MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
Following the enormous success of Marvel’s cinematic franchise, Warner Brothers attempted to start their own comic movie universe in 2013 with Man of Steel. I was one of the few enthusiastic fans of that film and I hoped it would launch another successful enterprise. Yet the two subsequent films – Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad – achieved only modest financial success and received mostly negative reviews. Part of DC’s problem is that it has always relished a darker, edgier style while Marvel has captured the bright, fun spirit found in comics of an earlier era. With the Amazonian princess, DC has finally found its niche: a heroine who can face the harsh realities of “the world of man” without losing hope or compromising her values. Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero movies ever made.
The legend of Wonder Woman has been re-invented many times, but this version stays mostly true to the original. Diana was not born but created by Zeus from clay on the Amazonian island of Themyscira in response to the loneliness and sorrow of Queen Hippolyta, who raises the child as her own. As she grows “in strength and wisdom,” Diana comes to realizes that even among the immortal warriors of the all-female island she is unique, possessing powers beyond imagination. Her mother soon reveals that it is the Amazons’ sacred task to guard the world of man from Ares, the god of war who seeks to destroy everything.
Into this pristine paradise comes an intruder. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British during the first World War, crash lands on Themyscira by accident. Diana is entranced by this new creature, but her mother warns that he will only be trouble. After Steve explains “the war to end the world,” Diana journeys with him to the front lines where they discover a sinister plot by General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) to create and release a new, devastating weapon that will obliterate whole towns in one blast. Armed with the “God-Killer” sword, Diana goes to the front to confront Ares, who she believes is masquerading as this general. Steve is skeptical, but Diana is stubborn in her quest. “Once I kill Ares, the fighting will stop,” she says firmly. Of course, it is more complicated than that. War always is.
Wonder Woman is the best comic book movie since its Justice League compatriot four years ago, and the lion’s share of the credit goes to Israeli actress Gal Gadot for her near perfect performance as the title character. It would have been so easy to phone in the role as either a bombshell made purely for male enjoyment or a political feminist made purely for contemporary politics. Gadot, thankfully, skillfully navigates between extremes. Her Diana has great inner strength, yet is vulnerable to the suffering of others; she is classically beautiful yet not overly sexualized; she is tenacious in her fight against injustice but never mean or disrespectful, even to her enemies. Above all, she cares for the poor and downtrodden, especially children. She is someone you want be with, not just because she can single handedly fight off a machine gun but because she is a great friend. Diana reminded me of the great saint medieval women saints like Joan of Arc or Bridget of Sweden who were just as comfortable cuddling a lost lamb or saying the rosary as they were wielding a sword and leading arduous pilgrimages.
It is a common trope among super heroines of the 21st century that they “do not need a man.” From Moana to Merida to Elsa and Black Widow, women in movies seem more concerned with passing the Bechdel test than starting a family. Diana is the perfect antidote to this craze in that she is neither interested in initiating romance nor interested in avoiding it. Like women called to religious life, she understands that she has a calling to a “bigger love” and a more specific and physical relationship would hinder her ability to fulfill her vocation. However, she has to deal with the obvious attraction she feels for Steve. In this arena, the film hits a rough patch but not enough to derail the story.
The Batman films of Christopher Nolan asked a central question: is Gotham worth saving? Wonder Woman expands this idea and asks whether mankind is valuable and worth saving. In theory, the Amazonians would say “yes”, but they refuse to intervene when they learn of the war. Diana is the only one who understands her mission and acts on her vocation. When she finally meets Ares, he insists that man is not capable of anything good and deserves its demise. There are strong echoes of Satan in his character. His hatred of humanity stems from an ancient envy based on the favor the gods showed their creation.
Based on the evidence Diana has encountered throughout her journey, Ares’s claim is hard to deny. Yet despite her disillusionment, Diana never gives into the temptation, remaining unjaded. Her faith is ultimately demonstrated by a heroic sacrifice. Man is capable of both goodness and evil, and the death of a single person (or god) will never bring that fight to an end. Yet the individual can choose to love, and that choice is worth defending. “I will always stay,” Diana proudly asserts, accepting to defend humanity forever though there is no end in sight. The only Christian caveat to “the poor always being with us” is the Second Coming, which will bring evil to an end.
Wonder Woman is a truly great film and demonstrates that the DC cinematic universe is well worth continuing. It is now protected by the watchful eye of heroine that could easily match any of the Marvel boys. Better late than never.