In the Pensées, Pascal writes, “I blame equally those who decide to praise man [and] those who blame him… I can only approve those who search in anguish.” Pascal’s anguish stems from man’s contradictory nature: caught inescapably between the extremes of wretchedness and greatness, he is neither wretched enough to be a beast nor great enough to be a god.
This dualism is central to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, and the result is more thematically robust and substantial than the vast majority of its contemporaries in the superhero genre. In an introductory voiceover, the titular heroine (Gal Gadot) explains, “I used to want to save the world… It is a land of beauty and wonder, worth cherishing in every way. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness simmering within.” This monologue accompanies the film’s opening shot: planet Earth, seen from space, before the camera zooms in to settle over the Louvre’s glass pyramid, at once embodying the beauty and fragility of man’s accomplishments, evoking memories of the Crystal Palace of Russian socialist utopianism. In his rebuke of this “enlightened,” optimistically humanist philosophy, Dostoevsky predicts (in Notes from Underground) that man, for all his rationalism, will eventually throw a rock through the Crystal Palace.
There’s a similar conflict of impulses at work in both the themes and craftsmanship of Jenkins’ film, which feels like quite the anomaly amongst the generally poor output of movies based on DC Comics characters. While the competition at Marvel Studios has been producing a steady stream of generally capable crowd-pleasers (which, despite persistent flaws, have garnered some well-documented admiration from this reviewer), there hasn’t been an unambiguously good film based on DC Comics since Christopher Nolan’s masterful The Dark Knight in 2008 – which, to be fair, was followed by Zack Snyder’s flawed but admirable Watchmen in 2009.
Now, as a pleasant surprise in 2017’s summer of cinematic disappointments, Wonder Woman has come along to show that even a broken clock is right twice a decade. Sadly, though, for all its strengths, Wonder Woman can’t quite escape the obligations of sharing a franchise with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. It’s at its strongest when charting a course far away from those films, and at its worst when finding it necessary to remind you that they all take place in the same universe. This happens when Hans Zimmer’s jarringly terrible Wonder Woman theme kicks in, or when the action sequences settle into the overwrought, slow-motion-heavy style that’s unfortunately become the house style of these pictures.
Thankfully, these are mostly textural issues, as Wonder Woman avoids the more fatal problems of the Detective Comics Cinematic Universe, or whatever they’re calling it these days. Snyder’s Batman v. Superman wasn’t a failure because it was too CGI-heavy, though that certainly didn’t help; it was a failure because it didn’t understand the beloved characters it revolved around, and alienated viewers by miring their heroes in a portentously grim deconstructionist narrative.
In principle, this reviewer doesn’t mind the deconstruction of beloved characters, but Jenkins’ film benefits from leaning into Marvel’s more lighthearted and affectionate approach to characters and story, even if there is a bit too much familiarity to the elements on display here. The grounding of a superhero story in ancient mythology recalls Thor (Norse there, Greco-Roman here), while the period setting is reminiscent of the first Captain America film (WWII there, WWI here). Both Captain America and Wonder Woman feature climaxes in which a heroic Steve played by an actor named Chris self-sacrificially pilots a plane laden with superweapons to safety.
There are other problems – the plot sometimes lurches forward clumsily, particularly in its last stretch, the mythology sometimes lacks clarity (for instance, what exactly are Wonder Woman’s superpowers?), and the music is disappointingly generic – but what makes Wonder Woman shockingly good, despite its frustrating imperfections, and winsomely fresh, even though we’ve seen much of it before, is the huge, earnest beating heart at its core. Jenkins’ direction is well attuned to the bold, broad emotions of this story, imbuing the drama here with a kind of primal simplicity without ever veering into sentimentality. For the most part, Wonder Woman manages a fine balancing act where its characters function both as specific human beings in their own right and as types representing larger themes and concepts. An early confrontation between a mother and her daughter takes place in fantastic circumstances particular to these characters in this story, but carries an archetypal power that resonates with the universal experience of parents having to let their children grow up. The romance between Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is at once charmingly idiosyncratic and a generalized wish fulfillment fantasy, the latest in the long tradition begun by Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s 1978 film.
