The Ending of 'Wonder Woman' Risks Everything on 'Justice League'
There's a moment midway through Wonder Woman that works as perfect counterpoint to every one of the nine hundred and sixty-four superhero movies we've seen in the last decade. Having just sailed away from her man-free island of verdant meadows, waterfalls and nonstop archery tournaments, Diana, demigoddess and Princess of Themyscira, is “undercover” in London during World War I. Just before she and her guide-soon-to-be-sidekick Steve Trevor hop aboard a train to the Belgian front, she has a bit of ice cream.
Hardcore fans flipped out (the technical term is actually “squeed”), knowing what would come next, but everyone else got a nice bit of fish-out-of-water comedy. “You should be very proud,” she tells the vendor, oozing positivity. It's a lovely grace note to the character, reminiscent of another mythological deity-turned-superhero, Thor, who in his 2011 origin movie, sipped his first coffee and exclaimed, “This drink! I like it! Another!” before smashing ceramic all over the nice retro diner. Jane Foster yells at him a little (“ask nicely”) and he counters “I meant no disrespect." With both moments, there's something key and dare I say important happening.
Diana and Thor are just behaving the way that comes naturally. When Thor reacts positively he brays and is destructive. When Diana encounters something similar, her response is to be nurturing, respectful and complimentary. In both movies, the moment is meant as comic relief, but cuts right to the heart of conventionally drawn masculine and feminine behaviors. Female characters have been all over superhero blockbusters thus far, but never have they been the film's point of view.
It is, if nothing else, new and refreshing. But is it a once-in-a-franchise moment?
The only downer moments in Wonder Woman come at the very beginning and very end: the framing device that reminds us this is set immediately following the wretched Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie so chronically malformed it should really be sent to a lab for scientific study. It is upsetting to think that the character so fabulously drawn will be shunted back to that world for more abuse in Justice League later this year.
Wonder Woman, an altogether terrific movie even if the last fifteen minutes, a big fight with the unmasked Ares, are a bit dopey, is a remarkable example of “show, don't tell.” If it has a feminist agenda (if I can borrow that term from cable news windbags) it comes through action, not talk.
Director Patty Jenkins shoots Diana in a way that is, yes, different than we've seen women in superhero movies before. It's not that her camera doesn't love lead actress Gal Gadot. Film is a visual medium after all and this is an abundantly splendid aesthetic feast. It's that she is never fetishized, she is exalted.
Gadot is at her best in close-ups: reaction shots, prepping for battle, assessing the situation, discovering her own powers. (She would have made a terrific actress in the silent era.) Jenkins is at her best working with bodies in flight. There is a balletic quality to the action, specifically the Themyscria battle against the Germans early in the movie.
Compare this (and Diana's openness both with her Themyscrian family and with Steve Trevor) with Diana in Batman V Superman. There she is nothing but an enigma, slinking around and stealing things in a red dress and messing up Bruce Wayne's plans. Same can be said for Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises -- just add a motorcycle.
In Wonder Woman the POV is switched, which is quite the remarkable feat considering that Chris Pine's Steve is, in a way, meant to represent “us” in the equation. (And three cheers for Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg for altogether skipping any trepidation on Trevor's part in following a g-g-giiiirl. Sure, he's surprised at first by Diana's powers, but is quick to recognize that following her lead is the best way to get stuff done.) As such, when Diana charges into her fight scenes, she isn't dolled up for sex appeal. The focus is on her action, not on her body parts. These are subtle differences in style, and Jenkins using that approach for this character is part of what makes this movie resonate.
If my suspicions are correct it is going to be quite the come down when we next see Diana in Justice League. There's no after credits tease in Wonder Woman because Batman v Superman -- and the year-out Justice League trailer -- told us everything we need to know about her future. She'll be surrounded by those two battling dudes with their Martha issues (Batman and Superman), plus newcomers Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg.
Will she end up being the butt of jokes, or, worse, portrayed as a nag herding these other five boys around? I'd like to think not, but it's gotten very difficult not to expect the worst from the needlessly dark and inane DC movies. Which is part of the reason why Wonder Woman is such an achievement. Jenkins and her collaborators should be proud. Here's hoping we see more of that side of her.