Our story begins with young Diana Prince, who spends her early years among the all-female Amazon warriors of the hidden island of Themyscira. When British pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down nearby, the wreckage of his plane drifts into Themysciran waters. German attackers follow, and a battle results that ends in Diana’s departure from her island home. Along with Steve and a motley band of allies, she eventually finds herself on the blasted battlefields of World War I. Her mission: find and kill the exiled god Ares, whom she believes is secretly driving the world to war.
Technically speaking, “Wonder Woman” is a blast. Gadot is a perfect lead, easily balancing intensity with warm charisma. (She was, after all, the best part of “Batman v Superman.”) The pacing is just right—stressing extended character development over endless, mindless action—and the cinematography is suitably captivating (yes, the World War I scenes are color-desaturated, but it feels appropriate in context).
And it’s taken a long time to reach this point, but I think it’s finally possible to discern the unique storytelling logic underlying the DC Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s superheroes, by and large, are glorified humans: their adventures are entertaining because we, the audience, see our own behaviors reflected in the characters onscreen. (Consider the penthouse party scene in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which is the only thing I really remember from that film. It was memorable because it felt genuine and familiar.) By contrast, DC’s recent films have been struggling to tell a very different story: the story of encounter between humankind and beings who are genuinely “other.” In other words, Marvel’s flicks are about godlike humans; DC’s are about gods appearing as human. That’s an awfully ambitious move for DC, given the weightiness of the themes involved, and it’s easy for things to go (very badly) awry.
Allow me a brief digression: to crib from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, there are really only two moral frameworks that can underlie a given narrative of reality: Aristotle’s ethics of virtue, or Nietzsche’s ethics of “will to power.” In trying to grapple with Ultimate Questions, the DC film franchise promptly finds itself caught on the horns of this dilemma.
Here’s one big reason Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” were so terrible: Snyder, as a storyteller, can only tell Nietzschean narratives. His characters are alien not only physically, but morally: superhumans who are, quite literally, Übermenschen. They are instantiations of pure power: their will is incontestable, and “normal” humans can only cower before them. (Every piece of Snyder’s cinematic canon displays this same tendency.) There is no love and no grace in the Snyderverse: only domination and subjugation.
Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” takes the Aristotelian path. This time around, our star’s superhuman strength is incidental, not essential, to her identity. What defines her is not raw power, but a principle that must be cultivated through practicing it: demonstrate love by protecting the innocent and bringing justice to the guilty. That virtue, more than anything else, makes her who she is.
Abandoning Snyder’s Nietzschean worldview results in a rich payoff. There is a powerful, exhilarating moral lucidity to “Wonder Woman” that’s somehow been absent from the last decade of superhero flicks. I like my heroes to, you know, actually be heroic—and Diana delivers. Upon initially arriving at the Western Front, Diana encounters a knot of broken families fleeing the unending violence around them. Outraged, she prepares to charge across no-man’s-land to liberate their village, which is being held hostage by German soldiers. Steve tries to stop her, reminding her “that’s not what we came here to do!”
“No,” Diana says quietly. “But it’s what I’m going to do.”
And the film’s first major action scene—a blazingly glorious tableau of balletic violence—begins. It’s a moment of pure catharsis, the ultimate act of defiance in the face of an ever-more-cynical universe of storytelling, and it feels so incredibly good. (It’s the same thrill you remember from Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” movies.)
But as exuberant as the moment feels, “Wonder Woman” isn’t “fun and games” in the same way a Marvel flick might be. There’s a lot of death and darkness here, though it’s of a qualitatively different kind than the nihilistic violence of Snyder’s films. Here, that grimness becomes meaningful, through its juxtaposition against the grace, courage, and self-sacrifice on display. And because “Wonder Woman” is willing to accept the reality of tragedy, its emotional moments feel genuinely earned: no one’s under any illusions that slain characters will reappear ten minutes later, which gives real force to the film’s plot beats.
(There’s a ton more I could say—particularly about the movie’s Big Ideas—but I’ll refrain from spoilers.)
I do have to acknowledge that “Wonder Woman” isn’t quite perfect—some of the writing is a little clunky, and the fight scenes use a bit too much slo-mo cinematography—but this is nitpicking. The film is an overwhelming success in nearly every way, and a necessary course correction for DC’s movie universe.
In a blockbuster-laden summer that’s shaping up to be overwhelmingly “meh,” “Wonder Woman” is a phenomenal standout. Go see this movie. You’ll be so glad you did.
Forget politics and forget “BvS”: “Wonder Woman” is straight-up wonderful.