Pine does quietly excellent work here, again proving – after his impressive performance in last year’s Hell or High Water – that for all his leading man looks, he has the chops of a character actor. His Steve Trevor makes for an appealing love interest, with consistently amusing droll comic timing and surprising emotional range, but perhaps the best thing about Pine’s performance is its restraint. In another movie, he would be the hero, and a well-rounded and charismatic one at that, but ultimately, this cast – while strong all around – is carefully calibrated not to distract from the film’s core focus.
Indeed, there’s an admirable purity to how completely Wonder Woman orbits around the cultural icon at its center. Although Gadot played the character previously in Batman v. Superman, she had precious little to work with there, and accordingly, made little impression. Here, given time and opportunity to shine, she is a revelation: persuasively larger than life, but never inaccessibly so, with an open-hearted sincerity that is absolutely endearing and, at times, strikingly poignant. Gadot demonstrates a truly impressive range here, moving effortlessly from genuine warmth to steely resolve to dry wit, from childlike delight to deep sorrow. Much of the emotion of the film’s second act hinges on Diana’s largely wordless responses to learning about the world around her, and Jenkins’ camera frequently lingers on Gadot’s expressive face to drive the point home, to great effect. As is to be expected from a film like this, there’s an element of physicality to Gadot’s performance here, and while the film’s various stunts and superheroic feats are skillfully done, a brief interlude in the film’s midsection may be even better for the way it gives her a chance to display an unexpected knack for physical comedy. A hilarious near-slapstick beat involving a revolving door is on par with any of Christopher Reeve’s bumbling antics as Clark Kent.
Wonder Woman smartly ties all its broad thematic exploration directly to the intimately personal stakes of Diana’s arc, and in so doing manages to be robust, thoughtful, and complex without sacrificing feeling or becoming too highbrow. The film’s opening sequences, on the Amazons’ island of Themyscira, quickly establish a set of conflicting claims: Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is concerned with maintaining safety and innocence, while her sister, Antiope (Robin Wright), emphasizes preparation for conflict. Diana is cannily positioned as a kind of synthesis of these two extremes, drawn to Antiope’s violence while retaining the simple, moral view of the world instilled in her by Hippolyta’s stories. Yet as the film goes on, both these characteristics are tested and tempered. As Hippolyta tells the young Diana a creation myth about how Ares (David Thewlis) corrupted the hearts of men with violence, Jenkins intercuts to Diana’s training with her aunt, slyly suggesting that the Amazons have not gone entirely uncorrupted either. At the same time, while Hippolyta fills her daughter with stories about mankind’s basic goodness as creatures born in the image of Zeus, she ultimately demonstrates a disillusioned desire to isolate the Amazons from the outside world, cautioning, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
This language of “deserving” recurs throughout the film, as Diana enters the theater of the war to end all wars and is confronted with humanity’s wretchedness and failure to deserve salvation. “May we get what we want,” Steve toasts with his war buddies (incidentally, a finely drawn set of supporting players), “And may we get what we need, but may we never get what we deserve.” In a crucial moment late in the film, Diana, thinking that she has killed Ares, is disappointed to see that the war continues, and that mankind’s capacity for evil is rooted much more deeply than she thought. “My mother was right,” she says tearfully, recalling Hippolyta’s pronouncement that the men do not deserve her help. Steve expresses his sympathies – “I wish there was just one bad guy to blame” – but comes to a conclusion that recalls another Dostoevsky book (The Brothers Karamazov): “We’re all to blame.” Only when man’s wretchedness has been fully exposed is it clear that the question is not about whether humanity deserves salvation; the question is whether or not Diana will choose to have mercy and acknowledge the greatness that, to Pascal’s anguish, also resides in them. “It’s not about deserve,” Steve exhorts Diana. “It’s about what you believe.”
The film’s climactic battle is likely its weakest set piece, reminiscent in so many ways of the usual CGI extravaganzas of sound and fury that these kinds of movies too often rely on, but it works better than most because it stays rooted in character and theme, grounding the proceedings in an explicit moral dimension. Ares, cast here as a kind of Satanic tempter figure (ironically, Thewlis’ second take on such a figure this year, after his turn as V.M. Varga in the recent third season of Fargo), attempts to convince Diana to join him by preying on her crisis of faith in mankind, claiming that if they are eradicated, the world can be returned to the paradise it once was. Themyscira, the home of the Amazons, is described at multiple points throughout the film as a “paradise,” linking Hippolyta’s isolationism to Ares’ narcissism – both are characterized by the egoistic, self-righteous belief that they know what is best and the solipsistic willingness to do away with those who disagree. Both Hippolyta and Ares are disgusted by mankind’s inherent wretchedness, and emphasize that they do not deserve Diana’s help.
