Starting off, it really isn’t worth my or your time to compare Wonder Woman to the previous movies in the DC cinematic universe (DCEU), because, well…Wonder Woman blows them completely out of the water. The first woman of comics gets the big screen adaptation she’s always deserves, with director Patty Jenkins and the entire cast and crew taking the opportunity to show the boys how it’s done with style and grace.
So, instead, allow me to compare Wonder Woman to a superhero film in the same league, Captain America: The First Avenger.
And there’s a lot more to this comparison than just the coincidence of both movies having an actor named Chris playing a guy named Steve who goes behind enemy lines with a rag-tag group of soldiers during a World War to destroy a German superweapon that may or may not involve destroying a giant plane carrying said superweapon towards a major metropolitan city.
Besides all of that, both Wonder Woman and First Avenger shoulder the responsibility of introducing an entire universe’s moral center. And while Steve Rogers was always the presumed heart of the Marvel universe, the failure of the last two Superman movies has meant that it’s up to the Princess of the Amazons to be the heart of DC’s cinematic universe – and she fits the role naturally. As comics writer Gail Simone wrote, “If you need to stop an asteroid, call Superman. If you need to solve a mystery, call Batman. If you need to end a war, call Wonder Woman.”
And the World War setting of each movie helps contribute to each’s establishing of heart. Steve Rogers debuts during World War II as the paragon of American ideals, fighting against history’s greatest example of an unquestionably evil army. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman comes from the mythical and isolated land of Themyscira, where the Amazons are tasked with the twin goals of acting as an example of virtue for man’s world, and keeping guard over the Earth by preparing for the return of Ares – the God of War.
So when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the Amazon’s island, bringing news from man’s world of a “War to End All Wars,” Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the Amazons, figures that this must be a sign of Ares’ return, and that it is her sacred duty to kill the god, thus ending the war, and starting a new prosperous age for all mankind.
The period setting of each movie, and the hindsight they give the viewer, provides important grounding for their respective leads. Steve is a time capsule, ripped from America’s proudest moment. Meanwhile, Diana enters the world on the precipice of a new age of war. She believes that World War One is truly the final war of man, and that is her duty to make sure of that. But we know that as terrible as her first impression of man will be, things will get much worse before any semblance of them getting better. And we also know that, despite those two things – a terrible first impression, and the promise of worse on the horizon – that Wonder Woman will persist. The presumption the entire film, and thus the character of Wonder Woman, rests on is that no matter how many times we prove how awful we can be towards one another, Wonder Woman will protect the innocent and meet them with love and compassion. The presumption of Wonder Woman is one of altruistic and unconditional heroism, and it’s something that the DCEU has needed since Man of Steel.
Of course, this is fed way more by character than setting or plot, and Wonder Woman is as faithful an adaptation of these characters as we could’ve hoped for. We’re introduced to Diana as a child on Themyscira who escapes her from her tutors to watch the warriors train, yearning to be in their number, against the wishes of her mother, the Queen of the Amazons. She’s trained in secret by Antiope (Robin Wright) until she becomes their greatest warrior, and then voluntarily exiles herself to take Steve Trevor back to man’s land, stop the Great War, and fulfill the Amazon’s mission of killing Ares. Diana is entirely driven by her benevolent purpose of ending war, tapping mankind’s endless potential for peace, and protecting every innocent life between the frightening now and her optimistic future.
Gal Gadot is the constant ray of sunshine that any Wonder Woman should be on screen. The graciousness she shows towards everyone she meets is as infectious as her smile, and Gadot completely sells Diana as a divine, magnetic, and magnanimous presence. Her Wonder Woman is someone you want to be your best you for. She’s simply inspiring.
Diana’s naivety and wide-eyed approach to the world is tempered by Steve Trevor, whose experience as a spy and soldier in the war, and persistence in fighting for peace despite all he’s already seen provides a perfect lens for Diana to experience the worst of what man’s world has to offer without ever losing her own sense of optimism. The relationship between the two is perfectly complementary: Diana believes sincerely that she can fix everything in a world she’s just been introduced to, and Steve is someone who has been in the trenches, having seen things get worse, and continues to struggle against it anyway. He convinces her to act with a degree of pragmatism, while she continually amazes him and the audience, renewing a sense of optimism.
By contrast, the supporting cast isn’t as fleshed out as it could’ve been, with this movie’s group of ersatz-Howling Commandos leaving impressions mainly as types rather than full characters. Wonder Woman’s antagonists are also reduced to pulpy archetypes: the evil German general and his mad scientist that, while shallow, are at least genre appropriate.
My one other big gripe with the movie is that during some fight scenes the CG just gets silly, with Wonder Woman rubberbanding between goons like silly-putty on fast-forward. But any silliness is completely made-up for by Wonder Woman’s set-pieces, from an opener where Amazon’s defend their beaches with swords, spears, and bows from an invading German scouting fleet; to Wonder Woman crossing no-man’s-land, deflecting machine gun bullets with her bracers, and creating an opening for an allied push into a German controlled hamlet. Wonder Woman is filled to the brim with the type of fist-pump worthy moments that the first lady of comics deserves.
It’s been almost forty years since moviegoers first learned to believe a man could fly, and now, Wonder Woman will make you believe that a woman can soar. Wonder Woman doesn’t just set a new high-bar for the DCEU by injecting the universe with a much needed dose of hope, color, and levity; but sets a new high for the Superhero movie writ large. Wonder Woman is the purest distillation of what these golden age heroes stand for, and finally adapts this icon for the big screen with compassion, love, and good humor.