Ever since the DC Extended Universe launched with 2013’s Man of Steel, it’s been troubled and contentious. DC Comics’ attempt at a revitalized, unified superhero film franchise has faced nonstop comparisons with Marvel’s more long-running and critically acclaimed cinematic universe, and it’s consistently come out worse in comparison. Warner Bros.’ DC films (to date: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) have been dour, sullen, narratively messy, and heavily criticized for their particularly fetishized and unrestrained use of violence. They’ve also been distressingly obsessed with forcing their heroes through protracted existential crises instead of letting them be heroes. (Or, in the case of Suicide Squad, reluctant anti-heroes.)
So the impressive thing about the series’s latest installment, Wonder Woman, isn’t that it abandons this approach. It’s that it embraces and redefines it, making it clear that it’s possible to wallow in the emotional troubles that have defined DCEU movies, and still have fun. Wonder Woman has a lightness and wryness that none of its DC predecessors could claim, but it’s still about philosophical crisis and a hero trying to find an identity. It’s still exploring the DCEU’s favorite themes: whether mankind truly deserves heroes, and whether it’s possible for one person to justly wield immense power. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and screenwriter Allan Heinberg explore those themes with a humanity that the franchise’s previous films were lacking. They take their protagonist’s natural superiority for granted, making it a joy instead of a heavy burden. In their hands, Wonder Woman questions her place in the world, but not her inherent identity. And it makes all the difference to the story.
It helps that in this revival of William Moulton Marston’s playful, bondage-obsessed heroine, Wonder Woman — or Diana, as she’s originally known — puts humanity first. Born to an all-female race of Amazons supposedly put on the Earth by Zeus to be a guiding light for humanity, Diana (Gal Gadot) knows from childhood that she wants to be a warrior, and she defies her overprotective mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) at every turn in order to get the training she needs. Martial leader Antiope (Robin Wright) initially tutors her in secret, but Diana becomes a powerful, confident fighter, undermined only by Antiope’s constant insistence that she’s holding back, that she’s more powerful than she realizes.
Her crisis point comes when their magically hidden island of Themyscira is breached, first by fleeing British spy Steve Trevor (Star Trek’s Chris Pine), then by the German soldiers chasing him. Outside of Themyscira’s paradisiacal bubble of protection, World War I has been underway for four years, 25 million people have died, and an armistice is in the works. But an ambitious German general named Ludendorff (Danny Huston, playing an obscure but real historical figure) and his troubled pet scientist, Dr. Maru (The Skin I Live In’s Elena Anaya) are developing a weapon that may change the course of the war. Horrified by Steve’s reports of the war, Diana leaves the island, convinced that the combat was caused by the Amazons’ ancient enemy, Ares, the god of war. She believes if she finds and kills Ares, the Germans will suddenly “become good men again” and stand down.
Image: Warner Bros.