However, despite the disappointment of her belief in man’s basic goodness, Diana refuses to succumb to her mother’s disillusionment. Moreover, she masters the propensity for violence inherited from her aunt. After Steve sacrifices himself to stop the Germans’ plot, Diana’s furious retaliation recalls early scenes of lethal Amazon combat against enemy soldiers. In one of the climax’s most striking moments, though, Ares encourages Diana to kill Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), the mad scientist who is indirectly responsible for Steve’s death. Notably, prior to this point, Diana has only encountered evil as a specifically masculine entity. As Diana holds a tank (an image of warfare) over her head, Dr. Poison’s Phantom of the Opera-esque mask falls away, revealing the scarred and deformed face of another woman. This moment – intercut with Steve’s declaration of love – is the key turning point for Diana, who simultaneously realizes her own capacity for evil and man’s capacity for good. Finally, she defeats Ares not with her own weapons but by turning his powers against him.
Of course I’m particularly inclined to think in this direction, but in these final stretches, hinging on Diana’s decision to show mercy rather than retaliate with aggression, I was reminded of George Lucas, cinema’s great poet of dualism – and not just because the villain here shoots blue lightning from his hands while urging the protagonist towards violence. (“Do it!”) Like the Star Wars films, Wonder Woman is constructed around sets of dueling claims that give way to surprising unities, straining towards reconciliation of opposites. How fitting that Diana – who, her mother claims, was sculpted from clay – is ultimately revealed to be the product of union between a male and a female, a god and an Amazon. “I used to want to save the world,” Diana intones over the film’s epilogue. “To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both.”
Over and over again, Wonder Woman sets up simple thematic dynamics and statements before questioning and complicating them, but it never does so in a way that undercuts Diana’s heroism, the way other DC films have “deconstructed” their heroes by questioning whether they deserve our admiration in the first place. Diana’s initial faith in Hippolyta’s stories is misplaced and impractical, as is her naïvely optimistic belief in mankind’s essential goodness, but the film never adopts a mocking or cynical tone. Her early pronouncements about her mission in the world are handled with a quiet wistfulness, and there’s a sensitivity and real pain to the way her idealism is tested. Instead of subverting or diminishing Diana’s virtue, though, the film complicates it into something that is all the more robust and rewarding for having been tested. This is not a film that simply praises man, nor is it a film that simply blames him; instead, it urges a love that is not based on merit but is unconditional and active.
Many of the best films of this genre are attuned to the way superheroes inspire those around them to emulate their heroism, and this is another way in which Wonder Woman’s treatment of its eponymous character shines. In a wise creative choice, the film saves the reveal of Wonder Woman’s costume and most iconic imagery for about an hour of its runtime, paving the way for its most thrilling and cathartic sequence, in which Diana charges across No Man’s Land, inspiring an entire platoon of soldiers to follow her. If this scene doesn’t quite compare to, say, the train rescue in Spider-Man 2 – an all-timer for its genre – it still taps into the same sense of breathtaking wonder and inspiration.
Immediately after this incredible moment, the film detours into its franchise’s defining stylistic traits: a particularly unnecessary speed ramping fight scene set to some wailing electric guitar music. It’s an apt summation of Wonder Woman’s strengths and weaknesses: here is a remarkable film trying its hardest to break free from the confines of the franchise in which it’s trapped. Like last year’s Doctor Strange (which also ended with its protagonist treasuring a watch given them by their love interest), this is a superhero film that doesn’t transcend its genre, but nevertheless manages to operate within its trappings and conventions with surprising thoughtfulness, nuance, and grace. I’ve seen Wonder Woman three times, and each time, circumstances have conspired such that I’ve been a bit ill-tempered going into the theater. Remarkably, each time, the film has drawn me in, overcome my cynicism, and lightened my spirits with its soulful earnestness. In the end, Diana chooses to love humanity despite its flaws. I feel similarly about her film.