‘Wonder Woman’s’ superpower is seeing yourself on screen — Ultimate Movie Year
Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.
Released June 2, 2017
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Where to Watch
For many people, movies are about escapism, a chance to enter another world for two or three hours to take our minds off of reality. That escapism has primarily been through the eyes of a white male protagonist who overcomes all obstacles to save the day. It can be inspiring to watch, but we’ve taken for granted what it’s like to see somebody else become the hero instead, and what it means for the people who can see the adventure through their eyes and experiences.
For these people, “Wonder Woman” is the movie they’ve been waiting for their entire lives.
While Gal Gadot debuted as Wonder Woman in the DC cinematic universe film, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” from 2016, “Wonder Woman” exists primarily as a stand-alone picture outside of its prologue and epilogue scenes. The main story takes place in 1918 and begins on Thymsceria, an ancient, hidden island populated by Amazon women. The only child on the island is Diana, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who protects her daughter from the warrior culture around her. Still, Diana desires to be a mighty warrior like those around her, and she finally gains the approval to be trained by Antiope (Robin Wright), general of the Amazons and Diana’s aunt. While Thymsceria maintains its secrets from the outside world, an American pilot and spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) pierces the bubble and crash-lands nearby. Diana saves Steve and is fascinated because he is the first man she has ever seen. She learns Steve is involved in World War I. The deadly conflict makes Diana believe that Ares, the God of War and enemy of the Amazons, is behind the violence, and joins Steve in attempting to stop the Central Powers alliance.
Troubled history, or “They do not deserve you”
“Wonder Woman” is not the first female action/adventure hero to headline a major film, with Ripley from the Alien franchise becoming the standard that was met by several other characters over the years (but not always). More women were given the spotlight as representation became more of growing concern over the past decade, with heroes played by Academy Award-winning actresses like Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence. Nor was “Wonder Woman” the first female superhero movie, as “Supergirl,” “Catwoman,” and “Elektra” saw release in the decades prior. However, all three failed both commercially and critically, as there appeared to be little effort to match the quality of many of their male counterpart franchises.
As superhero films began to dominate the marketplace with the emergence of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, the call to diversify the demographics of their leads grew louder. Despite its massive success, Marvel seemed hesitant to elevate a woman to a single feature (heavily rumored to be because of the influence of a conservative corporate executive). Warner Brothers rebooted its main characters, Superman and Batman, multiple times before focusing on their third most recognizable hero. Finally, Patty Jenkins was given the green light to direct “Wonder Woman,” with the studio’s full support to make it as successful as possible.
“You come into something like this knowing that this is very personal to people,” said Jenkins in the behind-the-scenes featurette “Crafting the Wonder.” “Their relationship to Wonder Woman is very personal to them. The most important thing to do is to live up to that woman who is so good, strong, exciting, beautiful, funny, and kind, and that’s what drew us all to Wonder Woman.”
A hero is born, or “It is what I’m going to do”
One of the aspects that made “Wonder Woman” special was how it took its time to introduce the personality and motivations of Diana, allowing the audience to follow her journey and build anticipation for when the hero finally makes her debut. As the superhero genre has been developed and refined over the decades, one of the most common characteristics of a successful film is having a moment where our protagonist makes a powerful debut in front of the public while the audience watches along. This experience places us in the scene emotionally, but also provides visceral thrills. The gold standard is 1978’s “Superman,” as Christopher Reeve’s hero is only seen briefly in the first hour. Director Richard Donner wisely saves Superman’s big debut for a spectacular helicopter rescue in the middle of Metropolis, the best scene in the movie.
Similarly, Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, in their 2002 and 2008 big screen debuts respectively, hint at the elements of what the hero could do, just before they fully embrace their costumed destinies at a moment of crisis. When executed well, it’s a turning point for the hero and us because we’ve followed their struggles, and share the joy and exhilaration of their victories. We can see ourselves in the heroes to do what they can do for a moment, and it’s a big reason why superhero movies are so successful.
