Wonder Woman had an arduous task to pull off on its way to the box office. As the fourth entry in the DC Extended Universe, it needed to succeed where Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad had each failed for being dour, poorly made, and overly violent. It also needed to be the first blockbuster starring a female superhero to land at the box office, proving decades of skepticism wrong in the process. It’s an unenviable position to be in, but the film was a success despite its underdog status, making its record-breaking $100.5 million debut in North America and critical acclaim that much more astounding. Wonder Woman was a trailblazer for female heroes in comics, and now she’s a trailblazer at the movies.
Wonder Woman has proved to be a hit in theaters, and that’s no accident. Unlike its cinematic cousins, Wonder Woman is cleaner, more fun, and more sure of itself in ways that we should demand from our superhero movies. Marvel and DC, it’s time to take notes.
It has clear story
BvS and Suicide Squad have a whole host of problems shared between them, but the most egregious has always been their muddled, often nonsensical narratives. Superheroes don’t exist in worlds that look a whole lot like our own, what with the flying people and aliens with eye lasers, but their stories should adhere to some kind of internal logic that keeps viewers invested beyond the spectacle. So it’s frustrating when these tentpoles revolve around stories that, say, pit Batman against Superman because Lex Luthor happens to hate Superman because of undercooked father issues that have nothing to do with Batman. Or when the shrewd and ruthless Amanda Waller thinks that a guy who’s really good with guns and a woman in clown makeup can take on a being who can survive a nuclear blast.
Wonder Woman, on the other hand, satisfies because it makes sense. Or as much sense as a movie inspired by a pulp story written for children in the 1940s can, anyway. Diana of Themyscira is raised among a race of women warriors bred to keep the world safe from war. War comes to the shores of Themyscira. Diana takes it upon herself to fulfill her duty and save the world. She soon discovers that the world is far more complicated than she ever knew, but grows enough to believe that the world is still worth saving. That’s as straightforward a story as you can get, and it leaves plenty of room for introspection, nuance, and action that pulls you right into Diana’s world.
It’s not over-stylized
Much has already been said about the DCEU cinematic aesthetic. As a director, Zack Snyder loves spectacle — so much so that scenes in movies like 300 don’t feel so much like moments as splash panels lifted directed from the source work. Those choices plagued Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Meanwhile, the choices made in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad blended gritty, grimy action with DayGlow, making for a confused visual experience.
Wonder Woman is certainly stylized when it wants to be. The numerous slow-motion shots of the Amazons and Diana herself come right out of the Snyder stylebook. But when the film takes a step back to let them be awesome on-screen, fighting on horseback or taking shells head-on, it’s that much more thrilling.
This is an area where Wonder Woman is not only leaps and bounds ahead of the DCEU’s previous films, but where it is also able to give some of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for their money. When it wants to be, the film is hilarious, thanks in large part to the chemistry and comic timing of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.
Where a film like Guardians of the Galaxy is able to mine laughs out of the Guardians’ screwy family dynamic, Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Steve Trevor are two worlds colliding in the funniest possible ways. There are several moments where the movie seems to acknowledge that Diana, warrior princess, coming to man’s world is a patently silly concept, but the movie betrays so much affection for her and the people around her that the silliness brings laughs and real smiles. Especially when it comes to Steve trying — and failing — to gently undermine Diana, and Diana doing whatever she wants to do anyway.
It’s surprisingly diverse
The superhero genre has always been deeply white and male, and that has struggled to change even in this franchise era when seemingly any superhero, no matter how obscure, can get a movie. (Remember Jonah Hex?) Wonder Woman, as the character’s first ever solo theatrical movie and the first female superhero movie since the 2005’s awful Elektra, was always going to be a standard-bearer for women in the tights-and-capes crowd. But, given that Wonder Woman has come down to modern pop culture as a symbol for all women, the specter of white feminism meant that it needed to include people of color in a way that other films in its genre didn’t.
Thankfully, the movie manages to pull this off. The Amazons are formidable warrior women with a variety of skin tones and are never sexualized for a male viewer. London (or what we see of it anyway) is similarly diverse. And Diana’s comrades in arms include two actors of color, Saïd Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock. Is the movie perfect on this front? No. After leaving Themyscira, the movie fails to really center the story of any female character beyond Diana’s own, and Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) is woefully underutilized. But what works so well that it’s a little hard to find fault in the shortcomings.
It’s refreshingly sincere
On their way to the frontlines, Diana and Steve pass by an ice cream vendor. He buys her a scoop, and she eats it with such visible delight that she tells the vendor that he should be very proud. It’s an affecting moment, because it strikes at two things that make Wonder Woman a great character. First, she’s able to see more clearly than anyone around her that there’s good in the world. Second, she believes that that goodness is worth defending. In just an instant, we get a clear glimpse at what drives her, and that instant is more joyful and sincere than anything the DCEU has offered up to fans until now.
That sincerity is a far cry from the cynicism and existential anguish in all three previous DCEU films. Oh, Diana certainly has to grapple with what it means to be a hero in man’s world. But she knows what she believes, and arrives at a place where she can defend the world she loves knowing there are things to be cynical about. In other words, she’s miles ahead of Batman and Superman in being the kind of hero that children have idolized for nearly a century.