The Wonder Woman movie has been an overwhelming success, breaking box office records, receiving critical acclaim and fan approval across the board. It’s easily the best of the DCEU movies so far and appears to have broken their streak of being too grim for their own good. In fact, it appears to have become a beacon of hope, lighting the way forward for the next wave of DC films. It promises that future projects will have a lighter tone and be more fun – something sorely needed if the franchise is to survive. Superman may claim that his S-symbol means hope but, as a character, he hasn’t embodied it; Wonder woman, apparently, has.
But is the Wonder Woman film really that good, or is it overrated and missed the point?
It isn’t perfect, by any means. There are plot holes and moments which didn’t quite pay off (the magically sinking German battle cruiser, camping out behind enemy lines without a care, Ares’ long con plan, and many more), a curious lack of German being spoken by the Germans (despite other languages being spoken, translated by subtitles), a pointless twist and a general lack of excitement by the end of the film. But thankfully the suspension of disbelief is maintained for the most part.
Where it does fail is in dumbing the film down by playing it too safe. It’s the small touches, ones seen in the underrated animated Wonder Woman film released in 2009. Directed by Lauren Montgomery and written by Gail Simone and Michael Jelenic, it covered similar ground to the live action film in some respects – including being an origin film where Wonder Woman escorts Steve Trevor back to Man’s World and is tasked with defeating Ares. The time period is different but, in both cases, it works. Yet in comparing the main characters, you see a world of difference.
First up there’s Steve Trevor. In the live action film version, Steve is Mr. Nice Guy, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. The extent of his abilities as a spy are limited; he enjoys dressing up in disguise, and that’s about it. He’s soft, far too soft for that line of work, and especially in that time period. Alternatively, in the animated film, he’s a damn good fighter pilot and a skilled soldier who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s also a self-confessed male chauvinist pig, so much so that his nickname is “zipper”. When bound by the Lasso of Hestia, he claims to the assembled Amazons that Diana has “a nice rack”. That’s how bad he is. But he’s also a lovable rogue, and a far more interesting character.
As for Diana, in both films, she’s obsessed with finding and stopping Ares. In both films, she acquires civilian garb to blend into society, and shows some amazement at the outside world and cares for children. In the live action film, she’s all about the mission, which is good. But rarely does she make any sort of feminist statement from her understandably biased perspective. She’s clearly not subservient to men, but she hardly questions the role of women in society either. In an era of Suffragettes and a ground-level glass ceiling, Diana stays mostly silent.
In the animated version, she’s focused on Ares too… but gladly mouths off on women in modern society who trade on their looks and flirting, how men oppress and degrade women and view them as less than equals, and how men seduce women. She thinks she’s right and isn’t afraid to make her opinions known.
The dynamic between Steve and Wonder Woman – a feminist icon – is always important. However, in the live-action version, they’re both played too safe. Neither makes a bold statement, they rarely differ in the few opinions they have, and as such neither truly grows as a character in that regard.
By contrast, the animated versions are chalk and cheese. They’re strikingly different, even though they’re both warriors. Over the course of spending time together, Steve’s insecurities in himself come to light explaining his behaviour, and while he’s still a lovable rogue he becomes more open-minded. Likewise, Wonder Woman accepts that her opinion of men is biased and learns that equality is indeed possible. They evolve as characters together, and the subject of feminism is tackled head-on.
There are other areas where the animated film outshines the live action movie too. The frustration of some Amazons at being separated from Man’s World is raised several times, being considered by some as self-defeating, cowardly, and self-imposed imprisonment. Wonder Woman’s role as an ambassador of the Amazons is brought up, while Ares is a far harder foe whose history with Hippolyta is more personal – and thus more meaningful. However, one of the key differences is the ending of the film itself and the overall spirit of it.
In the lacklustre BvS movie, Wonder Woman had a goal of trying to retrieve a photograph of herself with Steve Trevor and his comrades, proof of her existence in that time. In this film, Bruce Wayne sends her the original. Since no other photos of her exist and the world remains unaware of her, it’s safe to say that she’s stayed out of the limelight since World War One. The problem with that is it means she kept a low profile in WW2 and the countless other wars which have happened since then. She hasn’t stopped any crimes or saved any innocent victims from any tragic fates (or at least not in costume). She’s kept such a low profile that if anybody saw her save the day, nobody would even know her name. But finally she goes leaping off in to the night sky in her costume, now determined to make a difference after all this time.
In the animated version, however, she’s become a part of public consciousness by the end of the film. The Cheetah is causing havoc for the police, and someone has to do something. Like a true superhero, she passes her things to Steve Trevor and races off to do the stereotypical alleyway quick-change. Emerging from the shadows in her costume, she leaps into the fray as a young girl spots her and excitedly exclaims “Look! It’s Wonder Woman!” It’s a wonderful moment. She’s acknowledged, and more than that she’s respected and admired.
It’s a cliché of comic book adaptations: Every super-powered character makes some bold statement about how it’s their duty to save the day, and then stands brooding on a rooftop or goes racing off into the distance. It’s a standard moment which both WW films pull off. But to have a child look at her, shouting her name proudly, that makes it something special.
This may seem like a minor complaint, but it’s important that superheroes on such a large scale be a symbol of hope. It’s one of the biggest complaints about the DCEU’s Superman and Batman so far, and to some extent was missed in the new Wonder Woman film. And if you think Batman gets a free pass because he’s more of a grim loner, even Christopher Nolan had Batman gain a kid’s respect in Batman Begins by giving him a periscope from his utility belt. At their best, superheroes are meant to be symbols of hope for the general public, out in the open and inspiring people. The animated version showed that. The live action version showed her hiding away for nearly 100 years for no reason.
There are flaws with Wonder Woman. There are flaws with every film. Is Wonder Woman overrated? Probably… very much like several Marvel films – especially the Avengers movies, which look less impressive as time goes on. It’s easy to misjudge Wonder Woman as a great film, simply because the other DCEU movies have been so bad that even a good Wonder Woman movie looks great by comparison. It doesn’t show the best of Wonder Woman (or Steve Trevor) and it plays it safe by avoiding some issues that even the animated film took time to cover.
But it is a good film. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s got some great action sequences and it’s got some heart to it. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe, as long as the final product is decent – which in this case it is. Just remember though, that it could still be a whole lot better. Maybe, if we’re lucky, the DCEU will get to that point. After the success of WW, anything is possible.