters are lovable and distinct, gawking and cheering at Diana’s feats right alongside us. The villains are cartoonishly diabolical, sneering and chuckling as they attempt to guide the world towards oblivion, those bastards. The action is stunning, and the character moments in between are lovely; one poignant scene finds the population of a village saved by Diana and her crew singing and feasting in the streets, prompting her to ask Steve “Is this what you do when there are no wars to fight?” And the romance between Diana and the impossibly dashing American pilot is understated but touching, giving our main character an anchor to reality which doesn’t detract from her main motivation. Her love for a man and her faith in mankind go hand in hand, each one a sign of a tender, courageous heart beneath her armor.
We need movies like this. We need heroes like this. Heroes we can look up to, who are neither dragged down by human failings nor made aloof and unrelatable by their superhuman status. Heroes who will do what we cannot individually but can collectively, which is to take on not just an individual evil person, but greater challenges which affect us all. We cannot directly fight the concept of war, or despair, or apathy, and the Zack Snyders of this world would have our heroes stay away from those things as well, in the name of being more “Human”. To err may be human, but humanity as a whole can have great successes, and our brightest stories embody those successes in the form of archetypes who are not merely human, but Superhuman. In a time as frightening and confusing as this one, controlled by brutish, dastardly men who think the ideals of cooperation and optimism are naive and weak, we need to keep alive the faith that we can overcome these trials, that the ultimate goal makes every sacrifice and hardship worth it. And we need stories about heroes, superheroes, who inspire us to be at our best. Wonder Woman is such a story, and I am grateful for its existence, and hopeful for its eventual fulfillment.
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