Another excellent example of this is in “Wonder Woman.” Since she left her native island, Diana has been trying to get to the frontlines of the war but has continuously been diverted by Steve’s mission for various (and understandable) reasons. Through it all, Diana is impatient and struggling to understand the culture and philosophies of this new world.
Finally, Diana, Steve, and their team arrive on the frontline. As she gets closer, the full toll of the war is apparent as Diana encounters people dead, injured, and scarred from the conflict. The injustice of it all is too much, and Diana will not delay any further. She takes off her long coat, revealing the red, blue, and yellow Amazonian armor underneath, and steps onto the battlefield known as “No Man’s Land.” The area lies between the trenches of the Allied and German forces where countless men have been cut down by gunfire, but Diana fends off attacks with her shield and armored bracelets. Even she seems surprised by her skills and gains confidence with each step. Steve and the others watch, and they too gain the courage to join her in the fight. Soon Diana engages the German trenches and then moves beyond them to cannonball through their forces in an occupied village nearby. The soundtrack transforms into the guitar riffs of the theme composed by Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer. Diana has transformed into Wonder Woman.
The “No Man’s Land” sequence is a spectacular debut for Wonder Woman, and it was an emotional moment for many in the audience. Men are used to seeing themselves on screen, saving the day with the triumphant march playing over the action, but it’s not the default for women watching the movie. There were countless reports of people crying in the theater while watching “Wonder Woman,” but the tears were borne from surprise, pride, and joy. Here was a strong, female standing up for her beliefs, visualized in a non-sexual manner, inspiring and leading the men around them. Diana overcame the doubt around her by the power of her example, quickly earning the respect of her colleagues. More than half of the audience watching “Wonder Woman” felt seen, a feeling that should be more common for people of all backgrounds than it currently is. A year later, we saw the phenomenon repeat itself with “Black Panther” for black audiences. The power of cinema relies upon us being able to relate and empathize with who we’re watching. The more people are represented on screen, our experiences will be more inspiring, vibrant, and exciting.
Legacy, or “I will fight, for those who cannot fight for themselves”
“Wonder Woman” isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun superhero movie with great sequences like “No Man’s Land,” as well as the terrific performances and chemistry between Gadot and Pine. It’s also crucial for changing the fortunes of Warner Brothers, who stumbled out of the gate, trying to establish a cinematic universe on par with Marvel. The early efforts of “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” and “Suicide Squad” were met with critical derision and fan backlash. “Wonder Woman was the best of the four, and helped shift the tide toward more positive, populist entertainment like “Aquaman” and “Shazam.”
“So much of ‘Wonder Woman’ finds the potential the DC movies always had in their heroes,” wrote Tasha Robinson for The Verge. “The action is crisp and thrilling, but more importantly, it’s meaningful. It’s carried out in support of a cause the audience can appreciate, by someone trying to protect civilians instead of ignoring them. For once, the DCEU has a hero who’s expressing an ethos instead of fuming and suffering over it.”
While “Wonder Woman” earned good reviews, it was loved by audiences. It grossed more than $100 million in its first weekend and went on to tally $821 million worldwide. Gadot became a household name and used her new star power to make sure Jenkins returned for the sequel, ready to debut in summer 2020. While the Marvel movies have set the standard for modern superhero movies, they were extremely slow to bring diversity to their leading roles. “Black Panther” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” were released in 2018, and “Captain Marvel” in 2019, so it seems fitting that “Wonder Woman” beat Marvel out of the gate, just as she has in the comics, as the world’s most iconic female superhero.
Frankly, it took too long for the powers-that-be to put some real juice behind more diverse superhero leads, but there is a confidence that they are now making them as seriously as they do their white male counterparts. “Wonder Woman” is pretty good and sometimes great. Still, it raised the standards for what audiences can expect for female heroes, proved that they can be just as insanely successful, and, most importantly, gave girls and women everywhere somebody they can escape with.
