Regardless of the current state of the DCEU, or whatever it is going by these days under the leadership of James Gunn and Peter Safran, there was a brief, shining moment with the release of Wonder Woman in 2017. Despite the damage done to certain aspects of the franchise by the less-than-stellar 2015 theatrical release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Gal Gadot’s take on the character was received well enough to warrant the solo film would remain in the capable hands of Patty Jenkins rather than a nebulous board of executives.
If only they had learned that lesson before Suicide Squad was released. With more films under its belt, even by 2017, the MCU had managed to streak past its competitors with relatively few weak entries (most agree that, by then, the weakest entry was Thor: The Dark World, ironically for the same reasons that plagued many DCEU films). Of course, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have some hand in it, as later interviews can attest. But, unlike some of Wonder Woman’s connected films, it was not Swiss-cheesed when it got to theaters.
Wonder Woman had something else weighing it down in the minds of executives and some audience members. Wonder Woman would be the first “real” superhero film led by a woman since Catwoman and Elektra had all but killed the efforts of women-led action films. However, with Spider-Man: Homecoming a month out and the sixth Spider-Man film with its third new lead actor, not to mention the countless Supermen and Batmen already in the background, it became rather clear that there was some balancing on the scales to be done.
Many feared that, regardless of whether or not Wonder Woman was even good, its box office performance would doom any further attempts at superheroines or even characters who weren’t white men getting their chance to lead a film. Let alone a franchise. After all, how many box-office bombs simply meant that a new lead actor was cast to replace Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man? At the same time, one-third of DC’s Trinity hadn’t had a live-action film to her name, and her most recent efforts were the failed pilot led by Adrienne Palicki. So yes, Wonder Woman had an unfair hill to climb, weighed down with more pressure than was reasonable.
And Gal Gadot and Petty Jenkins proved that a well-structured, well-cast, phenomenal film could outperform all expectations.
With the only Hollywood Chris not yet in an MCU film as a titled hero, Chris Pine took the supporting role next to Gal Gadot’s titular heroine, as the traditional love interest whose presence galvanizes the lead into the plot. After seeing Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Pratt in their respective roles, it truly was nice to see a Hollywood A-List celebrity settle into the role that the genre had, as of 2017, placed squarely on women – even if Halley Atwell, Natalie Portman, and Zoe Saldana were anything but damsels in distress, their storylines (at first) were second place to the men leading their films. However, when the script is flipped, it becomes obvious that scriptwriters, producers, and directors have no issues coming up with storylines for men – Chris Pine had a whole storyline parallel to Gal Gadot, and it didn’t feel shortchanged in much the same way that others are in comparable situations. Both drove their storylines together as much as apart, yet it was still blatantly obvious whose film this was: Gal Gadot pulled no punches.
Truly, my only issue with Wonder Woman is the same one that I have with Captain Marvel and, in a way, Black Widow. With each film (including Wonder Woman 1984), a chilling trend was set for women-led superhero films – all were prequels (with Black Widow technically being an interquel, but the point remains). Rather than set their stories against the backdrop of the modern age, they were pushed back into the past to lay out their origin stories. While this doesn’t hurt the films in any noticeable way, it was quite jarring. I asked myself if it was because The Powers That Be simply didn’t have faith in telling a modern-day story about a woman. With Captain America: The First Avenger at that point being the only modern superhero film to take place in the past, it seemed a poignant question to ask. By setting Wonder Woman during World War I, we watched as Diana dealt with a world where sexism still reigned supreme, and her abilities as a combatant, tactician, and overall capable person are called into question. But, of course, no person ever did it more than once.
The thing is that Diana is immortal (and blessed with Eternal Youth), which means that her story could begin at any point in her history. As a woman born of clay – as she is told – she is a far more complex being, one of myth even in their world. The truth is that Diana is the child of Amazons and Gods, which grants her more power than any Amazon could normally hope to harness. Many of her modern abilities were established in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but there was enough wiggle room for them to engender a conflict that she would be forced to struggle against. Seeing Gal Gadot embrace the power, beauty, and strength of the iconic character that is Wonder Woman was incredible, to say the least.
Wonder Woman managed to carefully construct a world on two fronts – the one of mythology and the one of reality. That both intertwine one another, showing that they understand each other, is a master class in thematic comparison. Themiscyra is aware of the world of man and all of the horrors it inflicts on itself, and they have prepared themselves for a time when that world will crash into theirs. The world of man has consigned the world of the Gods to mere hyperbole, but people like Steve Trevor still strive for the ideal that Themiscyra exhibits of strength, courage, and loyalty. If not for oneself, then for one’s country. Diana is the product of those beliefs and, like many sheltered by ideas and ideology, believes in fighting for them when the time comes.
