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To say the Wonder Woman movie comes with a fair amount of baggage may be the biggest understatement in superhero film history. She’s easily among the top five most universally-recognized comic book figures, yet it took almost eighty years for her to finally get a wide-release, live-action feature. Even Green Lantern beat her to the punch. Why the most revered of female superheroes got left out in the cold for so long is, to anyone unfamiliar with Hollywood’s attitudes on gender, as much a mystery as why this is Patty Jenkins’ first film since 2003’s Oscar-nominated Monster. Those who are familiar, of course, are reminded of justifications that include attitudes by studios (even by genre-juggernaut Marvel) that female-led superheroes simply don’t sell. Fingers are inevitably pointed at legendary flops like Elektra and Catwoman, sending a clear message: the success or failure of a female-led superhero movie is, ridiculously, considered emblematic of an entire gender’s place in the genre, if not the industry.
But the new Wonder Woman movie represents something equally contentions (if far less culturally and socially significant) as the place of women in the Superhero film industry; the place of DC Comics. It’s no secret that the company’s attempt to cobble together an extended universe to rival Marvel’s has been lackluster at best (at worst, it’s been referred to by less polite adjectives). We may be living in the superhero renaissance, but D.C. comics, once the largest comic-book conglomerate ever, has struggled to find a place for most of it’s heroes, one Bruce Wayne being the obvious exception. A winner was needed. Fortunately, it looks like they’ve found one.
The eponymous hero is Diana, Princess of Themiscyra (Gal Gadot, soon to be a household name), the home of the mythical Amazons; an ancient, immortal, uniformly female tribe created long ago by Zeus as a pure, utopian race, separate from the world of man, which had been seduced by the god of war, Ares, with seeds of destruction and violence. As a result, the Amazons are simultaneously peaceful and warlike, knowledgeable yet naive; attacking anyone who comes to their shores while decrying the violent danger of man (the word “man” carrying a dual connotation here, obviously). They know of language, combat, strategy, even biological science, but the nations, politics, history, and gender dynamics of man’s world are unknown to them.
So when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane onto Themiscyra while being pursued by the Germans, unwittingly bringing WWI onto the Amazon’s doorstep, they’re not sure how to react. Diana is under the impression that this “great war” is the work of Ares, and believes it is therefore Amazonian duty to put a stop to it. She sets Steve free and follows him to London, where fish-out-of-water shenanigans and period-piece action ensues as the two try to put a stop to a plan by real-life figure Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and a decidedly-not-real-life-figure, uncreatively named “Dr. Poison” (Elena Anaya), to create a dangerous chemical weapon.
Wonder Woman’s relationship with Trevor is not so much the story of a woman and a man as it is a demigod and a human (whether this is more feminist or less is already the subject of debate). Better yet, it’s an examination of themes of heroism that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman both tried and failed to quantify. Diana sees things in fairly black-and-white; bad guys must be stopped, and good guys defended. Trevor, meanwhile, spends most of the movie attempting to convince her that the world is more complicated; that some causes must be ignored, some soldiers left to die, so that other, greater evils can be stopped. Most of the time, he’s right. But occasionally, as any superhero should, she shows him that, through hope and perseverance (and the occasional superpower), you don’t have to compromise your morals for victory.
The movie goes to lengths to show you that, though alien to the human world, Diana is not childlike, so we mostly avoid the unsettling trope of the adult woman who is over-reliant on a man (in one memorable scene, Diana informs Steve that she knows enough about sex to know not to get her hopes up about it). She must be introduced to our world, but she never allows herself to be directed anywhere she doesn’t want. She’s her own character, and Steve’s various, well-meaning attempts to dissuade her from wading into a government meeting/busy street/war zone never come off as bossy or condescending. Diana is strong-willed and strong-muscled; directing her is unrealistic.
There are problems, of course. While we don’t get the standard “laser in the sky” Marvel ending, we do get the DC equivalent–CGI characters getting smashed together like action figures in a toddler’s dimly-lit room. Besides that, Patty Jenkins has not entirely evolved as an action director just yet. She seems to have, unfortunately, adopted Zack Snyder’s obsession with slow motion, when the more kinetic, bone-breaking fight scenes of the Russo Brothers may have been more fitting. For the most part though, Wonder Woman is a sign the studio is learning. It picks up the best cues from the first Captain America and Thor movies, albeit blended (successfully, for once) with DC’s now-signature moral murkiness. It’s campy and dark in just the right spots. Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it, but, like it’s hero, it can handle the load.