The latest film in DC Comics’ shared cinematic universe, the DCEU, blends the brand’s own penchant for powerful imagery and mythological scope with the Marvel films’ revolutionary approach of having protagonists that are actually charming rather than being miserable bastards.
But unlike most any entry in the filmography of either brand, director Patty Jenkins ‘ Wonder Woman tosses aside any substantial reliance on being a sequel or a prequel or a tie in. Similarly it doesn’t feel like a “take” on a superhero movie. Ant-Man is something of a superhero heist film. Iron Man 3 is a superhero buddy cop flick. The Dark Knight trilogy is a series of superhero films set in “the real world.”
Wonder Woman, more than any superhero movie since perhaps the first Iron Man (before the credits) feels like uncut superheroism. It’s primary concern is conveying the story of someone with extraordinary abilities using said abilities to better the world around them and the film serves as a testament to just how power that idea can be even without the bells and whistles of sub-genre tropes and crossovers and tie-ins. Bells and whistles I absolutely adore by the way, but bells and whistles that, as the likes of Age of Ultron can attest, can prove prohibitive.
Wonder Woman is a reminder of why popular culture went bonkers for superheroes in the first place, a reminder of the resonance these figures have in modern mythology, a reminder that at their best these logos and costumes can be mirrors of our morals and aspirations.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s much-lauded no man’s land sequence, in which Wonder Woman makes her way out of Allied trenches to take on attacking Central forces. It’s a set piece that’s, for me, proved more affecting and overwhelming than any other superhero action sequence in recent memory, not simply because of the deftly handled action, but because of its context.
The scene is preceded by Wonder Woman first encountering a man beating a horse that has gotten stuck in the mud along with the carriage it is towing. She is told to do nothing, to look at the bigger picture. Then she encounters the wounded. She encounters the sick. The hungry. Always she is told it cannot be helped. Finally, she hears of the occupied village across no man’s land, which she is also told to ignore in favor of a larger objective. And finally she puts her foot down.
Faced with the evils of the world, close to being overwhelmed by the profound horrors of it all, Wonder Woman stops, identifies a problem she can solve, and solves it.
Queue no man’s land and electric cello shredding.
Wonder Woman is a great film as a whole, but the no man’s land sequence in particular proved to be straight up transcendent. It will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever felt paralyzed by the wickedness of the world. When she rises out of the trenches, Wonder Woman rises above the fears that one person cannot block the tides of villainy, above the idea that there are too many problems in the world and therefore dealing with any of them is a waste of time.
It’s that idea, and it’s unencumbered communication to the audience that will undoubtedly mark Wonder Woman as a staple of superhero storytelling. It’s not a movie that’s exciting because it serves as a springboard for bigger, louder films in the future, or because it ties into another film and weaves into a larger whole. It’s not thrilling because it puts superheroes into some other genre, or because it subverts the superhero genre. Wonder Woman is fantastic because it digs down past franchises and cinematic universes and intellectual properties to offer something seemingly all too common and yet all too rare: a straight-up superhero movie.