• Most scenes in modern blockbusters—superhero movies, comic book stories, FX-driven tentpoles, etc.—feel both perfunctory and dead on arrival. They exist solely to pad out the time between action sequences, when audiences can be bludgeoned into forgetting they're not having a good time. Something like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is a good example of this. The dialogue is flat and forgettable, and the scenes have no sense of drive, purpose, or narrative meaning. They just kind of sit there. Every scene in a movie is, when done right, a microcosm of the arc of the whole thing. Just as a film is about someone overcoming an obstacle to achieve something, individual scenes do the same thing: e.g., someone has to get somewhere, so they figure out how. This is why scenes, when properly done, can't be reordered: they each tell a series of small stories that add up to the bigger one, and each has a causal effect on the next.
Part of what makes Wonder Woman work so well—what makes it a good movie in the regular sense and a stellar one compared with the rest of the superhero genre—is its understanding of how scenes work. They're allowed to breathe and flow, to reveal character, and, most importantly, to end naturally. There's a wonderful scene about a third of the way through the film when Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve (Chris Pine) are sailing away from Themyscira, the island where Diana's grown up with the rest of the Amazons. Steve prepares separate sleeping pallets for them on the deck of the small ship, which leads to a conversation about sexual norms and what it means to "sleep together." Diana persuades Steve to lie down next to her in the more comfortable spot, which prompts him to attempt flirting, which Diana both deflates and negates by explaining her people's 12-volume sexual study that determined that men are necessary for procreation but useless when it comes to providing pleasure. Their conversation also touches on Diana's origin (she tells him she was created by Zeus, to which a nonplussed Steve replies, "Well, that's neat") before Diana rolls away to go to sleep.
Watching this play out, you can see where a lesser film would have stopped the action: after Steve agrees to sleep next to Diana, after his flirting falters, after a generic statement about how long it'll take them to reach land. Those would have been bad but commonplace cuts, deployed just so the filmmaker could dump an expository scene on the viewer as a breather between battles. This scene isn't even that visually appealing, pretty clearly taking place on a soundstage pool under digital moonlight. But we actually get to watch these two people interact and reveal things about themselves—Steve is flirtatious but insecure, Diana is somewhat naive but incredibly confident—and what's more, the scene actually has a beginning (Diana and Steve set sail), middle (they determine their route and sleeping arrangements), and end (Diana puts Steve gently in his place). The film feels so good because it's allowed to actually be a film, not merely a demonstration of its own technical prowess.
• Some critics and viewers have remarked that director Patty Jenkins doesn't overtly sexualize Diana/Gadot. I think what they mean is that Gadot isn't lasciviously photographed or turned into an object of pure masturbatory fantasy, which is usually what happens in movies like these. Because Gadot is totally, completely sexualized here, as is Pine. Part of Jenkins' skill is acting on the knowledge that we go to the movies to see beautiful people, and that part of the art form is about the way those people's forms are lit, sculpted, and choreographed. They circle each other emotionally and physically, building chemistry and romance. There's the scene where Pine's muscular form is highlighted in the blue reflections of a pool on Themyscira, or the one where he's looking down and out of frame as the stubble along his jawline catches the fill light, his hair hanging down and playing against the angles of his brow and cheeks. This is a beautiful man, photographed with sensuality. Similarly, Gadot is never exploited for the viewer—e.g., a shot of her diving into the ocean to save Steve from drowning cuts judiciously before her skirt has a chance to ride up—but her stunning features anchor the film's biggest emotional moments. The cock of her head as she reasons out the world around her; the width of her smile as she discovers new abilities and beings; the interplay of the light and lines of her lips and eyes as her hair frames her face. She at one point fixes Steve with the most powerful, focused look of erotic desire in mainstream American movies since the one Kelly McGillis destroyed Harrison Ford with in Witness more than 30 years ago. She is beautiful, strong, arresting, impossible to ignore.
What Jenkins has is an understanding and love for bodies as forms, as machines, as objects and engines of grace. Shoulders, necks, thighs, arms; men and women, young and old; the people here are given physical presence in a way almost totally missing from every other entry in the genre.
• In the same vein, Diana's armor is form-fitting but also believably functional. (There's even a sequence early on where she tries on a variety of contemporary dresses but winds up ripping or discarding them because they don't allow her the maneuverability to fight.) She wears a chest piece, belt, boots, and skirt/shorts combination that feel both Amazonian and in line with the character's history, yet never exploitative. Compare it with the purely ornamental costume worn by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show about the character—silk shorts, a low-cut top, cuffs made from what honestly could be aluminum foil—and you realize just how carefully and definitively Jenkins et al. have given Diana the ability to be physically overt without turning her into a fetish object. Where her cleavage would be, we have the imposing form of an eagle.
