It’s not exactly news that the DC Extended Universe hasn’t done as well as Warner Bros. would like. Man of Steel took a different approach to Superman in order to avoid rehashing a familiar origin. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doubled down on the Superman approach, and added in a darker version of Batman than audiences have seen before. Suicide Squad went away from superheroes almost entirely, instead focusing on a team of villains forced into taking down someone more threatening than themselves. In theory, it’s understandable why Warner Bros. chose the stories and approaches that they did – since they were coming into the whole “film universe” game well after Marvel made the MCU a success. In execution, though, these films didn’t take off with critics or audiences to the level that Warner Bros. wanted.
That brings us to Wonder Woman, which takes some elements of previous DCEU films, mixes it in with an origin story, and adds in a level of heroism that’s been missing from this franchise’s films thus far. While the end result isn’t perfect, for reasons I’ll get into momentarily, the end result is a film that’s not only easily the DCEU’s best film to date (and I say that as someone who actually likes Man of Steel), but one of the best superhero origin stories to date.
Growing up on the island of Themiscyra, young Diana yearns to be a warrior in the mold of the Amazons around her. It’s a path her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), resists, but Diana finds a supporter in her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), who trains her in secret. When Hippolyta discovers this, she allows the training to continue only if Antiope will train Diana to become the greatest warrior the Amazons have ever produced.
Years later, Diana (Gal Gadot) is growing in strength. She’s stunned when she sees a plane crash through the barrier obscuring Themiscyra and into the ocean. After rushing to save the passenger, Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Diana and the Amazons learn about World War I, or as Steve puts it, “the war to end all wars.” Believing the war is the work of the long-dormant Ares, the God of War, Diana decides to leave with Steve to find Ares and kill him. Steve, though, believes Ares to be a myth, and tries to fulfill his own mission of stopping German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his chemist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya).
The easiest way to describe Wonder Woman is to compare it to a few other superhero movies, because the film does hit some familiar notes. The film itself blends elements of Captain America: The First Avenger’s wartime elements with Thor‘s fish-out-of-water introduction of the character into the world of man. For the character of Diana, though, the clearest cinematic equivalent to Gal Gadot’s take on the character is Christopher Reeve’s take on Superman in Superman: The Movie. There’s an innocence to the way Diana pictures the world, and it comes down to this: she believes that mankind is inherently good, and Ares is responsible for mankind’s corruption. If she can kill Ares, they will be good again. And while there’s certainly the potential for this to make Diana seem naive, Gadot and director Patty Jenkins do a remarkable job in making this simply refreshing. It helps that she’s paired with Steve Trevor, who brings an earned cynicism to the way he views the war.
The film is built on the relationship between Diana and Steve, and it’s fascinating to watch how that relationship evolves over the course of the film. Diana and Steve are clearly entering into their journey together with diametrically opposed viewpoints, and the growth of their relationship isn’t to create an insipid love story; it’s to show how their exposure to each other helps them both evolve as people. Yes, there is a love story component to their relationship, but it’s a love that feels earned, as opposed to something the story simply demands.
There’s more to the film than the relationship, though. There’s also the growth of Diana as a fierce warrior, and just as Wonder Woman’s inclusion at the end of Batman v Superman suggested, she more than holds her own in combat. The action here is thrilling, and it largely consists of three well-crafted scenes that all add something different to the film.
But where the action in many other superhero films can get monotonous, Wonder Woman has the advantage of creating characters audiences can get behind. More specific to the DCEU, Diana isn’t going through the same issues that Superman or Batman have faced in their fight scenes. There’s no question that Diana knows how to fight, or that her heroism is right. Instead, the conflict comes from her taking her ideals and having to apply them to a scenario that isn’t what she expected – namely, that humanity is more flawed than she expected.
With that, the film hits on the core of the Wonder Woman character: a powerful warrior who’s more than willing to kill if necessary (which is the big thing that sets her apart from Batman or Superman, at least historically), but who at her core believes in the power of love.
As I mentioned, the film isn’t perfect. The closing battle hits many of the same beats that we’ve seen time and time again in superhero films, and while parts of it are elevated because of the characters and story, it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the previous fights. But considering how well the rest of the film works, this is a minor complaint.
I don’t know what the presence of Wonder Woman will mean for the DCEU going forward. Later this year, we’re getting Justice League, which will likely fall more in line with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman since, like those films, it’s coming from Zack Snyder. But as Wonder Woman’s first solo film in her 75-year history, Wonder Woman is an unqualified success. More importantly, as our country and world feel increasingly dark, Wonder Woman shows us a model of heroism that can provide hope for others. If that can’t inspire wonder, I don’t know what can.