Eating a large slice of humble pie, writer Phil Bowers explains (with spoilers) how DC finally hit the mark with their latest movie.
So Wonder Woman is good. In fact, it’s DC’s best effort on the big screen since Christopher Nolan crafted The Dark Knight in 2008.
Since closing the chapter on Nolan’s Magnum Opus with The Dark Knight Rises, DC has quickly tried to establish a shared universe to rival that of closest competitor Marvel. The DC Extended Universe, as it’s been dubbed, features some big hitters, arguably bigger than any Marvel could throw into the fray.
Yet, as we all know, DC has had three bites of the cherry so far, and they’ve been indifferent to average. Man of Steel is the requisite Zack Snyder-gritty-take-on-a-popular-hero movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a colossal disappointment given the resources, cast and opportunity (which is only somewhat rectified by the Extended Cut released digitally and on Blu-Ray), and Suicide Squad took what should have been a fun outing full of zany characters with outlandish skills into an ogling contest for Margot Robbie’s backside and a rinsed out, grimy world where even Will Smith’s Deadshot and Robbie’s Harley Quinn couldn’t save it from just being “OK”, and not outstanding.
So what’s different about Wonder Woman? Why does it success where the others have failed, and crucially, can it be repeated to bring DC’s listing on-screen continuity back to an even keel?
Firstly, the casting, while often criticised (including by this writer), actually turned out to be pretty inspired. The character of Wonder Woman’s phenomenal physical abilities are tempered by both her naivety and stubbornness. This is a character who can throw tanks around as if they’re made of paper, but is just as likely to blunder headlong into a trap if she thinks she’s doing the right thing.
Gal Gadot smartly embodies that part of Wonder Woman. She gets across the inexperience and frustration of a powerful being who doesn’t fully understand their capabilities, but wants to use them for what she thinks is right. From her rescue of Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor when he crash lands on Themyscira, to her one-woman charge across No Man’s Land, we see both the headstrong determination and innocence that is a feature of Diana Prince on the printed page.
Gadot gets across the genuine bewilderment of Wonder Woman not understanding why mankind would expend it’s time, energy and resources in waging on ugly war. Set in 1918, the movie makes a point of showing the way in which women are treated at the time, without ever being condescending, or too forcefully feminist. Diana succeeds because she talks sense just as much as she acts, and it’s good to see a movie that embraces a character, particularly a woman, who can be attractive, physically formidable AND intelligent.
But the real strength of Gadot’s performance lies in the chemistry she has with Pine. Her Diana Prince and his Steve Trevor first exhibit mutual respect, them admiration, then love. This part of the movie has been criticised for including a romantic subplot for Wonder Woman when many think she should be spending her time kicking seven shades out of cannon fodder German soldiers. But why shouldn’t the character have a romance? It wouldn’t be out of place in a male-led superhero film, so why should it be in a female-led one? Crucially, neither she nor Trevor become a damsel (or dude?) in distress? Each thrives in their own quarter, with Pine taking the lead of the square-jawed not-so-leading man, with more savvy and experience than Diana, and Gadot being the physically superior and more morally centred of the pair.
But crucially, this relationship actually give the movie some heart – which is much needed in the DCEU. Henry Cavill’s Superman and Amy Adam’s Lois Lane don’t click in the same way Gadot and Pine’s characters do. Ben Affleck’s Batman has been, up until now, a hulking punching machine with none of the seductiveness that comes with the darkness of the Dark Knight. Romance was squarely on the backseat of Suicide Squad, and even the abusive relationship between The Joker and Harley Quinn wasn’t explored in the depth it should have been.
That means there’s been a distinct lack of something to connect with in DC’s lead characters. Why should we really care about their lives when they’re not tackling intergalactic threats or pursuing Clown Princes of Crime? Superman goes home and broods, Batman goes home and lifts weights, Harley goes back to Arkham and sits in a cell, and Deadshot only gets a glimpse of what life would be like if he were with his daughter all the time (the nearest Suicide Squad ever gets to eliciting an emotional connection for any of it’s characters). Here, the genuine affection that is shared between the two leads, make you hope that they can eventually have their moment, which makes it all the more tragic when that opportunity is taken away.
Yes, the conclusion of the Prince/Trevor romance ends in his heroic sacrifice motivating her in her finale showdown with the movie’s big bad, Ares, the God of War. While Diana has spent the majority of the film wanting to destroy Ares to end the conflict she finds herself in the middle of, the final spur that allows her to overcome him is Trevor’s death. You could argue that reducing ending worldwide warfare as the reason to getting revenge for her lover’s death diminishes the character somewhat, and you’d be right.
In one of the few weak points of the movie, Wonder Woman overcomes her enemy (played with relish by the criminally underused David Thewlis), it’s her love for Trevor that becomes the reason she beats him, not her desire to save the world. There’s a case for saying that if you’re drawing the two as equals, then it would be the most human and logical response, and would be the same the other way around if this was, say Superman fighting the man responsible for Lois Lane’s death.
That said, Wonder Woman spends the entire film wanting to kill Ares to prevent the escalation of the war, and in the end, that doesn’t prove to be a powerful enough motivator. So her whole reasoning in the end is superseded by love. It weakens the finale somewhat, removing the gravitas of Wonder Woman’s crusade and focusing it more on her own personal feelings, which again is a theme she’s gone against throughout the entire feature.
The next point can be viewed as another criticism, but is actually another example of why Wonder Woman succeeds, and that’s its setting. Putting the action in the middle of the First World War not only evokes a sense of nostalgia and history but succeeds in putting Wonder Woman in a male dominated era where the story of just how powerful she is can be told against a background in which she needs to prove that power.
It also has parallels with Captain America: The First Avenger. Choosing to place it in an era removed from a contemporary timeline means it provides new challenges, but also allows the provision for different types of action, comedy and drama. Diana can thrive in an environment where she can walk across a battlefield and deflect bullets, throw tanks, and in a primitive enemy, she can look thoroughly intimidating. There is the familiar “fish-out-of-water” theme, which Captain America used to great effect in making Steve Rogers an awkward youngster in a man’s world, and here Diana Prince as a Goddess in a man’s world. Her naive humour also mirrors Rogers’ innocence when confronted with cultures and opinions he’s not aware of.
But there can also be a criticism levelled here too – has DC made a popular movie, because it’s more like a Marvel movie than any of its predecessors? Wonder Woman features more colour, humour, heart and emotion than they other DCEU movies put together – all hallmarks of the company’s direct rivals. There’s an argument to be made that by emphasising those themes, DC has looked at the Marvel blueprint to make its Wonder Woman film more accessible, and therefore appeal to mainstream audience that so far it’s failed to capture?
So have lessons been learned? Can we expect Justice League, Flash, Shazam, Aquaman, and Green Lantern to have more heart, humour, and all the other things that made Wonder Woman such a hit?
The answer is more than likely yes.
Justice League is merely months away, so expect a return to the Snyder-esque world of permanent midnight, lots of punching and explosions and characters wilfully destroying much of the background setting in the name of defeating the enemy. That though, may be as far as Warner Brothers are willing to let Snyder go when it comes to the future direction of the continuity. Patty Jenkins’ desire to make a movie that doesn’t rely solely on final boss battles and diluted, shady palettes of pseudo-colour is refreshing when compared to the rest of the anthology so far. So those who find themselves at the helm of future DC movies may well be instructed to take a leaf out of Jenkins’ book to ensure a repeat of both the critical and financial success of Wonder Woman.