This film is full of confidence, color, and compassion. It's a delight.
It's also a masterpiece of subversive feminism, which Zoe Williams at The Guardian expertly writes about (here), despite being held back by its own hesitations regarding female community/camaraderie, which Noah Berlatsky at Quartz Media points out (here).
And it's a history-making film, for reasons which Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times explores pretty comprehensively (here), despite being racially problematic (in its disheartening apparent lack of interest in intersectionality), which Kadeen Griffiths of Bustle explains really well (here).
But those are topics in which I'm not super well-versed (hence the flurry of links I'm providing instead of offering analysis of my own). My thoughts about Wonder Woman which I aim to explore here have more to do with its aesthetic details (and how those details compare with the soundscape and color palette of other contemporary films), its narrative tendencies (and how those tendencies interact with some precedents set by [or subverted by] the superhero genre in the past few decades), and its mythological trappings (and how those trappings interact with Campbellian expectations, theology [specifically theodicy], and my own spiritual perspective).
Let's start from the beginning, shall we? (Warning: some spoilers ahead.)
Act I: Paradise Lost
The film begins in Themyscira: an island entirely populated by Amazons. The Amazons are mythical warrior women, whose stated purpose (they were originally created by ancient Greek gods) is to protect mankind from itself and from the corrupting influence of Ares, the God of War. But they're currently at peacetime--as far as they can tell, Ares has not regained his strength since his climactic battle against Zeus eons ago.
A young demigoddess named Diana (Gal Gadot, who plays the part with tenacity, fervor, and love) is our point-of-view character, and the only young person on the island. She grows up in paradise, learning various languages, engaging in some intense combat training with General Antiope (Robin Wright, fierce and phenomenal), and mastering a pretty comprehensive study of politics, strategy, science, and philosophy.
This idyllic state does not last. Along comes a dapper and charismatic American spy, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, not to be confused with Chris Evans, who plays a different dapper and charismatic American comic book hero also named Steve). This captain is on the run: the Germans are after him because he's discovered some information they didn't want him to have. And when the Germans show up, landing their boats on the shores of Themyscira (an island that's supposed to be magically hidden from outside forces), all hell breaks loose. The Amazons learn of World War I--"the war to end all wars"--and Diana believes Ares is responsible. She decides to leave the island with Steve to kill a god and stop a war, and her hero's journey begins.
Now, sure, Diana's decision to leave a peaceful life behind to embark on a great adventure (and to try to confront a large-scale problem with life-and-death stakes) is reminiscent of Campbellian protagonists like Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker. But there are some interestingly atypical elements at play here. Diana doesn't start off with weakness, cowardice, and thoughtlessness, learning to turn them into strength, bravery and wisdom along the way. Instead, she's already pretty much fully-developed right from the start. She's a tiny bit naive and idealistic, sure--so there's some potential for disillusionment as she prepares to confront a very complicated and messy war (more on that later)--but she's not dumb.
The first act leaves me wanting more--I want to know more about the history, culture, art, and politics of Themyscira. I want to know how these women interact with each other when they're not training for battle, or arguing about whether they should train for battle. I want to know what they chat about when they're not offering exposition for the audience's sake. I want to know what the education system is like and which aspects of history are emphasized or de-emphasized when they teach their children (or "child," rather--since Diana is the only one). I want to know why these women don't believe their own myths (when Diana insists that Ares is behind the Great War, few seem to agree with her interpretation).
I'm not sure if this "wanting more" feeling is a good or a bad thing. It's certainly intentional. The film wants you to feel interrupted and disturbed by the Germans' arrival: you're meant to be an increasingly comfortable and curious guest whose comfort and curiosity is rudely and abruptly cut short by invasive, almost inappropriately surprising violence. And the film wants you to mourn with Diana as some of her friends and mentors die during the brief battle that ensues. And yet, I feel like this sense of "disruption" doesn't land for me as well as it wants to. The Amazonian setting and characters haven't been developed enough; how can I mourn them if I don't feel like I know them yet?
The obvious counterargument is "you should care about them because Diana cares about them," and that's true. (We don't know much about Uncle Owen or Aunt Beru when Luke Skywalker mourns their death, either, but Star Wars still works, right?) And Gadot's performance is powerful throughout this film, but for some reason there's something missing during these pivotal scenes in which she decides to leave behind everything she's ever known. It feels like some emotional development was surely left on the cutting room floor.
