If I told you that Wonder Woman was the best entry in the fledgling DC Extended Universe, you’d probably believe me. Not like that’s such a high bar to clear, after all. However, if I told you that Wonder Woman was easily the most rollicking and entertaining superhero film of the year and that it’s hard to imagine anything topping it, that’s something you’d need to see to believe. But you should, and you will.
There’s a back-to-basics feel to this film, a spirited verve that we are being reintroduced to the notion of fun in a DC property. It’s not as though it sticks out like a sore thumb – stylistically, it fits the forced-sepia, exaggerated slo-mo, lugubriously over-the-top CG mold established by Zack Snyder and Co., thereby proving that the DCEU’s general dourness has less to do with a bleak palette than a stifling tone. In the hands of Patty Jenkins, directing her first film since 2003’s Oscar-winning Monster, Wonder Woman plays like an exultation, breaking free from restrictive commodified shackles and roaming the well-worn comic adaptation landscape from a fresh perspective.
And why shouldn’t it? After all, here now we are finally witnessing the first female-centered superhero epic in this near-decade-long comic franchise boom that Marvel kicked off with 2008’s Iron Man, and which has now carried on with innumerable films that also affixed the word “Man” to the end of their titles. After nine years and 18 other films in which females were either absent, rendered as helpmates, or relegated as minor participants in larger, man-led superhero collectives, the comic world’s most iconic heroine finally takes center stage. The raw catharsis of such an event – galvanized by Jenkins’ status as the first woman director of a superhero tentpole – doesn’t enhance the film’s quality, but likely imbued a certain passion within the filmmakers to deliver something worthy of its historic significance. And that significance goes beyond gender dynamics: Wonder Woman is the first DC film that will live on as a fan favorite as opposed to a regretful misfire.
There are always numerous factors that work in concert to create a successful film, but one key to Wonder Woman’s success is balance of tone. The standard comic adaptation dichotomy in the intervening years, as Marvel became such a behemoth as to form its own studio and DC struggled to emulate its multi-character crossover success, is that Marvel made the fun superhero movies and DC delivered uber-serious duds. Wonder Woman finds a way to thread the needle through the DC mythos without ever crossing over into the brightly-colored world that Marvel specialized. It’s weighty and earnest in its storytelling while still maintaining a lightness of touch, taking itself seriously while still understanding that any such comic book fantasy must possess a bright-eyed sense of…well, wonder.
With an origin that embeds itself within the broader Greek mythology and a narrative arc that immerses itself within the Western Front of WWI, there’s a historical context to Wonder Woman that grounds it, even as its characters possess powers more fantastical than any other comic book entity. Daughter of Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, Princess Diana of Themyscira – or Diana Prince, as she becomes known in the modern world – is an indestructible demigoddess whose vulnerability is exposed by her immersion in the human world. Her ultimate male superhero counterpart, Superman, has been (somewhat accurately) pondered as an inert character because of his square-jawed goodness and near-invincibility. If anything, Diana is even more powerful than Supes, but also more dynamic as a character because of her capacity to love; she’s a human soul within a superhuman form.
Or maybe it’s just alchemy of presentation. Contextualized by screenwriter Allan Heinberg as a fish-out-of-water with a mythical axe to grind, depicted by Jenkins as a woman whose power and agency is an absolute, and played by Gal Gadot as a fierce and indomitable force of nature, this Wonder Woman is the believable fusion of fantastical power and beating-heart humanity that most other big-screen superheroes can’t seem to manage amid the branded bombast. Gadot’s talent has heretofore been stifled by limiting roles in other testosterone-fueled franchises, but she’s positively magnetic here, absorbing the spotlight and reflecting it outward, creating such an inimitable portrayal that she’ll have to work hard to avoid future typecasting. It’s a credit to her command, under Jenkins’ gaze, that Diana is a character of unique agency in the film, the reliable muscle alongside her loyal but somewhat hapless male cohorts. Together they take on sinister German general Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who is planning to mass-produce a lethal chemical weapon, and who Diana presumes is the embodiment of Ares, the Greek god of war. Her journey of discovery, both of her ultimate power as well as her true history, is rare on multiple levels. First, it’s a self-contained superhero story with only the bare minimum of connective tissue to the larger DC universe, which allows it a freedom of expression that is otherwise non-existent in this crossover-happy climate. But more significantly, it elevates a strong female character to discover her power and embrace it, navigating a space usually only carved out for Super Men.