Wonder Woman is by far the best of the DCEU movies. It may very well be the best superhero movie out there. I’ll leave you to find a proper review elsewhere. I want to make some comments over the next couple of days.
Firstly, we finally have a proper balance between the gritty “realism” the prior movies have attempted with the noble heroism such iconic characters deserve. Secondly, We also have an embracing of the eternal feminine in the face of a culture seeking to relativize that concept, along with masculinity, into oblivion. Finally, we see a maturity of superheroic story without the loss of childish whimsy – something akin to the “reaffirmation of myth”, the fourth stage of John G. Cawelti’s Generic Transformation (see the Nerdwriter for his application of this discussion to Logan).
I’m not going to bother keeping from spoilers, so those wanting to avoid them should head out now.
So first, realism and heroism.
For much of pop-culture, gritty realism is the order of the day. The fantasy book market is replete with Game of Thrones clones which seek to nihilistically revel in just how wicked and evil men are and one-upping each other in giving the noble and virtuous horrific, foolish ends. Shows like House of Cards, True Detective, and Breaking Bad flirt with the same.
The superhero genre, for a variety of reasons, has a polarizing reaction to these types of stories. On the one hand, led by much of of Alan Moore’s work, like Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendeta, authors have embraced these themes and given us the more “serious” storylines of Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison. However, there has always been a backlash and a desire to return to the virtue-laden and heroic roots, as seen in the rebooting work of Geoff Johns (see his Green Lantern stuff) and the later work of Alan Moore (see his Tom Strong series). For every dark take on Batman or Daredevil, there’s another author who wants to bring some swashbuckling back to the characters. For everyone who wants to show the absurdity of Superman or Captain America’s boyscout heroics, there’s another author who wants to put the paragons of virtue back on the pedestal.
In the movies, we’ve seen this polarization occur in the Marvel vision which mostly endorses heroism and virtue and eschews gritty realism (though we get this in the Netflix series), while DC has attempted to go the opposite. From Man of Steel, which showed a troubled and distraught Superman, to Batman v Superman which made Batman a sociopath, to Suicide Squad, which floundered in going the lovable rogues route, all of the DCEU movies have tried to be darker and edgier and basically failed at every turn. I mostly blame this on Zach Snyder who seems obsessed with “dark and serious = mature” while shooting movies filled with moments of spectacle and no substantive scenes.
In Wonder Woman, the problems of the last movies are handily overcome by recognizing that a sober realism which recognizes horror and sin is not counter to but parallel to and even integrative of a true and transcendent heroism.
The setting for the majority of Wonder Woman’s action is World War I (an interesting choice which helps elide the “every villain is a nazi” syndrome). There is no glorification of war here and it takes a toll on the innocent Diana. Raised for battle, but never actually seeing it, the audience gets to vicariously experience her revulsion at the effects of war. From witnessing her sister amazons die, to the horrific condition of trench warfare, to the wounded soldiers and innocents caught up in the conflict, the movie never shies away from making clear that war is an ugly mes.
However, every moment of horror becomes also a chance of heroism and Diana, through both her innocence in the early parts of the film and her mature compassion in the later portions, rises to the occasion. She defends her homeland, she breaks the siege, she seeks out and destroys her enemies. Never is sin a time to curl in upon herself. Even in her greatest moments of seeming failure, she is challenged to rise above it and does so.
This is also seen in the lesser, ordinary characters. Steve Trevor is always seeking to bring about an end to the conflict, even at the sacrifice of his own life. Sameer, Charlie, and Chief, their merry men, all follow Diana into the thick of battle and are ultimately inspired to selfless acts of heroism.
Every horror is but a challenge to greater heroism, a heroism which seeks to transcend the self and bring about the glory of the good – “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”
This is what the prior DCEU movies wanted to be and failed. Let’s hope they can correct course and continue in Wonder Woman’s lead.