The year is 2008. The Dark Knight, the second flick in Christopher Nolan’s expertly crafted Dark Knight Trilogy, has just premiered in theaters, to resounding positive response from fans and critics alike. The picture is a stunning piece of filmmaking, not only from a technological standpoint but from the perspective of the acting, directing and editing. Since The Dark Knight‘s release, it’s been upheld by comic book movie fans and cinephiles as the gold standard for what the comic book genre should have—complex, nuanced storytelling, characters taken seriously, and worlds built the way any other thriller would. The Dark Knight, arguably, is a mystery thriller/drama first, and a comic book film second.
Throughout the years, several flicks have tried to repeat its success. Though many of us enjoyed DC’s rebooted effort of the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, others did not. While the film did really well at the box office, it equally disappointed critics and failed to reach the mark that The Dark Knight held. Audiences purported that the new direction DC had gone in was far “too dark” in an era where cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers Marvel films ruled the box office. Light and funny was perceived successful for audiences; dark and gritty was not.
Calling DC “dark” and Marvel “light” is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s not entirely false to state. From its inception, DC’s stories have been more epic, more grandiose and on a larger scale. Marvel has always gone for a more light, scenic route and this has worked for both companies. The Dark Knight was the first comic book film to gross over $1 billion and be well received by both critics and audiences, while The Avengers was a start of an entirely new era for comic book filmmaking. Both routes have their flaws; both have their bonuses.
Though I loved Batman v Superman, the true crowning jewel of DC’s Extended Universe at its inception, in my opinion, was Man of Steel. The Zack Snyder flick dug down deep into what made the character of Superman tick, what his motivations were, and retconned the more tongue-in-cheek, Boy Scout themes for an epic, godlike warrior who is torn between saving his people and reviving his home. Unfortunately, critics did not totally agree. The film also didn’t preform up to expectations like previous Superman pics, (adjusted for inflation, the first Superman film staring Christopher Reeve would’ve made $1 billion in today’s dollars).
The DC Universe has always been polarizing, and the discourse around it has always been passionate. Either you really love DC’s films and understand the intention of what they’re going for, even if they don’t always succeed (I’m in that camp), or you really, really hate them. It seemed, for a while, that the DCEU’s fate was to go in a direction more akin to other, smaller franchises, like Fast & the Furious or Transformers—critically maligned movies that do amazingly at the box office.
Then, a movie called Wonder Woman happened.
The origin picture, starring Gal Gadot in her first major role and directed by Patty Jenkins, was already a history-making event before it hit theaters. It was the first major tentpole superhero property to be directed by and star a woman; it was the first big-screen endeavor for the character of Wonder Woman; and it was the first large-scale female superhero flick in today’s cinematic universe driven landscape. When the reviews hit, they were glowing. Critics praised Gal Gadot’s performance, the visuals, the action and the tone. And audiences responded, going out in droves to support the picture. It grossed $818 million worldwide, and brought fans of DC together. Whether you’d enjoyed the previous DCEU films or not, most people could agree: Wonder Woman was damn amazing.
Going back to the earlier comment I made about The Dark Knight being the standard: that film was a true statement in its day and age, because not only did it have something to say politically, but it took the characters of Batman and the Joker seriously, giving them real, nuanced dialogue with message-heavy plot points and chances to do some real acting. The film, dark as it was, had the perfect mix of theme and action, drama and spectacle. And the same holds true for Wonder Woman. Both films balance the tropes of the genre perfectly, while also managing to introduce complex and thorough discussions. In fact, I would argue that Wonder Woman is DC’s updated version of The Dark Knight—complete with sophistication, real-world storytelling, and character development.
The big difference: Wonder Woman made me cry. In fact, it made me sob, and that sobbing continued for nearly ten minutes straight. Here’s why:
When Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince turns to Steve Trevor (played expertly by Chris Pine), her face contorted in confusion as a woman cries into the folds of her cloak, and tells him: “Steve, these people are dying. They have nothing to eat, and they’re in the village, enslaved! Women, children!”, Steve, who has been in this war for years, has become desensitized to the violence, the killing, simply sighs and says, “It’s not possible. This is No Man’s Land, Diana! No man can cross it! This is not something we can do.”
And Diana turns, the silhouette of her all we can see, her dark hair billowing in the cold wind as she drops her cloak, revealing her gauntlets and her full Wonder Woman costume for the first time, and says, “No, but it’s what I’m going to do.”