• That respect and love for the physical form is part of what makes Jenkins' direction so powerful: namely, we're allowed to see people's emotions on their faces. The acting and decisions happen silently, not, as is so often the case in the genre, blurted out in hacky text by characters who aren't allowed to have subtext. When Diana comes to a realization about the complicated nature and ceaseless cruelty of the human race, we actually see her working through it on camera. When another character makes a heroic decision, Jenkins gives the audience at least 7-10 extra seconds just of this one person having feelings, right in front of us. We are forced to reckon with the emotional weight of the story in a way that's bracingly fresh for the genre, and as a result, the film hits harder than almost any other superhero movie in recent memory.
• There are still plenty of rough edges, though. Diana's mother worries that "the more she learns, the sooner (Ares) will find her," then says the same thing again a few minutes later in case you were in the bathroom or preoccupied fiddling with a candy wrapper or are just very slow. Yet for all Diana's power and exploration in the world, Ares doesn't seek her out or change his plans at all, so the women's worries come off as a storytelling crutch, not a believable expression. Plus the motley crew that Diana and Steve assemble to help them on their mission are totally worthless and could be eradicated from the story without losing a drop of its potency. They don't help or affect the story in any real way, and eliminating them would also get rid of the cringe-inducing, hammer-to-nose moment in which Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) is awkwardly made to explain his squadmate's PTSD by saying that people don't always get to do what they want[footnote]Even for comic book movies, this is a gloriously awkward and nonsensical segue.[/footnote], and that Sameer wants to be an actor but is "the wrong color." There are almost countless better ways to visually underscore Sameer's class status a century ago than to have him blurt out dialogue like this, and the ungainly nature of the scene undercuts any possibilty of emotional merit. It has the plastic feel of inauthencity.
• Plus why does Diana age into a woman and then stop? Would she have kept aging if she'd stayed on Themyscira? Why did she stop aging in what looks like her early 30s while her mother and aunt appeared to stop aging in their early 50s? Why did her mother say Diana couldn't return if she left Themyscira, right after a discussion of fielding an army of Amazons to enter the world and fight Ares? Would they have been allowed to return?
• Jenkins is an expert at pacing this thing, though. Most comic book movies feel like they're just biding their time until the final 30ish minutes, when they can unleash CGI hell. Jenkins keeps that stuff at bay for as long as possible, though, and when it finally arrives, she breaks it into pieces. The climactic slugfest ebbs and flows, with pauses for dialogue, flashbacks, and actual emotional growth.
• The impact of Frank Miller on modern hero movies is impossible to escape. Miller, the comic artist who created 1986's The Dark Knight Returns, is the source point for these stories so often being grim, and dour, and relentlessly bleak and nihilistic. But The Dark Knight Returns was those things for very specific reasons: it was, among other things, a story about a hero worn down by time and fighting who remains committed to his mission even when he doesn't believe in the likelihood of change or salvation. Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) borrowed heavily from this aesthetic, but hero movies turned veered into popcorn territory again with Joel Schumacher's cartoonish Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), not to mention the genre's second- and third-tier 1990s outings like The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996). Of the comic book movies of that era, only The Rocketeer (1991) actually married drama with a sense of adventure and heroism that felt earnest without being gooey.
Miller's darkness returned in Christopher Nolan's trio of Batman blockbusters, though, and subsequently learned all the wrong lessons from them. Those movies were dark for a variety of reasons—not least because you need a certain amount of self-seriousness to make a man in a giant bat costume seem like the sane one in the gang—but so many other hero movies have erroneously equated darkness with depth. Marvel's Iron Man (2008), so light and airy and full of pop, is one of the few exceptions to this rule; I submit that it is not an accident that it came out the same summer as Nolan's The Dark Knight, which became one of the highest-grossing films of all time and had a kind of chilling effect on Hollywood's creativity for a decade.
All of which is part of why Wonder Woman manages to stand out. It's not that the film isn't dark—its central plot revolves around supernaturally empowered Germans working to create an extreme form of mustard gas during World War I, an event not known for its chuckles—rather, it's that the film manages to strike the right balance between darkness and light, and between drama and humor. The jokes here don't feel shoehorned in by punch-up artists, but like actual reflections of the characters saying them. (When Diana catches a glimpse of Steve naked and asks if he's a typical specimen, Pine sells Steve's false humility and clear lie of "I'm ... above average" perfectly.) There's a sense of real heroism and adventure here, of risks being taken and friendships being made. You wind up caring about the characters, something movies are meant to do every time out but that's become so rare in comic book movies that it feels like a foreign concept when you see it here.
Because these characters aren't real. No movie characters are. But fiction's job is to breathe life for a moment into words and gestures that become as real people to us, and to let us project ourselves into those lives and places and situations to feel things we didn't expect. It makes you expand, and relate, and identify. It makes you wonder.