Spoilers for Wonder Woman.
Few would deny that Wonder Woman is a good film. It’s the best entry in the DC Extended Universe by a wide margin, offering up some intense action underscored by impressive central characterisation – Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor gives us the best superhero love interest ever put to screen. In fact, Patty Jenkins’ direction is so assured that she manages to make the character’s electric theme from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice work in a 1917-set adventure.
However, that only gets us two-thirds of the way. Just as undeniable as basic quality is that the ending’s a major deflation, letting down Diana Prince and Trevor, and reaffirming several systemic problems with the franchise.
While criticisms with previous DCEU films all arise well before the third act, it was their finales that are hit the hardest; Man of Steel had Superman allow the death of thousands before breaking his morals to save a handful of lives, Batman v Superman repeated that collateral damage complaint while rapidly trying to bring together its multitude of themes, and Suicide Squad fell prey to the most generic and clichéd comic book movie finales (and whole lot worse besides). In that company, Wonder Woman‘s problems aren’t as prolific – it doesn’t undo the strength of what came before and the points it’s making are at least clear and profound – but it’s regardless a shame the climax isn’t executed in a very effective way.
What Wonder Woman’s Ending Means
Before getting into where Jenkins’ film stumbles, we first need to understand what it’s trying to do. And, on paper, Wonder Woman definitely had the potential to deliver one of the most thematically rich finales of any superhero movie.
Diana’s introduced as a headstrong princess with a desire to fight and strong understanding of right and wrong, two traits fuelled by mentor figure Antiope that eventually motivate her to leave for the world of man and its destructive war with Steve Trevor to find villain Ares, an overarching threat that defines her creation and the film’s main narrative. That’s pretty standard, but from the very start every scene is primarily focused on establishing one of these areas, meaning when they do culminate it’s together as part of a seamless whole. Diana’s discovery of mankind and its 1900s-era prejudice only further motivate her to the position of a protector, which is directly challenged by Ares’ meditation on humanity’s innate flaws.
Best of all, Wonder Woman takes its time to reveal the true moral, with the fact she herself was actually created to be the Godkiller teased in the first act but held back until the end alongside the Ares rug-pull. And, like all good twists, the villain reveal works on the double-whammy logic of first presenting General Ludendorff as the God of War before a totally unexpected swerve – he’s really Sir Patrick Morgan. But it’s not just an identity twist – the Allied Lord calling for peace actually being a creature powered by destruction sees the binary presumption of World War I as good versus evil rejigged into the part of something bigger; as the audience knows – and Ares believes – that armistice will only lead to more conflict (the even more deadly World War II). The final battle is thus one of whether humanity is doomed to destroy itself or worthy of saving.
Grounding this to Diana’s story is Steve Trevor’s death. Like Wonder Woman, he’s an outsider, leading to the pair forming a quick, believable romantic bond but also giving him the same sense of selflessness; when it comes to stopping Doctor Posion’s gas he personally takes the threat out of harm’s way, detonating the plane and himself with it. For Diana, this crystalizes Ares’ debate, yet while her emotional side views Steve’s sacrifice as a symptom of man’s inherent ills, his love ultimately shows her their potential nobility. This allows her to wield the power of Zeus to defeat Ares and goes on to define her all the way through to the time of Batman v Superman.
It all sounds pretty great, right? Big, bold, bright and really using the period setting for all it’s worth. And there’s surely an alt-reality version of the film where the weight we’ve discussed is fully delivered on. Unfortunately, due to poor editing choices and a general fumbling of emotion, as released it doesn’t quite fly.