Incarnation of Wonder: A Refreshing Alternative to Superhero Smackdowns
There was a lot of pressure on Wonder Woman to succeed. Every previous female superhero film was a flop, and Warner Bros. badly needed a critical hit from its DC Comics adaptations. Wonder Woman’s film debut was long overdue, but proved to be worth the wait.
Wonder Woman is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, but few people outside of devoted comic fans really know the character beyond her tiara and bulletproof bracelets. This relative anonymity works to the film’s benefit, which has the honor of catapulting her to a wider audience. Born as Princess Diana, Wonder Woman grows up as the only child among the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors drawn from Greek mythology. We see snippets of her childhood and adolescence on the mythical island Themyscira, a gorgeous mix of Mediterranean scenery and classical architecture. There’s an innocence and sincerity to these early scenes as Diana learns from her two role models, her mother, the peace-loving Queen Hippolyta, and her more aggressive aunt, General Antiope.
Despite their limited screen time, these characters form the basis for Wonder Woman’s duality as both a fierce warrior and a champion for world peace. It’s a testament to the film’s writing that these facets of her character seem complementary rather than contradictory. Throughout her history in comics, Wonder Woman has veered from overly passive to downright bloodthirsty, but the film finds an appropriate balance between these two extremes. This is a Wonder Woman who stays above the petty conflicts of the world, but takes decisive action when necessary. With a great threat looming just over the horizon, Diana is called upon to put these principles into practice.
When an American spy named Steve Trevor crashes his plane near the idyllic shores of Themyscira, the isolationist Amazons are yanked into the world war raging at their doorstep. Against her mother’s reservations, Diana jumps at the chance to restore peace to the world. Intriguingly, the film exchanges the original comic’s World War II setting for World War I, a more complicated conflict that’s been less frequently depicted in film. Steve Trevor tells Diana that the Germans are “the bad guys,” but it’s not that simple. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to blame anyone specifically for the war. This makes for a more nuanced conflict, in which Diana’s struggles to do the right thing as the whole world seems hellbent on destruction.
Mythological elements and superhuman feats aside, the film stays surprisingly true to its wartime setting. While staying securely within the bounds of its PG-13 rating, it depicts the grim nature of chemical weapons and trench warfare. Rather than hamstringing Wonder Woman’s bold optimism, this bleak setting allows her to shine even more clearly. There’s a real sense of joy infused into the action sequences, as Diana leaps across battlefields and hoists vehicles over her head. She’s an inspirational figure to soldiers and civilians alike, and perhaps to audiences as well.
Admittedly, this adaptation is not perfect. The last half hour is noticeably weaker than the rest of the film. The vibrant, eye-catching cinematography suddenly becomes monochromatic and dull, so underlit that there’s barely enough light to decipher the events unfolding on the screen. Oddly enough, the film saves its least engaging action sequence for last, though there are redeeming moments in the midst of the chaos. For a film that spends nearly two hours defying expectations, it’s disappointing that the finale could have almost been copied and pasted from any other superhero movie.
However, the strong, likable characters bolster the film even when it slips into genre cliches and plot contrivances. Superhero films have increasingly focused on angst-ridden heroes, but Wonder Woman is something different entirely. If anything, she’s a little too sure of herself at the start of her journey, though her heart is clearly in the right place. Steve Trevor has been a crucial part of the Wonder Woman mythos from the beginning, and the film does him justice. He introduces a bit of realism into Diana’s optimistic worldview, but she also succeeds in bringing some hope to his world-weary pragmatism. The ideological and cultural differences between the two make for an interesting relationship, far better written than the standard romantic subplot most blockbusters rely on.
There’s also Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy, a suffragette who helps Diana adjust to 20th-century life. She gets some of the film’s best lines and is charming enough to make an impression despite her small role. Trevor’s war buddies, though they receive limited development, bring a sense of humanity into the conflict. As they let their guard down, we learn that some of these men would rather be actors and singers than soldiers. They stand in stark contrast to the villains, who view war itself as highest calling in life. There may be a time for war, the film suggests, but the fight itself should never overshadow what we’re fighting for.
After being relegated to the sidelines of pop culture for decades, Wonder Woman has finally burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion. Since her origin in 1941, she was intended to be a counterpoint to the violent antics of other heroes, a character who would always uphold peace in the face of senseless aggression. While some incarnations of the character have strayed from this core concept in the past, it’s encouraging to see her first film embrace it wholeheartedly.
There are plenty of conversations to be had about this movie, especially regarding its implications for the superhero genre and women in Hollywood. Important as these discussions may be, it would be a shame if the film itself was overlooked in the process. Wonder Woman is a fun, uplifting movie that pushes the bounds of its genre, and that alone is worth celebrating.
Image credit: JD Hancock on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).