The supporting cast of Wonder Woman includes Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, Diana’s mother, and Robin Wright as Antiope, Diana’s aunt. Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons, while her sister Antiope is the General who leads their armed forces (read, practically every Amazon on Themiscyra). Both have very different ways of doing things. While they don’t openly clash, Antiope is nonetheless critical of Hippolyta’s decision to not engage Ares, whom they know is the only real God from the Greek Pantheon still left. As in this iteration, a war raged, and he killed the rest of his family. When the time comes for Diana to make a decision, Antiope is the one who encourages her, believing that she will be prepared to meet any challenge that crosses her path. Antiope acts as the voice of dissent, providing arguments that may not occur to Hippolyta, which shows just how prudent of a Queen she truly is.
The differences in their leadership style could have been used to further divide the Amazons as a potential subplot – which is essentially what happens in the comic books, but I digress. However, the Amazons are willing to debate topics of great importance, and they work out any aggression they may have through intense sparring matches. They don’t have a need to stir up unnecessary conflict between one another, even if, at times, they do act against one another subtly. This is because, despite their cohesion, they are firm believers in personal choice and consequence. When Diana finally decides, they try their best to stop her and Steve Trevor from leaving, but they do not prevent her once she’s escaped.
The Amazons are given a fair amount of representation in the film – with almost every one of them who has a line of dialogue being given a name to drive home the point that they are important members of their society. Several of the Amazons introduced in this film also return for other entries, most notably Justice League and Wonder Woman 1984. Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is Antiope’s lieutenant, who acts distant towards everybody but Antiope, though her relationship as Diana’s aunt seems to have been left unmentioned. Artemis (Ann Wolfe) is one of the most physically imposing Amazons, and Diana mimics her training until she begins to formally train under Antiope in secret. Epione (Eleanor Matsuura) is the chief healer of the Amazons, and Euobea (Samantha Win) is one of their warriors who is adept at archery. With them and the others who fill out the ranks, we can get a cross-section of what life is like on Themiscyra.
Some of the film is then spent in modern England, as Diana seeks out the source of conflict for the deadliest war that humanity had ever fought up until that point. However, with everything that Steve has seen, he is willing to at least not overtly doubt her that Ares is the source of that conflict as the God of War. The story quickly paints German General Erich Ludendorff (played by Danny Huston) as the chief suspect, with Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), a chemist and his chief supporter, as Ares’ human disguise. They drive the overall conflict, preparing to unleash a catastrophic weapon in the dying days of World War I, making clear that even if they lose, they can take as many allied forces as possible with them.
Diana’s time in London is spurred by Steve Trevor’s need to get Maru’s journal to the Supreme War Council, where Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) is busy trying to secure an armistice with Germany to end the war before it drags on any longer. The journal details the dangerous new form of mustard gas that Maru has created, and if it were unleashed, it could spell doom for their soldiers on the front lines long before any armistice could save them. With Morgan’s support, Diana and Steve gather a group of his allies to make the harrowing journey to stop Maru and Ludendorff.
This group makes up most of the supporting cast, with Steve Trevor’s Secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), briefly along for the ride as she and Diana form a friendship, and she proves herself to be indispensable to Steve’s successes. First is Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Moroccan spy who is an adept actor and conman. Next, Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a Scottish marksman struggling with PTSD. And finally, Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American smuggler (and a Demigod himself). The bonds they form with Diana confirm to her that humanity is beautiful and worth fighting for, regardless of what the Amazons have come to believe. She is not ready to write off the world of man, even as she suffers tragedy after tragedy in the ensuing fight.
Throughout this story, Steve proves to be Diana’s closest companion and, as the film makes no bones about, her first love – and her lost love. How and why Steve is gone is explained throughout the film, but Diana’s sheer power always meant that short of another immortal being, their love is doomed by time. Regardless, Steve and Diana form a connection with one another that qualifies as love, and it makes it all that more difficult when they are unable to continue their relationship beyond the conflict that they have leaped headfirst into to save those who cannot save themselves. What time they do have is precious. Because the fact that it can be lost makes its worth even more notable.
Wonder Woman was the first superhero film in over a decade to be led by a woman, and it was widely believed to be the one that would finally destroy the DCEU after the poor reception to the theatrical release of Batman V Superman. However, Wonder Woman prevailed and, with Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Shang-Chi hot on its heels, proved once and for all that it didn’t matter who or what the lead in a superhero film was as long as it was a good film.