In the last few years, DC has tried and failed to match up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with their own series of related films, most of which have been massively hyped but ended up being disappointments. Man of Steel was so-so, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was an epic failure, and Suicide Squad, which had promising trailers, turned out to be such a dumpster fire that countless blogs and videos attempting to unpack exactly what the heck happened (depending on who you ask, there was either too little or too much Joker — I think the movie would have been better if it was just Margot Robbie, but that’s just me.) In any case, Wonder Woman was similarly burdened with high expectations. However, unlike its predecessors, it lived up to the hype.
There was so much to love about Wonder Woman; Gal Gadot’s earnest performance as the titular role and her romantic/comedic chemistry with Chris Pine as Steve Trevor; Patty Jenkins’ marvelous direction; and the movie’s ability to stick to its comic book origins without losing focus on its themes or feeling too silly.
Part of the issue with previous DC-Universe films was that Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman (and Man of Steel, in a way) were both attempting to live up not only to high expectations, but also to their predecessors. Jared Leto was trying to match up to Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker (but failed to do so), Batman v Superman was facing the Dark Knight trilogy, and Man of Steel is one of many, many depictions of Superman on film. It gets old after a while.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were meant to have a gritty, more serious feel than most superhero movies, and Suicide Squad was meant to be dark comedy. None of that really worked. In order to drive gritty movies, you need some actual conflict, some moral ambiguity, and better character writing. And dark comedy needs to be, you know, funny.
In Batman v Superman, what is meant to feel like a conflict between two superheroes with opposing values, feels more like a boring rich guy fighting a boring powerful guy, both ultimately wanting to be good people. As characters, Batman and Superman come rife with interesting questions. Superman is all-powerful and all good, but what happens when his god-persona comes into conflict with his own wants? Batman is just a privileged rich guy with fancy gadgets, so why does he get to act as the moral judge of Gotham? Sadly, Batman v Superman doesn’t really know how to deal with any of these questions, and in the end the movie doesn’t have anything to say.
If Batman v Superman had troubles with its expectations, Suicide Squad was destroyed by them. After the release of what was admittedly a great trailer, Warner Brothers actually hired the same people responsible for making the trailer to reshoot and re-edit the movie, to the point where there ended up being two Suicide Squad movies with two different tones, one funny and one more serious. In the end the versions were merged into the bizarre and sub-par version that wound up in theaters. Also, somewhere along the way most of the Joker’s scenes were cut. This was a strange choice, considering how much the trailers focused on him, and how hyped Jared Leto acted about his acting decisions and his disturbing on-set behavior. Of course, if I oversaw the editing, I would have cut him out altogether, but that’s not the point.
So how does Wonder Woman match up to the other DC-Universe movies? It’s a vast, vast improvement, containing the kinds of interesting moral questions that Batman v. Superman tried and failed to ask (in this case, asking if humans are intrinsically bad or good), and the humor and fun that Suicide Squad tried desperately to provide.
Also, unlike almost all superhero movies, Wonder Woman is definitively a feminist one. It’s the first major superhero movie featuring a female lead directed by a woman. Where other movies have women in near-constant states of needing rescuing and reassurance, Wonder Woman gives us Diana Prince kicking ass, saving Steve’s life, and trying to help those around her. Sure, the movie may remind us a little too much of how beautiful Diana is and how her wearing a skimpy costume is a bit distracting for the men around her. But the camera never ogles her, nor does it stop her from being strong and athletic. And yes, her armor may be revealing, but at least it’s armor and not just a metal bra or a glorified corset. And when Diana is confronted with the sexism of the 1910s, her confusion and annoyance is meant to remind the audience that our assumptions of gender roles are invented, not inherent. And seeing an island full of badass warrior women ready to battle is also very cool.
Right now, Warner Brothers has a long list of future movies for the DC Extended Universe, featuring characters like Aquaman, Shazam, The Flash, Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl, along with more sequels and team pieces, like the upcoming Justice League. If Wonder Woman is any indication that DC has finally figured out how to make a quality superhero movie, then I’m quite excited to see what’s next. If not, there’s always Marvel.