Major spoilers for Wonder Woman ahead!
Some movies are good to watch once. Others are evergreen. Tonight I watched the 2017 film Wonder Woman for the second time. It’s one of the latter.
I loved Wonder Woman the first time I saw it. I’m not a big fan of the superhero movie genre (it’s usually in the “watch once, but bring friends” category), which is often just big explosions, semi-funny quips, and predictable villains.
Wonder Woman isn’t like that. In addition to being a well-produced film, it’s also a film that must have been written with the best insights of heroic storytellers in mind. Here are nine things which put Wonder Woman in the running for best superhero film:
1. It has actual idealism
There is no such thing as a cynical hero, but the movies keep trying to make one work. It’s refreshing to see a hero movie that actually believes in the possibility of heroism and goodness. This sense of life and hope is a pulsing undercurrent for this entire movie, and the audience feels it throughout the story and as it leaves the theater.
2. It has a hero who learns things
Diana’s worldview shifts through this movie, and rather than simply being the perfect kickass hero, she makes mistakes, shows naivete, and has to learn from her experiences. It’s also refreshing that she learns so much from the non-supers around her. Her relationships with the unlikely gang of heroes in this story adds a lot of depth and humor.
3. It has a realistic conflict
Casting the powers of World War One as the enemy in this film was a great choice by the writers. Too many hero films today pick outlandish, non-believable enemies like ice trolls (Thor), aliens (Avengers), or futuristic mutants (50% of other superhero movies). We can believe in the world-ending danger of World War One because we know World War One actually threatened the fate of the globe. Wonder Woman won back credibility for the world-ending conflict by choosing a real time in human history.
4. It has a great villain
Besides the choosing of the conflict of War itself, the writers made a great decision in revealing Ares as Sir Patrick. They subverted the expectation that Ares would be a clear-cut, violent brute. Instead, they show their incarnation of evil as charming, sophisticated, even wise. As someone who merely encourages evil rather than acts on it, Sir Patrick actually has a fighting chance of convincing us (and Diana) that other humans are the real enemy.
5. It gets good and evil and human nature
“Ares or no Ares – maybe people aren’t always good.”
Diana’s battle to come to terms with human nature is the main conflict of this story. Through the course of the movie, she sees the best and worst within humans – including her own allies. She has to accept that good and evil co-exist in our world and seem to be inevitable. She, like us, has to make a choice as to whether human life and her own fight for good is worth the risk of that evil.
6. It subverts scapegoating
“You don’t think I wish I could tell you there was one bad guy to blame? There’s not! We’re all to blame.”
When Diana (and the audience) wants to pin the tragedy of the war onto one big baddie (Ares), the movie doesn’t let us off so easily. The movie doesn’t even allow us to blame one side (the Germans). Instead, it faces the reality that all sides contribute to the disaster of war. It smashes the myth that the killing of the scapegoat will restore a community to harmony. The real battle lies within, and it never ends.
7. It honors peace
“Is this what humans do when there are no wars to fight?
Wonder Woman has some amazing fight scenes, true. But we get a sense from our hero that she would be just as adventurous and the world much better if it were in peace. She dances, she explores, she eats ice cream.
It’s clear that Diana is no warmonger. In her own reluctance to fight and her hopes for the world, we see a strong desire for peace in her values. She’s not the kind of person who takes delight in war. This is rare enough for superhero movies, which often glory in their destruction and violence.
8. It’s powerfully humanistic
The villain Ares envisions a perfect without humans. In her struggle with Ares, we see Diana coming to a realization that, despite humanity’s failings, its own flourishing is her highest value. She believes humans to be an important part of creation and fights against those who believe don’t.
9. It has a bittersweet ending
There’s no big explosion going off behind cool heroes as they walk off into the sunset. We see real loss here in Steve Trevor’s death. Wonder Woman’s is not an ending in which evil wins, by any means, but it is one in which we see the cost of doing what’s right, and we see how a real hero deals with tragedy and loss.
Honorable mention: It has a great film score and great set/costume design
Wonder Woman is great on the strength of its philosophical insights alone, but it doesn’t hurt that the producers paid great attention to detail in taking you back in time to the sights and sounds of the first world war. The film score takes a great film and makes it more moving and stirring.
If you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, trust me enough to invest 30 minutes into the story. See if it doesn’t hit every highlight of a great hero story.