Act II: No Man's Land
Diana spends the second act of this film learning about the war, butting heads with stubborn and cowardly authorities, learning how modern clothes work, recruiting friends-of-friends for her secret mission to infiltrate the front and to find Ares, and subverting gender expectations (in one particularly delicious moment in a dark alley, she deflects a bullet that was meant for Captain Trevor; the costume design, lighting, and setting of the scene are clearly meant to remind you of a certain [super]male hero catching a bullet for Lois Lane back in 1978).
It's a really interesting buildup, full of colorful and charming side characters whose contributions to the group dynamic (in terms of personality traits, skills, and weaknesses) make this a Rogue One-like war story as much as it is a superhero story or anything else. Our team of scruffy, down-on-their-luck protagonists (a French Moroccan con artist, who couldn't make it as an actor because he's "the wrong color;" a Native American smuggler who's lost everything, including his home; and a Scottish former marksman struggling with PTSD and alcoholism) aim to infiltrate enemy lines and prevent some dangerous poisonous gas from being released. They're each also hoping, in one way or another, to find some kind of redemption.
Diana has such poise, thoughtfulness, and power as she navigates her relationship with these newfound friends. She's trying to figure out how to empathize with their experiences, how to decide when to trust or distrust them, and how to help inspire them to be better. She's a goddess among men. Her struggle to connect despite vast athletic, ethical, and intellectual superiority has more in common with X-Men's Professor Xavier, Superman's Clark Kent, or Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan than with the character arcs of the "strong female lead" characters to which we perhaps feel more inclined to compare her (e.g. Terminator's Sarah Connor, Mad Max: Fury Road's Imperator Furiosa, Alien's Ellen Ripley, or Star Wars' Princess Leia).
And herein, for a lot of folks, lies the problem: Diana is so perfect that it's maybe hard to relate to her. After seeing the film, I got a text message from a friend; she said: "give me a funny Wonder Woman or a moody Wonder Woman or a sloppy Wonder Woman or a jealous Wonder Woman or a brilliant Wonder Woman. Give me a Wonder Woman with PMS!" My friend was worried that Wonder Woman's depiction of femininity was too idealized and pedestalized (after all, putting expectations on a pedestal can be just as objectifying as putting them a box). "[Diana] is well-read but not independently intelligent or creative," my friend insisted: "she is virtuous and altruistic and honorable; she doesn't do anything cruel or crazy or selfish or irresponsible."
(I'm not sure I agree with this critique. Maybe Wonder Woman is morally perfect not because of some unhealthy obsession with unattainable feminine ideals, but because she's, well, a morally perfect character. She's like Superman. That's her thing. Now, I recognize I may be getting into mansplaining territory here--so let me put it on the record that it's absolutely not my place to decide whether Wonder Woman's gender politics are irresponsible or not, for the same reason that I don't need white folks telling me whether they think it's okay that we keep whitewashing Asian films like Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, or Doctor Strange.)
At any rate, the second act is phenomenal. It's fascinating and invigorating to watch Diana navigate these new relationships, step up as a leader, and adapt to the complexities and difficulties of a great and terrible war.
There's one scene in particular that I believe will stand the test of time forevermore as an iconic powerful moment in superhero storytelling: the "no man's land" scene, which astoundingly was almost cut for reasons that Patty Jenkins reports to Fandango (here). Diana bravely decides she needs to march across a stretch of unoccupied land to rescue some civilians from German forces occupying a village. Her friends warn her; they tell her to stay back and forget about it. They tell her that this isn't the focus of their mission, and that there's not enough time to save everyone. They tell her that she can't cross the "no man's land." Nevertheless, #ShePersisted (at this point, I almost expected her to repeat Eowyn's famous Nazgûl-killing line from Return of the King). And her persistence inspires her comrades, confounds her enemies, and saves a village.
Persistence is Wonder Woman's most consistent trait in this film. She learns new things, of course--but she never really has to compromise her ideals. With one (big) exception that we'll get to in a moment, she's never proven to be idealistically wrongheaded, stupidly stubborn, or sterotypically "hysterical." Like other feminist heroes, despite being so often "warned, [and] given explanation[s]," she persists.
Act III: We Are All Keyser Söze
In case you haven't seen this film and are, for some reason, still reading, I've got to warn you once more: there are major spoilers ahead. Are you cool with that? Cool. Let's talk about the ending.
But first, let's talk about the Devil.
If there is such a thing as "the Devil," then what kind of being is he? Does he whisper ideas in our ears? Does he possess people's souls and take away their free will? Does he aim primarily to spread outright chaos and hatred, or does he subtly lure you into spiritual and social complacency, urging you to ignore the downtrodden, to perpetuate the status quo, to apathetically prop up systems of power that abuse and oppress your brothers, sisters, and children?
