The superhero origin tale hasn’t really evolved much since the original Spider-Man swung into theaters fifteen summers ago. Whether it be Marvel or DC, the formula stays pretty much the same for that first outing– how the hero got their powers and and meeting the first person/thing they have to use them on. The assurance that we have explored all the angles that could possibly make a superhero introduction interesting tempered my expectations for Wonder Woman. Well, life has a funny way of crushing our assurances and, in this case, it could not be any more welcomed.
**Some spoilers ahead**
While origin tales are generally an observation of a regular individual becoming something more, Wonder Woman is tasked with not only humanizing an Amazon princess, but humanizing her to the point that the audience can still relate as she learns of the power she possesses. Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot manage to handle these hurdles with such ease that it made me begin to wonder how so many other franchise starters struggled to tell simpler stories.
The opening of Wonder Woman, much like Man of Steel, drops us in an unfamiliar environment. While the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, is located on Earth, it is quite well-hidden from the rest of humanity. The inhabitants spend their days training for a war that may never come, against a foe that may not exist, in order to defend a humanity they have no interactions with. While Themyscira is beautiful, it does come across as a bit boring, especially to Diana, the only child on the island who just so happens to be the queens’ daughter. Much of what goes on in the first twenty minutes or so feels familiar, yet somehow different.
There are plenty of moments that could be described as stereotypical to the genre, but they’re executed in a way that feels important and organic. Just as Diana begins to realize there’s more to her than just a skilled fighter, the long-lasting isolation of Themyscira is shattered with the emergence of a crashed bi-plane and the soldier on board. Saving British fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is the first interaction Diana has with any being not from her island paradise. Pine and Gadot, surprisingly, are given a decent amount of screen time to develop chemistry and the payoff is that nothing feels forced. Both characters have a fish out of water quality, Gadot introduced to a man for the first time and Pine landing on an island of women warriors who are unaware of World War I, which is encompassing himself along with the rest of civilization. Patience is a virtue most often left on the cutting room floor in the comic movie universe, and in allowing the leads to have fun instead of rushing into battle we get a far more satisfying result.
The fact that Wonder Woman takes place 100 years ago means that we’re essentially experiencing an unfamiliar world alongside the main character. We can laugh at Diana being out of place, but the reality is most of us would appear just as out of place if we were suddenly brought to 1918 London. The other feeling we can all relate to is the unease and horrors of a world in conflict. As Diana and Steve, accompanied by a few sidekicks, embark on a mission towards the front lines of the war, we realize that even being super powered doesn’t prepare you for the atrocities of walking through a war zone. The otherworldly quality of Diana that initially provides a few laughs is suddenly a point of empathy as she bears witness to the worst of humanity, only days after being introduced to the world. However, empathy soon gives way to awe as Diana begins to kick some ass.
Yes, the Batman v Superman guitar music returns and, yes, it’s still awesome. The action sequences throughout are impressive, particularly when the Lasso of Truth is in play. One of the smartest moves of Wonder Woman is using an enemy as much from literature as comics; Ares, the god of war. He is an enemy whose presence can be felt without being needing to be on screen. Instead of some barely motivated, nameless villain threatening world domination, we get a look at a superhero in a war among humans. This may draw some comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger, but that would be like comparing National Treasure to The DaVinci Code. Captain America essentially used the setting as a playground, Wonder Woman takes a far more grounded, respectful, and serious approach to the setting. None of the action sequences feel forced or out of place and there’s an emotive quality that I can’t recall being previously explored by films of the genre. What’s usually considered to be collateral damage has a face here and the impact is far greater.
Themes of sacrifice and what/who are worth saving are explored in the finale. While “thought-provoking” wouldn’t be the first set of descriptive terms I’d use to describe Wonder Woman, there certainly are moments that stick with you. Gal Gadot is not only insanely beautiful, but also carries the film with wide-eyed confidence of a true star.
Wonder Woman is better than the label of “summer popcorn movie” and is also the first movie in the DC universe that will not find itself to be divisive among critics or audiences. The anticipation for Justice League has now been magnified and I truly hope to see Patty Jenkins continue this franchise.