Why Wonder Woman is the new Indiana Jones
More than a superhero movie, this is an adventure film, and a really, really good one
I'm not sure why — it might be partly the period in which it's set — but watching Wonder Woman reminded me of what it felt like to watch the Indiana Jones movies for the first time. The movie offers a similarly engaging palette of action and adventure and romance, plus a hilarious fish-out-of-water story that (unlike most such stories) develops some dramatic stakes.
It's the bid for seriousness amid the absurdity that really sells the thing. Diana is deadly earnest about her mission — brandishing her sword on a proper London street — and by the end of the film, Chris Pine's character, her Indy-adjacent romantic interest Steve, is earnest too. As arcs go, this is simple but effective stuff. "I'm tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing," director Patty Jenkins has said. This shows in every beautiful, genre-respecting frame. Rather than skew "dark" or "experimental" like so many superhero films, Wonder Woman is maniacally straightforward. Nobility is real. Self-sacrifice is worthy. Jenkins calls the nihilistic meta-winking that characterizes so many superhero films as a concession to "what the kids like," but "we have to do the real stories now," she says. "The world is in crisis."
It's amusing to call a silly superhero movie that features a Lasso of Truth a "real story," and yet the rapport Jenkins attempts with an older, more idealistic version of Hollywood works. Gadot and Pine have a poignant, funny, chemistry that belongs to a tradition that's closer to Casablanca than Baywatch, and Wonder Woman is crystal clear on the difference between good and evil without becoming didactic or dreary. That's thanks in no small measure to the supporting cast — Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Ewen Bremner do a lot to leaven the film. But it's mainly the work of Gal Gadot, who rivals Harrison Ford as a charismatic lead with enough presence and humor to anchor idealism and make hope palatable again.
This is, of course, an origin story and a superhero one at that. Gadot plays Diana, a bloodthirsty warrior raised by Amazons who loves fighting and wants, more than anything, to end fighting forever. If there's a contradiction embedded there — one echoed by the "war to end all wars" in which she intervenes — that's half the fun. There's a certain fizzy lack of responsibility living in that unchallenged idealism that the film happily indulges.
That will change. Diana's exposure to the horrors of World War I is quick and gruesome. What saves the movie from becoming a stylish bloodbath peppered by hopeful platitudes is the fact that (like Rogue One) it makes real sacrifices. The film starts by depicting Diana's appetite for fighting as less a vocation than an exciting game. We see her as a child in Themyscira, play-sparring and enticing her aunt, General Antiope (played by a fearsomely inspiring Robin Wright), to train her. But by the time the climax hits, she's gone through several moral as well as mythic adjustments, some of which she handles very badly indeed.
Diana understands her mission to be killing Ares, the god of war. It's a mission Steve, a spy, doesn't know what to do with. Neither do his buddies, who they recruit to help them deal with a different matter. For most of the film, their mutual incomprehension when it comes to how they understand war (and their place in it) is a really lovely source of tension. This is a great screenplay — well-plotted, perfectly paced, with stakes accruing right up until the end. That said, it doesn't quite nail its own ending; this is to some degree a film about faith, and the question of whether Diana's belief system is right or wrong, metaphorical or literal, gets sort of … fudged.
It has other problems. This is a movie with rave reviews and plenty of controversies (not least of which is the fact that Gal Gadot served in the IDF and vocally supported Israel's invasion of Gaza). While some villains are interestingly humanized, others get stripped down to basics in ways that feel more manipulative than effective. And as intriguing as the villain turned out to be, I didn't think the final confrontation quite made sense.
Still, as a film, it does an awful lot of things right. The Amazons look sun-baked and strong, not sexy and made-up. The action sequences are exciting and dynamic without being too long or impossible to follow. The special effects are great and (when it comes to the Lasso) funny. The dialogue ranges from competent to stunning — Steve and Diana's conversations, which could so easily stay in the "joke-about-something-you've-never seen" domain, routinely go deeper and sadder. A scene in which they dance almost elevates this superhero movie into a war movie.
Above all, though (and this is why Diana reminds me so much of Indiana Jones, despite that franchise's flaws) it's just truly, absorbingly, thrillingly fun. It doesn't wink at you, or go meta, or tweak the genre to expose the dark underbelly of power. More than a superhero movie, this is an adventure film, and a really, really good one.