There is one major difference between a Marvel superhero and a DC one. Marvel superheroes are us. They’re imperfect beings put in super situations, they’re given great power and must come to terms with their great responsibility. DC superheroes, on the other hand, are Gods among us. They’re ideals we strive for, inspiring and pushing us to be better. The nature of humanity tests these ideals, pushing and testing the limits of what the DC hero believes. Wonder Woman understands that and, more importantly, finds a way to actually execute it.
The story begins in Themyscira, an island off in the middle of nowhere filled with Amazonians. Diana, our Wonder Woman, is the one child on this island. She’s grown up with stories of how men are good, how Ares corrupts them and how the Amazons are born and bred to end the corruption. At the same time, her mother fears the day that Diana’s true purpose is revealed, because the truth is far more complicated than the stories Diana grew up with. When Steve Trevor and World War 1 land on the shores of Thermyscira, Diana sets out in the world of men to stop Ares and his corruption once and for all.
More than anything else, Wonder Woman absolutely nails its character arc. Everything is in service of Diana, so much so that the film sometimes has to bend itself in uncomfortable positions to make it so. For instance, the first act is doing a lot of heavy lifting to get the story’s engines up and running. The third act is juggling a lot of plates to make sure every character beat in the entire film is pulled off within a 15 minute span. You can kind of feel the laces of the film being tugged at, the hem coming undone.
But it survives. And that’s because the central core of Wonder Woman, the understanding of her character and the heart and sincerity in which it tells its story, is so goddamn strong. This is a movie about an idealistic woman who believes in pure good and pure evil. Men are good and this evil force is corrupting them, if I can destroy the evil force everything else will take care of itself. She’s a hero who cuts through the bullshit and has that inspiring sense of morality that borders on naive. Why sacrifice the lives of innocent people for a war? Why play the long game in ending a war when the short game means so many lives are lost?
However, as Diana is gradually introduced to the world of man, she starts to see her ideals in absolute good and evil erode. Steve Trevor is a liar and his gang of merry men include a smuggler, a killer and a thief. These are not good men, but they’re men that have their own demons and battles they’re fighting, battles I wish the film could have elaborated on more. There’s the brown-skinned actor who can’t catch a break in a world dominated by white skin, there’s a marksman haunted by war, and there’s a Native American who is just trying to find a place he can call home after his native land, America, was taken away from him. These are interesting stories, but they’re not stories the film is interested in exploring. These are stories the film instead uses to inform Diana that men are more complicated than she first thought, that there are small and big injustices, and that not all of them have to do with war, something she is familiar with as a trained warrior.
Wonder Woman uses WWI and this gang of men, including Steve Trevor, to test the ideals of Diana. We see her idealism from her childhood onto adulthood, we understand how much she believes in people and why she thinks that she can end the war to end all wars simply. That’s what makes it heartbreaking when her idealism is shattered by the nature of humanity. That’s why, more than anything, Wonder Woman works.
There are a lot of other things to like about this film, too. It knows when to use humor, gently using it to add some levity and build up its character relationships. None of them work better than Diana and Steve Trevor, who instantly become one of the best on-screen couples in a superhero film. This isn’t just a romance for the sake of a romance, it’s a romance used to further inform Diana’s character and what she believes, feeding into her larger arc. Plus, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have incredible chemistry. They don’t even have to speak at times, the movie knows how much fire is between them and will sometimes just rely on a couple looks.
Gadot, on a larger level, is incredible. She’s able to effortlessly portray wide-eyed idealism with an incredible sincerity that borders on naivety, but has so much conviction that you want to believe her. It’s a wonderful performance, and it allows her to really dive deep on the payoffs later in the film. When she finally figures things out near the end, it’s goosebumps.
I also much point out that the second act of this film is absolutely incredible. The stuff on Themyscira, the first act, is good, but this movie takes a step up once it introduces Wonder Woman to the world of man. And then it delivers one of the greatest action sequences in a superhero movie in the No Man’s Land sequence. It’s breathtaking stuff that is both great action and great character work. It is, by any measure, the perfect distillation of what a DC hero is all about. It’s about inspiring people with pure ideals.
As I said earlier, there are some problems with Wonder Woman. The third act is a noticeable step down from the second, and you can feel it wobbling a bit. It’s as if someone threw a bunch of potatoes up in the air and tried to catch them all in short order, but it does catch them all. I mean, it’s juggling a lot. Not only is it using all the characters Diana has met to inform her arc, and using the decisions they’ve made based on how inspired they were by Diana to inspire Diana, it’s also using the villains. It’s playing with conventions a bit, and it makes some decisions that may rub people the wrong way, but every decision is made with theme and Wonder Woman’s character arc in mind, so it works and I can’t bring myself to harp on them for too long.
Wonder Woman is better than the sum of its parts. It should just be a good movie but, like Superman: The Movie, its heart, sincerity and central performance are so damned good that it’s hard not to come away from the film absolutely taken with everything it’s trying to do. It’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy how wonderful it all is, and how good it makes you feel when you walk out of the theater.