“If you choose to leave, you may never return.”
“Who will I be if I stay?”
This exchange occurs between Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Diana Prince /Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in one of the major turning points of the film. Diana is eager to leave her home, the island of Themyscira, and venture back into man’s world in an effort to end World War I, while Hippolyta advises against it, encouraging her daughter to remain safe on the island.
Although the heavenly comforts of her home are enticing, Diana forgoes security and comfort for a cause that’s greater than herself. By the film’s end, she is far from the naive and innocent girl that viewers first saw; instead she is a battle-hardened and mature woman, shaped by her experiences.
As viewers stare at her with awe at her transformation, they realize the answer to Diana’s question: she would not have grown had she not left what was comfortable and routine. Most interestingly, looking at Wonder Woman as a whole, the phrase “who will I be if I stay?” becomes a remark on superhero films as well.
Viewers know all too well that the genre has become hackneyed by franchise-building attempts, brooding, histrionically masculine heroes and cliché plot points (in the form of poor villains and macguffins) despite the salvific efforts of The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Deadpool, and Logan to reinvigorate and break convention.
When all of those films were released in their time, they were all seen as risky, but Wonder Woman was perhaps the biggest risk of them all: a female superhero, set during World War I, in an already crowded Summer movie schedule. But like its titular heroine, Wonder Woman defied all odds and teaches relevant lessons about self-sacrifice and valor yet never loses its sense of fun. It is certainly not without its faults, but but it is a poignant reminder of what a superhero film should be, and that the ability for true change and transformation lies not in one’s ability to rehash and stick to a formula, but to be bold and take risks in order to fully grow.
Wonder Woman first begins in the present day, not too long after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After receiving a photograph from Bruce Wayne, she recalls her ascension to the warrior she currently is. The film then flashes back to her time on Themyscira, the secret island of the Amazons, hidden away from the eyes of the human world. Hippolyta discourages Dian from combat training, yet Diana still trains in secret and one day an American spy Steve Trevor crashes on Themyscira and warns the oblivious Amazons of the imminent threat of World War I. Convinced that only the greek god Ares could mastermind such conflict and chaos on a worldwide scale, Diana departs from Themyscira with Steve, seeing it as her personal duty and mission to stop the war and kill Ares.
Despite the presence of magical swords, greek gods, lassos of truth and bulletproof gauntlets, Wonder Woman feels surprisingly grounded. Director Patty Jenkins fully fleshes out the World War I setting and completely immerses viewers in it, from the chaotic Western front of Belgium to the arid and grimy atmosphere of a German weapons facility. Period-accurate army recruitment posters, scattered conversations in French and German, and the stylish yet pragmatic attire of London citizens are all details that convince viewers that WWI truly took place on a global scale, and that it had entrenched itself in every crevice of daily life.
Apart from the paradise of Themyscira, the rest of the film is bleak, and while darkness and gloom are not strangers to the DC Cinematic Universe, here they at least serve a purpose. In fact, the austerity clashes wonderfully with Diana’s brightly covered uniform, showing her incognizance about the severity of the war but also being a visual reminder that she is a beacon of hope. Jenkins and Costume Designer Lindy Hemming did not have to replicate the WWI ambience with such totality, but their efforts make all the difference.
Yet as Suicide Squad shows, good costumes alone do not make good heroes, but thankfully Gal Gadot snugly fits into her role like a pair of Amazonian armored boots. Viewers are able to see everything through her eyes and she captures the disgust, joy, and surprise that often simultaneous accompanies the wonder and curiosity that comes with interacting with something new.
Seeing her bafflingly chastise Steve Trevor for carrying a watch and why humans would have their lives be dictated by “such a small thing” and witnessing the sudden elation that comes from her first bite of ice cream are all touchingly human moments that help remind audiences to enjoy the simple things, and to laugh at “strange human traditions” once in awhile. Gadot is not limited to just playing the “fresh off the boat” character however; when needed she is strong-willed and admirably stubborn, willing to fight for what she believes in.
Unlike Steve Trevor, whose acceptance of sexism and respect for hierarchy render him silent, there is no line Diana is not willing to cross. Her inquisitiveness and general curiosity gives way boldness and you cannot help but cheer for her as she indignantly challenges the Allied generals why they are sending thousands of soldiers to die in their place or how the degrading responsibilities of a secretary are not identical to slavery.
Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor serves as a driven, no-nonsense, and serious foil to Wonder Woman, yet thankfully the way the romance between him and Diana progresses is done naturally and organically. He’s humorous, cocky and valiant, and and though he realizes his limitations when standing next to the Amazon warrior, he is humble and despite initial reservation, allows Diana to lead the way.
Danny Huston’s General Erich Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison are serviceable, if not underutilized, villains. Huston channels as much snarl and cruelty as he can with every line and is able to serve as a physical challenge to Wonder Woman. Doctor Poison works as a behind the scenes villain, but is nonetheless formidable and cruel. Robin Wright’s General Antiope is another standout character, and boasts some of the most impressive action sequences, performing feats and trick shots with arrows that would put Hawkeye, Legolas and Katniss Everdeen to shame.
It is ironic then that one of the more disappointing aspects of the film is its lack of action. The fight sequences are brilliantly choreographed, with Jenkins often slowing down the camera so audiences can enjoy when Wonder Woman is blocking a bullet or slashing German soldiers. However, such moments are too infrequent and far in between.
The opening fight between the German soldiers and Amazons is nothing short of spectacular, as audiences get to see how bayonets, firearms, and canoes fair against swords, arrows, and horseback (spoiler: it does not end well for the Germans). Jenkins shows the Amazons with Olympic-like grace, inviting the audience not the objectify them but to admire them. Likewise seeing Wonder Woman strut across the enemy trenches in No Man’s Land is likewise inspiring as Diana deflects every round of ammunition and firepower the soldiers unload, eventually securing a victory for the Allied forces.
It can be easy to forget that Wonder Woman is connected to the larger DC Extended Universe, and though references and Easter Eggs are present, they are subtle. Fans hoping for a Justice League set-up will be left lacking, but perhaps that is the point; the allusions Wonder Woman makes does not feel forced but instead uses the established cinematic universe to help flesh out its own story.
After spending a few days in Belgium and seeing the carnage that the war has brought on innocent civilians, Diana reaffirms to Steve that her resolve to find and kill Ares is stronger than ever. Calmly, Steve entertains and proposes the idea that perhaps, there is no deity or singular entity who is the mastermind behind all the pain and suffering of the world and that perhaps it is simply human nature. To this Diana berates Steve for doubting her, but this debate highlights a very human reaction to the wrongdoing that occurs in the world: it is tempting to believe that the source of pain and wrongdoing is in one person or event. But real life is often much more complicated than that.
As Diana comes to realize this and wrestles with the thought that perhaps there is no Ares, and that instead human nature itself and all of humanity is to blame for the evil going on in the world, she wants to go back to Themyscira. Yet despite seeing humanity in all of its ugliness and sin, she still chooses to stay.
She is willing to sacrifice and fight for a better tomorrow, no matter what it may cost her. It’s a simple message, but when it is reiterated with the passion, humor and heart that is so evident in this film, it never ceases to wonder.
Zachary Lee is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org