The conviction on her face there is so mesmerizing, so awe-inspiring, because in Wonder Woman’s heart, she truly believes that this is something she can do. She is willing to risk her life, and reveal her identity, to help save the people of Veld. And no matter what, she is going to help people because it’s her purpose; it’s what she was created for. To have not only a superhero say these lines, but a woman, was earth-shattering. And when she climbs up through the trenches and onto the battlefield, a single shiloh of simultaneous destruction and grace, you can’t help but want to follow her.
The true definition of a hero, to me, is someone who acts not because they are told to, not because it would make them look good, but because they want to. Who saves people not because of who they are, but because they’re people. Who surges into the battle not knowing if they’ll survive, but caring more about the lives of others than their own. And all of this, to me, applies to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. As she jogs through the battlefield, dodging bullets and straining her best to keep them all at bay and protect her friends, I get chills. Every single time.
In all the discussion about cool action sequences, super cameos and Easter eggs for the next film, the true purpose of superhero movies—to depict heroes, larger-than-life people, saving those who cannot fight for themselves—has been lost. But Wonder Woman reignites the discussion. Diana is more than just a hero. She’s a woman, through-and-through—from the incredibly gripping No Man’s Land scene, to invading a party to search for General Ludendorff, to protecting the world from Ares and tapping into her godly powers to stop the war, to deciding to leave Themyscira in the first place because she knows her talents would be better suited in man’s world than in the safe comfort of her island.
The imagery of seeing a woman say, “I’m not going to listen to you. I’m going to fight anyway, because these people need help.” I have the chills just typing it. It was so desperately needed in 2017, specifically, when a man who faces numerous rape allegations is the President of the United States, when Hollywood is crumbling within because of similar allegations coming out about its top tier talent. Seeing a woman fight, and be brave despite what the men in her life say, was life-changing.
Moreover—in a world where “DC is too dark” is the spun narrative, Wonder Woman swoops in, lasso twirling, and shows the a new shade to the “darkness.” Wonder Woman is a dark film. The color palette has some of the same desaturated hue as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman—in man’s world, at least—and its themes about war, killing and violence are as heavy as they come. In the middle of that gray, hopeless battlefield, Wonder Woman comes surging in, her red-and-blue costume glistening in the light, a signal of hope, and all her allies follow her. That sequence alone is a metaphor not only for the character of Wonder Woman, but for the film itself. It’s peppered throughout with levity, light and optimism. And when the credits finally roll, you just can’t help but smile.
But not to downplay all the traditional comic book stuff—that’s awesome too. The first battle on Themyscira’s beach was jaw-dropping, and Diana’s third act fight with Ares (despite some sloppy CGI, but I’m not complaining, I’ve seen far worse) was thrilling to behold. The battle in the village, following Diana’s true transformation into Wonder Woman, is exhilarating and effortlessly cool. The villains were smaller characters but still juicy to watch, and the powers Diana had on display were not only accurate to her character, but enhanced her power set.
And not only does Wonder Woman have messages about hope and faith in humanity, but it’s chock full of encouraging discussions about feminism. The scene where Wonder Woman addresses a British general made my entire theater cheer, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget—because here was a woman, in the twentieth century, telling a man how it was, and making him see how unbelievably stupid his plans were. And when a man asks Steve Trevor why he brought a woman into the council room, the confusion and frustration on Diana’s face is almost comical. Why shouldn’t there be women in the council room? As Diana has lived in a world where everything is equal her whole life, the idea that women are lesser than or barred from anything dumbfounds her.
Lastly, Wonder Woman‘s emotional and heartfelt handling of its central male character, Steve Trevor, is incredibly satisfying. Not only does Chris Pine play the hell out of this role, but the romance between he and Diana is wonderfully developed. In so many ways, they’re equals. He acts on her lead, and she follows his. Never once while watching the movie did I feel that he felt he was better than her, or more equipped to do his job than she was to do hers. The dynamic between them is so idyllic, so perfectly woven together, that it must be seen to be believed.
All of these factors combine to create an experience that is one of my best moviegoing adventures of all time. Wonder Woman is a revelation. It’s an event in pop culture, and a true lesson in how to do superhero movies justice. When it comes to ranking films, for me, I go by how they make me feel. Wonder Woman brings about an emotion in me that no other superhero film (except for Black Panther, of course) has been able to do. So when I think of the best DC film ever made, it will be the image of a golden lasso, swinging through the air, a female warrior’s sharp cry, and the badass guitar-riff of Wonder Woman’s triumphant musical theme.