I vividly remember the popular attitude most reviewers took towards Joss Whedon’s The Avengers when it came out. “If this doesn’t make your inner nine-year-old scream with excitement, you’re probably dead inside.” That seemed to be most people’s reaction to a superhero team-up movie years in the making: it made them feel like kids again, in the best way. Oftentimes that’s the point of movies, to appeal to your inner sense of excitement and wonder for a few hours. I like superhero movies, but not all of them have that affect on me. My usual reaction is to criticize movies, even ones I like. But in this case, I can say without reservation that Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again.
As the first female-led superhero movie since 2005, Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it. It had to be a better continuation of the DC cinematic universe, it had to adequately provide a backstory for an iconic comic book character, and it had to prove that female-led and female-directed action films can do well at the box office. So far, it’s done all of those things. Based on the movie’s critical response and box office earnings, even just a few days after release, it has been a rousing success.
As a story, Wonder Woman is fairly usual, with plot elements that have all been used before in different movies. The villain’s motivation is one you’ve heard before. The hero(ine)’s journey is fairly standard. The war movie elements (since the film is set during World War I) are familiar, even those with a superhero in the mix, since Captain America: The First Avenger established long ago that you can, in fact, meld the superhero genre with the war movie genre. The editing of the movie has some pitfalls but is overall extremely competent, and the fight scenes are amazing. A mixture of quick-cuts and longer shots and a highly skilled use of slow motion, coupled with the film’s soundtrack, make them an absolute joy to watch. Taken at face value, Wonder Woman is a very good movie, definitely the best DC movie in recent years (if not ever), but it’s not the best movie ever. Taken at face value, you might say it isn’t a “groundbreaking” movie. But that would depend on how you define “groundbreaking”.
As I stated before, Wonder Woman is the first female-led superhero movie since 2005. Nearly all of the female-led superhero movies before now–such as Catwoman, Elektra, and the 1984 Supergirl film–have been badly written, poorly shot, or have objectified the leading lady–or done all three of those things at once. And none of them did well at the box office, which led to the drought of female-led superhero films from 2005 to 2017. Wonder Woman was seen as a gamble for DC, especially since it had a female director. But the choice of Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman turned out to be one of the movie’s greatest strengths. It is a factor that did turn the movie into something groundbreaking.
Wonder Woman doesn’t indulge in any of the objectification that most superhero movies–most action films in general–go in for. It’s obvious that it was directed by a woman–obvious in how the camera frames Diana’s face instead of her chest, in how the fight scenes are about her brute strength and power instead of how pretty she can look while doing martial arts. Diana is obviously, obviously, the hero of the film. She follows through the hero’s journey. She starts out innocent and learns from her journey as she goes along, without ever falling into the cliche of a woman who must learn everything she knows from a man. There are male characters in this movie–several of them. But Diana is never overshadowed by them. The narrative of the movie respects her even when some of the characters do not. The story lets Diana fail, lets her experience loss, without ever falling into hurtful tropes or cliches. And that is groundbreaking.
By all metrics, Wonder Woman was a good movie. From a technical standpoint, a writing standpoint, that is more or less all it was: a good and well-made superhero movie. But from a cultural standpoint, it was much more. Wonder Woman gave us an origin story centered around a woman, with the leading man acting as a sidekick for once. It balanced out a lot of the insidious sexism in action movies, giving us an action movie that can be enjoyed without worrying about that one gross scene or the plot points that don’t hit because the female lead was sidelined. Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again. It inspired me. It gave me hope that one day I can work on a movie like that, that one day there might be more opportunities in cinema for women to create women-oriented stories. That is how Wonder Woman is groundbreaking.
And besides that? It’s a fun movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s as historically accurate as a superhero movie can be. It’s not mean-spirited or harsh, even when it has the opportunity. I highly recommend Wonder Woman. I know I’m going to see it again. It may not be perfect. Even I’ve got some thoughts about the plot that I plan to hash out at a later date. But Wonder Woman is such a hopeful and inspiring movie that I can’t help but give it my recommendation. After all–it’s pretty groundbreaking.