In an age where big money, studios, and hedge-fund-managers-turned-producers have final say, Hollywood has been scared of anything with more than one thought in its head. Wonder Woman is a rare treat in the franchise world and an even rarer one in the superhero action genre. It doesn’t just have one thing to say it has a dozen things to say about a dozen different topics; some slyly and others overtly so.
First, let me start off by saying Gal Gadot is a star, a movie star. Yes, she is gorgeous, but being gorgeous is only a fraction of what makes a movie star. The world is filled from one end to the other with gorgeous people, but few of them are stars. There’s something about Gadot that draws your eye to her, a presence. This isn’t just good bone structure and genetic lottery winning, this is talent.
You may think I’m overstating the case, but watch Wonder Woman and tell me your eye doesn’t naturally drift to the side of the screen Gadot is on. Listen to some of the lines she delivers and ask yourself if anyone else could have delivered them. Actors inhabit the characters they play and make us believe they are real. Movie stars are larger than life characters who we know aren’t real but we believe they are anyway.
Gal Gadot is a movie star. It’s not easy to make an audience believe an Amazonian Princess of Themyscira, daughter of Zeus, would leave everything she loves and knows to end World War I and kill Ares the God of War. But she does it.
In many ways Patty Jenkins has given us the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for. The tragedy of Superman is that he can’t save everyone and stop everything. As Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his comrades lead Diana to the Western front, she encounters people in need of saving time after time. Diana is heart-sick that she can’t stop and help them. After all, if she stopped and helped everybody who needed it who would stop Ares?
The movie never says the name Wonder Woman because this is the story of Diana and how she became Wonder Woman. It is not ashamed of her, for if it were it would not have her mention Themyscira so often, or mention her Mother, or her father. It’s an origin story that makes you forget it’s an origin story because it remembers first and foremost it has to emotionally invest you, the audience, and entertain at the same time.
Jenkins has made, like Logan, a work of art. Art is suppose to hold up a mirror to humanity, look at it square in the eye, tell truth to power, and then tell us we can be better; because we have to be. The theme throughout all of Wonder Woman is: Is humanity worth it? Is this species that has evolved after millions of years from the bubbling pool of bacteria and hot magma any better than when it started?
There comes a point when Diana kills the bad guy and the war doesn’t stop. She can’t understand it. How can this be? Surely the only reason they fight is because a meddling God caused it. Otherwise all this pain, death, and destruction would be madness. Why would humanity be deserving of her saving the day if it was any other way?
“It’s not about deserving.” Of all the things the film says it may be this that knocks the ball out of the park. Bad people need saving, good people need to be stopped, the world is big and messy. Sometimes the answer isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. Ares presents Diana with the opportunity to kill the inventor of Mustard gas, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya). It’s this moment, this quiet moment amidst an airfield of explosions and Diana showcasing her Godlike strength as she lifts a tank over head; it’s here when she becomes Wonder Woman.
The film is confident enough to let you figure this out for yourself. The movie is filled with quiet moments, real ones, where there’s no music, where characters are allowed to gaze at each other and blessed be, allowed to talk. It takes its time constructing the story, allowing us and the characters time to look around and breathe.
There are whole swaths of the movie where Steve and Diana just talk, not to forward the plot forward but to have conversations so as to discover more about the other person. Diana is allowed to talk to everyone. From Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) to Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), one of Steve’s comrade in arms. Through these conversations Diana’s views of the world and her views of humanity begin to shape and change.
It’s how she finds out about racism. Such as when Sameer confides in her that he wants to be an actor more than anything in the world but “My skin is the wrong color.” Or when she asks The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) why he stays and fights, and he replies he has no home. When asked who took it he nods to Captain Trevor.
Wonder Woman works because, unlike DC’s previous movies, it’s not afraid of sincerity and honesty. A movie can be sincere without being honest and that’s when it strays into malarkey. For sincerity to work it must be honest. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in any of the frames. And just because a movie is sincere does not mean you can’t show someone enjoying the life altering discovery of ice cream. Deep meaning and great complexity need not require irony and cynicism as their only form of sustenance.
Patty Jenkins has done an incredibly brave thing. Yes, she’s given us the first competently directed movie in the newly minted DCEU franchise. Yes, she’s given us the first big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman and the single greatest live action superheroine movie ever made. And yes, she’s set the new gold standard by which all future comic book movies will be measured by.
She’s also made a film out of step with the times. In an era filled with macho grandstanding in our nation’s capital, in an era where vitriol and bad faith rule the internet, in an era where we as a nation seem to be losing faith in the very systems we’re meant to rely on; she went against the grain. Jenkins didn’t give us a story with a hero that fit with the times. She gave us a story and a hero who demanded we fit with them.
In that sense, there’s a level of artistic bravery that outpaces anything the MCU or the DCEU has done. Wonder Woman is the hero we need because she is honest, brave, loving, and clear eyed. She’s the hero we deserve.