I’m not afraid to admit that I almost cried towards the end of Wonder Woman, when Chris Pine, a maniacal grin on his face, flies a bomb-laden jet into the heavens and sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity. Gal Gadot, watching the explosion from below, unleashes a cry so vulnerable, so human, I forgot that Zeus had sculpted her from clay. This was powerful stuff, and, in the anonymizing dark of the theater, I was surprised how much it moved me.
Keep in mind, I’m generally pretty ambivalent towards superhero movies. It’s not that I feel above them, or think they’re stupid. I just find it hard to care. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I can’t recall watching one that made me feel something beyond the surface-level rush of action-induced adrenaline.
But Wonder Woman, despite its source material, is not really a superhero movie. At its core, it’s a World War I movie that just so happens to involve a superhero, and shares as much if not more of its DNA with a Spielberg-ian war epic than with Spiderman, or Ant-Man, or, god forbid, Green Lantern.
Take, for example, Princess Diana’s (aka Wonder Woman’s) first experience on the Western Front, where director Patty Jenkins refuses to shy away from vivid depictions of wounded soldiers; or the human fallibility of Diana and Co’s alcoholic marksman, Charlie, who at a critical juncture fails to pull the trigger and kill a deadly sniper; or the comic book realism of chemical warfare in WWI, including the prolific use of stimulants, which German General Luddendorf inhales from magic little blue vials that bear a striking resemblance to magic little cocaine vials. A conventional superhero movie motif vials of pseudo-cocaine do not make.
Wonder Woman is about many things, and is significant for many reasons—gender equality and female empowerment, both on-screen and off being chief amongst them. Yet the movie seems most concerned with the moral complexity of war. If the archetypical superhero narrative is fundamentally about the battle between good and evil, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is about the reality that narrative attempts to explain away; in a real battle, as Diana comes to realize, humans, unlike superheroes or supervillains, are never just one or the other, but a fluid mix of the two.
The architects of 2017’s Wonder Woman have said they set the story in WWI because it was mankind’s first truly automated war, where soldiers weren’t forced to witness the horrifying results of their actions. With the proliferation of drones and other military technology around the world, it’s clear why that strikes a chord. The morality of war is messier than ever. Too bad we don’t have a beautiful Amazonian goddess to help clean it up.