It’s almost hard to believe now, but there was a time when superhero movies were rare, and great superhero movies were practically unicorns. We simply had to take what we can get for a while there, and I think that made us all-too-willing to accept that even the best examples of the genre had glaring flaws. Superman: The Movie was damn near perfect, for example, but only if you were willing to overlook the cringe-worthy Ned Beatty jokes, or the off-key “Can you read my mind?” monologue.
That was then, this is now. Today, superhero movies practically dominate the Hollywood economy. Larger than life do-gooders with awesome powers, meaningful themes and ambitious multi-film story arcs are the norm, and our standards are expanding along with them. It’s no longer necessary to take whatever we can get, even if it’s a hero that we care about, and a film we would very much like to love. If it’s not great, we don’t have to kid ourselves about it. The time to make apologies is over.
With that in mind I can safely say this: Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero movies. Ever. It’s such an inspiring, exciting and sensational motion picture that I left the theater wondering why anyone would settle for less. Director Patty Jenkins captures the timeless quality of great superhero stories and tells a tale that has always been relevant, will always be relevant, and makes you laugh and cheer and grip your armrests along the way.
Audiences met Wonder Woman in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It was a film with many flaws. She wasn’t one of them. Here she takes center stage as we meet Diana of Themyscira, a young woman on an island of Amazons, a society isolated from the world of man but destined to protect them from the god of war, Ares.
As a child, played by the aggressively likable Lilly Aspell, she watches the derring-do of her mother and the Amazonian soldiers and dreams of exciting battles for a greater purpose. Years later, as a young woman, she watches a plane crash off the shore of Themyscira. A dapper spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) accidentally brings World War I along with him, and Diana is drawn into the fray. The world is in turmoil, the time has come for action, and Wonder Woman has to do something about it.
The classical beauty of Wonder Woman’s first chapter, as gorgeous a sword-and-sandal fantasy as any, soon gives way to the grey, polluted world of man. Diana is eager to fight on the front lines, and we’re eager to follow her, but Allan Heinberg’s smartly structured screenplay finds ways to drop her first into an oppressive society, where hardly anyone knows how to react to a woman of Diana’s independence and strength.
Gal Gadot knows exactly how to play this part. Wonder Woman requires the title character to be ignorant of the modern world, which makes for great comedy (her reaction to ice cream is priceless), but Gadot also plays that naïveté as one of her greatest strengths. Diana has not been tainted by misogyny and warmongering. She admirably refuses to compromise, making us cheer for her and then mourn with her when life – or at least life in the “real” world – doesn’t live up to her ideals.
Wonder Woman is such a great hero, with so very much to teach us, that it’s almost disappointing that someone like Steve Trevor has something to teach her in return. Chris Pine has a difficult job and he does it well. He has to match Gal Gadot’s banter and her physical strength. He has to guide Wonder Woman through a strange new world without ever being condescending. Ultimately he has to stand in for all of humanity and represent our shared moral compromises and capacity to improve ourselves. Because if we had nothing to offer Wonder Woman in return for her heroism, we wouldn’t be worthy of her. Chris Pine feels worthy, and his chemistry with Gadot is first rate.
No great hero would be complete without great villains. Wonder Woman has at least two: Doctor Poison and General Ludendorff, played by Elena Anaya and Danny Huston. She’s a master weapons designer, he’s a war hawk, and their shared interests make them impish bedfellows. The giddy glee with which they dispatch their opponents isn’t just megalomania, it’s an act of bonding. Humanity, it seems, can also come together through acts of evil. We have a lot to learn.
Patty Jenkins stages the action in Wonder Woman with flare. The fights may have too many speed-ramps for some tastes but it’s always clear and it’s always thrilling. There is an effort made to tell stories with these battles. We watch Diana emerge as Wonder Woman for the first time in a sequence designed to punctuate everything that came before. Every moment leads to a spectacular set piece, and every moment afterwards reacts to it. Her heroism has consequences, often unexpected, and although the film’s climactic showdown may not be the movie’s best it’s still a satisfying representation of how Wonder Woman has grown over the course of her story.
There aren’t many superhero movies better than Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ film gives audiences a hero to look up to, a moral standard to which we should all aspire, and she does this by making a film which sets its own standards. This is adventure. This is powerful. This is wonder.
Ten Wonder Woman Comic Book Stories You Have to Read:
Top Photo: Warner Bros.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.