Matt at the Movies: Wonder Woman Soars

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Wonder Woman Soars

Matt at the Movies

Within minutes of the first female-driven superhero tentpole film of…well, ever, it’s easy to see why Wonder Woman is not quite like anything we’ve seen before. The movie opens on the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, a fierce tribe of all-female warriors. When Diana, the only child on the island, sneaks into their training ground, the audience is granted a stunning visual treat: strong, powerful women competing in archery, martial arts, and a ton of other kick-ass things. There’s not a single man among them. Until you see it for yourself, it’s hard to understand the novelty of such a visual, or question why it took so long for us to get here.

In a world where female characters in superhero films are usually relegated to the second string (like Black Widow in The Avengers) or, more often, being rescued (like in pretty much every other superhero film ever), Themyscira is a welcome sight. Rarely have so many women been given permission to show such physical prowess in their own right, with no man to spar against or watch approvingly from afar. Even Diana Prince/Wonder Woman herself (Gal Gadot) played second fiddle to the glowering headliners of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. And yet she was the only welcome breath of fresh air in that thudding dud of a movie. The question remained, though, whether or not a solo Wonder Woman outing could succeed where the other three DC Comics films failed so spectacularly.

 Now, that question has been answered, and it’s a resounding yes. Director Patty Jenkins – the first female director of a major studio superhero film – had a lot riding on her shoulders. If Wonder Woman didn’t deliver, it could be a hard sell getting any other female headliners into theaters. Thankfully, Jenkins not only rose to the challenge, she gloriously exceeded expectations. To her credit, she seems to have learned some lessons from the DC Extended Universe installments. Wonder Woman is the first coherent, emotionally nuanced, and rousing action adventure from the universe, and it’s also one of the best superhero films in recent years. I love Marvel as much as the next person, but where those movies are becoming tiredly formulaic, Wonder Woman has an aesthetic all its own.

In one of the few weaknesses of the film, the backstory is explained early on in an info dump. The Amazons were created by Zeus to protect humankind from the threat of Ares, the god of war. Diana is the daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and as such, is trained as the fiercest warrior by her mentor and aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). When Diana rescues WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) after his plane crashes off Themyscira’s coast, she learns of the War to End All Wars and is convinced of Ares’ influence. Diana insists on coming with Steve to London and then to the front. After trying to fit in in with early 20th-century mores, she helps Steve recruit a group of special operatives. Denying orders, the small band heads to France, where a dangerous new poison is being developed. As Diana searches for Ares, she and Trevor try to stop the production of the poison and end the war.

Wonder Woman is the movie that Man of Steel should have been, and it harkens back to the early Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner Superman films. It’s an origin story that doesn’t get too bogged down in origin, instead letting the characters develop and come into their own. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the perfect combination of strength and compassion, genuinely concerned for the welfare of people. But the film also delves into wider themes of war, love, and the nature of humanity – you know, all of the reasons people love superheroes in the first place.

It’s also quite funny. While it may lack the zaniness or outright joy of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gadot and Pine are both given humorous moments in which to shine. The other major comedic relief, Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), is given criminally too little to do and eventually disappears altogether. Other issues—the fact that the plot feels very similar to Captain America: The First Avenger, or that once Diana arrives at the front, she’s the only major female presence with any dimension—can be forgiven. The fact that this is a two and a half hour movie about female warriors completely absent of the male gaze is alone a reason to celebrate.   

Indeed, while much has been (and rightfully should be) made about the novelty of Wonder Woman’s trailblazing, at the end of the day, when she first dons her armor and walks defiantly across no man’s land into a hail of German gunfire to liberate an entire town of hostages, you won’t be cheering her on as a female superhero. You’ll be cheering her on as a superhero, gender be damned. That fact— that Jenkins managed to remove any gender divide and deliver a pure, straightforward superhero yarn, full of rich subtext and a story—is what makes Wonder Woman truly stand out.