I'm reminded of that line (in which Kevin Spacey's character paraphrases Charles Baudelaire) in The Usual Suspects: "the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Maybe if there is a Devil, his most powerful asset is our ignorance, or our unwillingness to acknowledge his handiwork in our souls.
On the other hand, what if he really, truly doesn't exist? What if there is no Devil?
If you'll allow me to distort The Usual Suspects somewhat, maybe the greatest trick religion ever pulled was convincing the world that they can blame their own hatred, selfishness, violence, and lust on some mysterious being called the Devil.
Maybe when we collectively decide that there is a literal darkness--an eternal, cunning, omnipresent, personified darkness--to whom every act of malice can be ultimately traced, we're doing ourselves a spiritual disservice.
Maybe when we talk about the Devil as if he's a force of nature to be held at bay--as opposed to an alternate personality the seed of whom is within each of our hearts--we're building a theological house of cards and selfishly waiving responsibility for our own desires and actions.
These are all ideas that Wonder Woman plays with. The film has quite a compelling theme in its hands for a few moments--until it clumsily throws it away.
Diana eventually catches up to her prey: Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), a maniacal German general who wants to keep WWI going and is working to develop horrifying new weapons (side note: Ludendorff is based on a real general, a genuinely monstrous German nationalist who propagated the infamous [and extraordinarily harmful] "stab-in-the-back" myth, and who wrote a book called Total War in 1935, in which he argued that peace is just the bullshit with which we distract ourselves between wars). Diana believes that Ludendorff is Ares in human form. They battle. She wins. She believes this climactic moment--as she plunges an ancient mythical sword into his heart--will end the war, indeed all wars. She believes defeating this monster will mean that she has extinguished the corruption in the hearts of the soldiers and generals all around her. She believes that with one final blow she is ushering in a utopian future of peace and love and harmony.
And of course, none of that happens.
She kills the warmonger, and the war marches on.
This is a powerfully devastating moment. Her worldview is being shattered. She begins to grapple with the possibility that the evil and chaos she's seen so far has been, truly and deeply, within the heart of mankind all along--that indeed there's no scapegoat she can blame it on, that the Devil (whether his name is Ares or Lucifer or anything else) is nothing but a reassuring lie.
I believe this would have been an incredible place for the film to pause and reflect, for Wonder Woman to rediscover the need for hope--regardless of the depravity of man, hope is important, isn't it?--and for all of us as audience members to rally around a new, more nuanced and more difficult mythology (one that accounts for the evil inside their own hearts).
But instead, Wonder Woman almost immediately backpedals on this new revelation, and insists instead that Ares does indeed exist--that he was never personified in Ludendorff, but rather in Diana and Steve's supposed friend, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis, who plays the character wearing his signature mix between a charming smirk and treacherous snarl).
Sir Patrick confronts Diana and delivers a monologue about war, about how his evil plan isn't really evil at all, about how mankind is doomed, and about how his attempts to get us to destroy ourselves are necessary and overdue--perhaps even merciful.
This turn of events is a waste of time for two reasons: 1) it completely undermines the theological wrestling the film just moments ago was trying to get us to do ("what if there's no Satan? WHAT IF THE EVIL IS IN YOU ALL ALONG- wait, never mind. There's totally a Satan. Punch him!"); and 2) it inevitably turns into yet another boring, booming slugfest, in which Thewlis' body is covered by CGI armor so he can throw big heavy things at Gal Gadot and vice versa until one of them delivers the final blow in a flashy, explosive display of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We've seen this ending before, a million times. Too many big-budget action spectacles end like this (especially superhero films). It's tired and redundant. It's thematically empty, emotionally weightless, and visually derivative. As Film Crit Hulk passionately pleads: "stop doing this! People don't want this. They want the end of Kill Bill Vol. II. They want it personal, intimate, and meaningful."
Despite all of these issues, Wonder Woman really is wonderful. It's a triumph for everyone who had started to get a little tired of bland, repetitive, hypermasculine superhero movies; it's a triumph for female film directors (and it's hopefully the death of the asinine "female-led and female-directed films can't make money" argument); it's a triumph for empowered female protagonists who aren't hyper-sexualized by the script or constantly ogled by the camera; it's a triumph for colorful, playful cinematography in the age of exhaustingly flat, desaturated grimness; it's a triumph for anyone looking for a big-budget spectacle centered around the idea of hope, redemption, and resilience. It's a glorious thing.
If you haven't already seen it (why are you still reading this?? I spoiled every plot point!), go see it right now. And if you've already seen it, see it again!