Wonder Woman brought the world together in near-universal celebration, as the best superheroes and mythic figures do. Screening controversies and political appropriation notwithstanding, Wonder Woman is a good movie.
A better one, in fact, than it’s been getting credit for.
The social and critical consensus reads as follows: It’s great until the final act. Then it’s weak, messy, off the rails, cheapened by blockbuster mayhem over character, etc. Still good, though! While I understand these criticisms, they are misguided. The final act is where the character ethos shines brightest and, as such, the point where the movie truly became “good.”
It was the final act where I truly believed in the character; her power and her heroic virtue. It was the final act where I felt, for the first time in the DCEU, the emotional weight of the violence.
So what is “the final act”?
Wonder Woman has not three acts, but five. Act 1: Opening narration; Diana’s childhood and secret combat training on Themyscira. Act 2: Steve Trevor crash lands, tells Amazons of the war, and Diana sails with him. Act 3: Meet the villains as Diana and Steve travel from England to the front, and save a village. Act 4: Diana and Steve grow closer, but the conflict intensifies at the gala and the village is destroyed.
Act 5: Diana storms the airfield, meets the real Ares, Steve sacrifices himself, and Diana revivifies her love for mankind. This is the final act, seemingly the one that audiences are iffiest about.
But that act is not really about the end of the war or the fight against the real Ares. It’s about the endurance of Diana’s faith and benevolent spirit.
Our hero grew up with the simplest myths – there is good and evil, mankind is good until corrupted from the outside by an evil god, and war is the end result of that. She defined herself according to these feminine ideals, and carried them with her to man’s world. This was always going to blow up in her face considering that she was going into a war known for its tragic ambiguity. She seems only moderately aware of this, as she seeks out not the Kaiser, but the poison gas makers who amplify the destruction.
Diana, contrary to her appearance, has not come to disrupt the regular order of man’s world but to end what she believes is the real disruption – the war itself. And she has come not as an ambassador like she does in her comic origin, but as a warrior assassin.
Thus, she fights with a misguided confidence. For a while, the film teeters on the edge – thirsting to boast her strength and valor while keeping the enemy distant. When Steve’s realism obstructs her mission, she despairs at the demise of the village she had saved (as if her pride is wounded), then nearly loses herself as she doubles down on chasing Ludendorff.
We never stop rooting for Diana, but ingrained in our minds is a persistent doubt – one director Patty Jenkins and screenplay author Allan Heinberg have placed there on purpose to pace our expectations.
The criticisms of Wonder Woman I observe either point to the village battle as the film’s highest point and/or characterize her fight with Ares as the last boss fight in a video game. I find great irony in this because it is Diana herself who views the central conflict on these terms until rudely awakened by the emptiness of killing Erich Ludendorff. The point is not that Ares is a tougher antagonist than Ludendorff (that all signs pointed to the First Nazi despite the setting being World War I should’ve been the clue that it was too easy), but that mankind is inherently fallen.
The being responsible for war’s worst atrocities is acting the part of the peacemaking diplomat – a role for which the idealistic, emotionally-intelligent Wonder Woman character is better known. Ares’s role in the film isn’t just to facilitate mankind’s self-destruction, but to make Diana herself pessimistic about its redemption so that she will not save it. He punishes her not because that’s just what evil men do but because she won’t cooperate with his idyllic dream of a world without man.
Ares’s ideal shares an eerie resemblance to that feminist utopia where a peace on Earth can be realized only when men and their aggression are gone. That divine purity should, by all accounts, be what Diana yearns for, given the simple myths and all-female paradise she grew up under. Such stories were lies told by her mother for seemingly no good reason, just like the lie that her sword is the real god-killer. Ares reveals to her the limitless nature of her power precisely when she should be most tempted to turn it upon mankind for being evil by nature. And when the death of her lover makes her heart erupt into a storm of murderous rage, she, much like Luke Skywalker staring into his black glove in Return of the Jedi, very nearly becomes Ares in the process of fighting like him.
But Diana’s relationships with good men like Steve Trevor over the film’s duration have matured her perspective. Ares does his best to nurture her anger, casting before her the very worst and most monstrous-looking of all humans. This is the real climax, where Diana is compelled to mercy upon a conviction of love – inspired by the love her friends showed for one another when huddling in prayer facing certain death, and, of course, by Steve Trevor’s parting words.
The flashy god fight here emphasized the ideological character conversation at the core, eschewed entirely by the inferior Thor (2011) for its respective flashy god fight. More importantly, the emotional loss and absence of time was more keenly felt in the Steve plane sacrifice in Wonder Woman than in the Steve plane sacrifice in Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie that lost track of itself after the first hour and merely bounced around with no gravity for the rest of its obligatory runtime.
None of this is to say that the powers weren’t confusing or that the action didn’t diminish returns. Nor is it to say that the rest of the film is flawless. It should’ve been sexier. The sequence on Themyscira needed sharper editing, the events of the war needed clarity, and Trevor’s friends didn’t have enough to do. The final act is mechanically flawed in the ways people said, yet it is so much more. It depicted a compelling character’s integrity as coming from unrelenting love and faith in the redemption of mankind in the face of cynicism and nihilism.
How else do you unite the world in 2017?