No pressure! Way overdue, Wonder Woman is the first movie of the modern superhero boom begun almost two decades ago to simultaneously star a woman, be directed by a woman, and actually attempt to be good. Whatever’s riding on this, it’s an extremely unfair burden for one movie or filmmaker to be expected to shoulder, especially when coupled with the DC Extended Universe’s woes up ’til now (i.e. all it’s movies are bad). Does it manage?
Or better question, does it matter? Superhero movies aren’t a genre the way “action” or “rom-com”s are, but because there’s still few enough for viewers to have plausibly seen most of them, they seem to be graded in relation to each other. When you compare Deadpool or Logan to the same-y morass of cape cinema churned out over the last five or so years, they seem fresh !and unique! When you compare them all movies out there, though, it’s not so much.
Which, I guess, is how you end up hailing a movie like Wonder Woman for doing things as simple as “not halting the entire story for barely related extended universe set up” or “having an actual ending.” Yet, even though I just ranted about how we shouldn’t do this, I still have to point out that one of Wonder Woman’s key strengths is that it’s only concerned about being a coherent movie, not promoting a franchise, which means that, along with actually starring a woman for once puts (oh god I’m doing it) it far ahead of the superhero movie curve by default.
Stating on on the Amazon island of Themyscira, young Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up among the godlike race of all-women warriors, who train her as their strongest warrior should their foe Ares, the god of war, return to destroy them and humanity. When American World War One spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands by the secluded island, she’s drawn into the world, where she hopes to end the war, thinking all she has to do is find and kill Ares.
Once they’re off the island, the movie cycles through a few genres—the deity-out-of-water humor of Thor, the war mission of the first Captain America—with varying success. Some of Diana’s lack of understanding of the world reads as an indictment of how people are so used to customs that they don’t realize how screwed up they are, but can verge on giving the most major female superhero unnerving levels of naivety. And while we’re on the subject, the script (by comics author Allan Heinberg, with a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs—uh, note the gender of all these people?) does some seriously disappointing stuff when it comes to gender—when Trevor’s ragtag crew of mercenaries treat her with gross casual sexism that, the movie just plays it for laughs, and when characters touch her to guide her around like a child, her Amazon warrior attitude seems to just disappear.
Gadot’s performance is strong enough, and the movie focused enough, that the good stuff is good in a way that few superhero movies pull off. The Snyder-style speed ramping makes the action hit or miss, but the satisfaction of the big moments, like her first full in costume appearance, are suitably “it’s about time”-worthy. It’s unabashedly sentimental message about humanity, love, and war may end up a bit muddled, but it’s at least going for it with neither tongue-in-cheekness of Marvel, nor the grim self-serious slog of the rest of the DCEU and—augh I did it again!
Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) had a difficult task, and whether she succeeds really depends on your measure. The idea that a single movie will “prove” women can direct or star in tentpoles, or convince Hollywood to, say, hire female directors at rate higher than 7% seems unlikely—Hollywood’s claim that women and people of color aren’t profitable has always been motivated more by bigotry than actual numbers. What really matters is how the movie feels. Can you overlook the uncomfortable, un-called out comfort with men’s gross treatment of the title character, or how few female characters there actually are aside from her post-first scene? If you can, you’ll probably find Wonder Woman, at the very least, a relief, but it’s a pretty big failing that you’d even have to.