When I went to see BATMAN V. SUPERMAN in the theater last spring, I felt a palpable disappointment, and not just for myself. Seated in the audience about a row away from me was a (parented) child of about 7 years old, wearing a Batman T-shirt and clearly excitedly looking forward to the movie he was about to see.
As the movie progressed, I kept thinking about how disappointed I was in what I was watching – not just for myself, as a longtime DC Comics fan, but for the kid in the audience that had come to see his favorite superhero on the big screen, probably for the first time. Instead of a tale about a hero that fights for justice, he got a bloated, garbled mess of a movie in which the world is dour and joyless, and the “heroes” grim and, for the most part, decidedly unheroic. This isn’t the Batman movie you deserve, I wanted to tell him. Maybe some of the action sequences may have been memorable enough to warrant revisiting on the playground, but there was very little inspiring about BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.
The general reaction to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and SUICIDE SQUAD (which at least had the benefit of being energetic – it’s just as much of a mess, but at least it’s not dull) made me actively worried that the upcoming WONDER WOMAN film would suffer the same fate. This was especially troubling, as the character of Wonder Woman was unlike the previous DC comics movie properties – while there were other coherent and perfectly adequate superhero flicks that treated heroes like heroes, all of them were either team vehicles or featured male heroes in the lead. Wonder Woman, despite 76 years of history and omnipresence in popular culture, had never received proper cinematic attention, and those female superheroes that did (Supergirl, Catwoman, Elektra, Tank Girl) ended up with adaptations that failed to inspire either critically, financially, or both.
So, yeah, I was worried about WONDER WOMAN more than I should have been. I wasn’t necessarily worried about it financially – the brand name and DC studios managed to pull $325 million domestically out of SUICIDE SQUAD, a lesser-known brand name whose most well-known character, Harley Quinn, is a female. I was, ultimately, worried that WONDER WOMAN would only not be a good film, but also one that doesn’t give its lead the aura of heroism, a figure for the kids watching to look up to and feel empowered by. Hell, I was worried about the movie even being coherent and interesting enough for kids to follow, rather than spending most of its time trudging through the muck of existential gloom and doom about its leads’ emotional state as they ponder the events around them that barely make any sense.
As a result, the first thing I felt as the end credits rolled for Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN was relief. They hadn’t screwed it up. They’d made a perfectly good Wonder Woman film that respects the lead character’s history and status as a hero. The story made structural sense and wasn’t overcomplicated by plot threads that went nowhere or failed to pay off. It was a solid superhero movie.
That fact that “it was competent” was the bar being set for relief says more about the reputation of DC Comics superhero movies, and while WONDER WOMAN cleared that hurdle easily, my relief soon became compounded as I realized that WONDER WOMAN managed to be significantly more than that. This wasn’t just about hitting the marks of being a superhero movie – this was about hitting the marks of being a superhero movie with a female lead, a trickier thing than usual because all of the previous successful incarnations of the genre have been male-led. With the default setting of “male lead” to contend with, to truly succeed and be true to the character, WONDER WOMAN needed to not just be a standard superhero movie in female drag, but it needed to consider the gender of its lead character and be a film that reacts accordingly to it.
Thankfully, WONDER WOMAN does this fantastically well. And the more I thought about it, I wasn’t just relieved. I was downright happy. Patty Jenkins and her cast and crew hadn’t just created another decent superhero movie that hits the correct “origin story, journey into fighting for justice” notes (though they did that well) – they’d created one using a perspective that hadn’t worked successfully before. They’d made a movie that little girls could see themselves in and be inspired by without having to convert the viewpoint to their own gendered sensibility.
(Now, before I go into why WONDER WOMAN was not just a relief, but genuinely satisfying, I’ll point out that, no, it’s not a perfect film by any means. It’s a little bloated in places, the emotional story arc isn’t ideally conceived, the climax doesn’t completely make sense, and I could have used more Etta Candy as a way of exploring what is was like being a normal, human woman in 1918. But my issues with the movie are quibbles – minor things that I would have liked to have seen done a little differently, rather than anything wrong with the structure or conception as a whole. It’s a solid, grandiose superhero film that gets the blood pumping and has enough little moments of levity that makes it feel both otherworldly yet human. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.)
There are certain things that WONDER WOMAN allows its lead character to do that allow it to stand out as being a unique, and welcome, addition to the superhero film. There’s the ass-kicking, of course, and there’s lots of it, and unlike some action pics, you can actually see what’s going on. (This isn’t always effective, as the reliance on slow-motion is a little heavy, but I’ll take this over shakycam confusion any day.) But there are also a number of solid character moments involving the lead’s reactions to the world around her that genuinely enhance the character without distracting from the plot. And many of these moments feel organic to the lead’s femininity – they simply wouldn’t be there (in most cases, due to the sexism prevalent in the 1918 time period in which the film is set) had the lead character been male.
As good as WONDER WOMAN is about creating a female-focused narrative with what it does, it does just as admirably well in not doing what it could have done. I felt a scene in which Diana uses her “feminine wiles” to act as a distraction in some form was inevitable – it’s practically a given in any action film with a female lead. (ATOMIC BLONDE, a trailer for which played before WONDER WOMAN, will no doubt have “sexuality-as-a-weapon” as one of its themes – while there’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m sure ATOMIC BLONDE will be fun, it feels a little clichéd at this point.) Thankfully, this never happens during the course of WONDER WOMAN – in fact, at no time during the film does Diana even acknowledge her own appearance or utilize it to some advantage. This isn’t to say this is an asexual WONDER WOMAN, just that she’s very much in control of how that sexuality is used, and any reactions to her outside of her own natural inclinations come from other male characters, reactions that Diana just fails to respond to.
It’s this sense of understanding for the character and the type of film that used the tropes of a superhero film to speak to an audience that hadn’t been able to see as much of themselves coming through the previous films in the genre that makes WONDER WOMAN such a welcome relief, minor quibbles aside. It’s a film that actually made me excited about the possibilities of future superhero films, and that’s the greatest relief of all.
Tags: Allan Heinberg, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, DC Comics, Deborah Snyder, Doutzen Kroes, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Florence Kasumba, Gal Gadot, Geoff Johns, Lucy Davis, Patty Jenkins, Robin Wright, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Saïd Taghmaoui, wonder woman, Zack Snyder