I’ll just get it out of the way up front that I’ve never been more than a dabbler where comics are concerned. Aside from a few series that I followed back in the 90s (notably Sandman, Hellblazer, and Strangers in Paradise) it’s a world I haven’t spent much time in. Partly it’s a preference for narrative, partly the sheer volume of comics available means that I’d never have time to read enough to get really cognizant (though I did pick up Invisibles after reading about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s wizard war, because I am a sucker for occult rivalries), and partly that the superhero concept doesn’t do a whole lot for me. (Though I read a lot of mythology and there’s a case to be made–plenty of people who know a lot more about comics than I do have made it–that superhero stories are myths of modern times.)
But I do love stories about badass women, and there just aren’t enough of those. On that score Wonder Woman is immensely satisfying, not least because the more common trope for badass women is for them to become that way through some tragic brutality. Those are important stories too (not least because there’s no shortage of tragic brutality in the real world) but it was refreshing to see a woman who kicks ass because in her world, it’s normal for women to kick ass. (Dear DC: please make a movie about the Amazons heavily featuring Antiope, and make sure you bring Robin Wright back to play her, because that was an inspired bit of casting.)
There’s such a shortage of women-led action movies (and the roster of women-led superhero movies is even shorter) that it’s hard not to set all one’s expectations on this one movie. Yet even under the weight of all those expectations, Wonder Woman largely holds up. Yes, the plot’s rather thin, but the set-pieces–focused, as they should be, on the title character–are fantastic, the character interactions shift neatly from comic to serious and back again (though the dialogue is at its best when it’s screwball-comic) and, until the final third, click along in that satisfying way that stories do when characters have been well drawn, their relationships solidly established, and the stressors on those relationships are clear. There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them neat little moments that all build to the choice Diana has to make in her big boss fight. It’s not Shakespeare but the writing more than met my expectations for a superhero movie.
One doesn’t really see superhero movies for the writing, though. One sees them for the spectacle, the battles, the big boss fight at the end. Here, too, Wonder Woman more than delivers. To be honest I was satisfied by the time the movie got to the fight on the beach–and by the end of the scene I felt like I’d been granted a second dessert. It both established the Amazons as utterly badass–taking on modern weapons on horseback, with swords and bows, and winning–and established that they can be hurt, even killed. That means Diana can, too, superpowered as she is. But she goes out into the world anyway, and she does it because it’s the right thing to do. That the movie successfully sells this as her motivation is a testament to how it respects its characters.
And there’s plenty more where that came from: not least the scene where Diana literally goes over the top which, based on my totally unscientific poll of people I know who’ve seen the movie, was the moment that made the whole thing for them. (Incredibly, that scene almost wasn’t in the film.)
About the only place the movie didn’t quite work for me, to be honest, was its mythology. This isn’t just because I’m a mythology nerd (though I am); I wasn’t expecting Wonder Woman to hew closely to ancient Greek myths concerning Zeus and Ares and the Amazons (and since Greek mythology itself isn’t internally consistent, it would be a silly expectation anyway). But, while Ares is an adversarial figure in Greek myth who’s widely disliked by the other gods (except Aphrodite), the conflict as depicted in the movie was more Jehovah-v-Satan than Zeus-v-Ares. Trying to fit the Christian understanding of evil and human nature into the Greek mythos is like expecting a penny loafer to fit like a stiletto heel. It doesn’t quite work, and the result was a lack of focus when it came to the big boss fight toward the end. That Wonder Woman would go toe to toe with Ares was pretty much a given, and the actor playing her adversary looked to be having a really good time getting to play someone really villainous for a change. But it’s the one part of the story that I thought could have done with another pass.
On the other hand, if that’s my biggest complaint about a summer blockbuster based on a comic book, well, it’s a mild complaint indeed. Hollywood has maybe, finally, figured out how to make a woman-led superhero movie.
I hope we don’t have to wait a decade-plus for the next one.