The Weekend: In the modern box office era, this weekend is usually a quiet one as many of the screens are still being dominated by the Memorial Day releases. However, there are still a few bonafide classics that we must celebrate, instead of just coming up short on making the list.
When it comes to escapism, my wife goes in hard for romantic comedies, so I’ve seen most of the ones in this genre for the past 30 years. One of the best is 1999’s “Notting Hill,” a charming story about a neurotic British Travel Bookshop owner who falls in love with the biggest movie star in the world. The movie stars Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, who are obviously perfectly cast in these roles, and both are at the peak of their powers here as screen idols. “Notting Hill” was written by Richard Curtis of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love, Actually” fame, so you can expect a brilliant mix of wit and silliness along the way.
Following the success of their first feature film “Toy Story,” Pixar Studios was entering the peak of their creative heights in the first decade of the century. Two of their best films saw release in Week 22, “Finding Nemo” in 2003, and “Up” in 2009. “Nemo” is a beautiful, colorful film about a young clownfish separated from his widowed father in the sea, while “Up” traps a young boy with an elderly, cranky man who’s been alone since his wife passed. Both films not only advance the potential of computer animation in cinema but also represent Pixar’s dedication to story craft.
Frankly, I believe “Notting Hill,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Up” to be superior movies to “Wonder Woman.” Limiting every franchise to only one film during the year means November’s selection of “Toy Story” eliminates all other Pixar options. As excellent as “Notting Hill” is as a romantic comedy, there are similar, better movies elsewhere on this list, and with “Wonder Woman” as an option, it was an excellent opportunity to recognize the talent of a female director and star.
Some classics worthy of recognition include the United States premiere of F.W. Murnau’s silent horror masterpiece, “Nosferatu,” an early cinematic adaptation of the “Dracula” novel. James Cagney won an Academy Award for his lead performance in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” based on the life of the multi-faced entertainer George M. Cohen. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” has had a long life after release, thanks in part to its inclusion on the American Film Institute’s Best 100 Movies list.
For many of us of a certain age, the 80s represented some of our favorite memories at the multiplexes (or endless reruns from the growing cable industry). One of the most enjoyable sequels of the era is “Rocky III,” released in 1982, which takes the boxer on a full emotional ride with victory, loss, and rebirth. The movie also spawned the motivational rock anthem, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Other favorites from the decade include “Wargames” in 1983, “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” in 1984, “Fletch” in 1985, and “Dead Poets Society” in 1989.
By the 90s, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become one of the biggest movie stars in the industry, ranking in box office dollars with his numerous crowd-pleasing action films (and at that point, some comedy). One of his best is the 1990 movie “Total Recall,” a science fiction classic that rises to its massive star level. Based on a Philip K. Dick story and directed by Paul Verhoeven, “Total Recall” is one of the last special-effect-heavy movies that didn’t rely upon computer-generated effects, a new era that debuted a year later with another Schwarzenegger film, July’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Some other popular 90s films that debuted in Week 22 include “Sister Act” in 1992, and “The Bridges of Madison County” in 1995.
I’m not sure any actor so expertly captures the “lazy man” energy better than Seth Rogan. The comic actor had a series of bit parts and supporting roles in other projects, but his first leading role, 2007’s “Knocked Up,” is the perfect coming-out party for Rogan. He navigates the unexpected responsibilities of adulthood with Katherine Heigl. Directed by Judd Apatow, “Knocked Up” merits inclusion if you’re binging the frat pack comedies of the 00s.
Other notable films released on this weekend include “Sex and the City” in 2008, “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, “Snow White and the Huntsman” in 2012, “Now You See Me” in 2013, “Maleficent” in 2014, and “Rocketman” in 2019.
Next Week: “Ghostbusters”
Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on May 28, 2020.