Of my numerous complaints with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one was how that movie altered Superman’s relationship with the public in his setting. In the Christopher Reeve movies, Superman Returns and (to some degree) Man of Steel, Superman’s relationship with the public and law enforcement is ultimately friendly. In BvS, the world seems discombobulated by the appearance of “the Superman” over Metropolis, and reacts on the two extremes of hatred and abject worship, which is itself a form of terror. Realistically – if such a term can be used with superheroes – that kind of makes sense. Marvel’s X-Men series was predicated on the idea that people who are “born different” can still fight to defend a world that fears them. But that isn’t the general tone of Superman stories, and moreover, this premise depends on the shock of Superman being the first superhuman in the world – even though in the DC Extended Universe Batman has been a costumed vigilante for years before Superman became known to the public. Not only that, in the same movie, Bruce Wayne met Diana Prince and discovered not only that she is Wonder Woman, but that she’d fought with a unit in World War One. So going into the Wonder Woman solo movie, my main question was: Why is everyone on Earth so freaked out about Superman when there has been a demigoddess with Superman-level power running around for over a century?
Spoiler Alert: I didn’t find out.
If you are familiar with the original comics or the ’70s TV series, you know the first part of the story: The Amazons live isolated on Paradise Island until American military pilot Steve Trevor crashes and is rescued by Princess Diana, who decides to return with him to “Man’s World” and fight on his side in the war. The difference again is that this is World War One, even though Wonder Woman was introduced in World War Two. I’m not sure why the studio made the change. It could be they felt that WWII was too well-traveled or too closely associated with DC’s competitor hero, Captain America. It’s also important that chemical weapons were central to World War One, and this movie largely centers around the heroes trying to destroy the chemical superweapon of a German chemist code named “Doctor Poison” which is not a good name to put on your driver’s license but a great name for a Golden Age villain.
It’s important to take note of the performance of Gal Gadot as Diana, in that it is necessarily different from her acting in Batman v Superman. In BvS, Diana was a mysterious woman of secrets. Here she is the exact opposite, completely guileless, able to feel wonder at everything from ice cream to a November snowfall. In fact, her main problem is that she is so convinced of humanity’s innate goodness that she honestly thinks that killing one bad guy can stop the world from going to war. Otherwise, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a Big Damn Hero and not just a male damsel-in-distress, and the other heroes are fairly minor but all get good lines and good characterization.
The movie has flaws- like, how can such an innocent, even one with hundreds of years to learn languages, pick up the villain’s note book and not only decipher its code but figure out what a hydrogen-based poison is? And again, the movie’s setting isolates it from the established DC movie setting so that it doesn’t have much in common with it in terms of tone. Which is a good thing, though. These heroes rescue innocent people. They cheer each other up. It’s just a breath of fresh air (however stale that term may be) to have a DC Heroes movie that is both heroic and fun, as opposed to the Zach Snyder Superman movies (which were neither) or even the Christopher Nolan Batman movies (which were very good, but grim as hell).
I have to raise the matter of feminism given that WW’s creator, William Marston, saw it as her raison d’etre, and because Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol has been discussed in terms of female characters in movies. Because I didn’t see this particular interpretation as feminist per se. Rather, this Wonder Woman is someone who grew up not knowing sexism, racism, or the other vices of civilization, then gets introduced to the world as it is and asks: Why does it have to be this way? Wonder Woman is important to feminism because the rest of us did grow up in that world. And in terms of that world, a lot of people, not just feminists, were preparing for this movie with a “please don’t suck” prayer in mind, not just because another critically panned movie would have been bad news for the DC Extended Universe, but because despite evidence, a sucky movie with a female protagonist is used by Hollywood executives as an excuse for not greenlighting female-led movies. And that is because Hollywood is essentially conservative. Not in the “we hate abortion and gays” sense but in the sense of being terribly risk-averse. Especially since depending on how much a movie costs, a $20 million opening weekend can be regarded as disappointing.
That doesn’t seem like it will be a problem here. This week’s box-office and fan feedback indicates that Wonder Woman is a huge success. Which only shows that while a movie isn’t necessarily good just because it has a female protagonist, it will not automatically turn off audiences if it has a female lead (something the Aliens and Hunger Games movies should have proven already). What matters is that it’s a good story with good characters. Likewise, Wonder Woman proves that a superhero movie can be good whether or not Zach Snyder had anything to do with writing it. Although arguably despite that fact.