To the delight and relief of fans and critics alike, Wonder Woman, the latest film in the DC Extended Universe and the first woman-led superhero film in 12 years, opened to a hugely positive reception and is set to gross close to $100m in its opening weekend (a new record for a film directed by a woman). Much has been written on the immense pressure the film was under to exceed expectations, as well as the historical and cultural weight on its shoulders as one of the rare blockbusters where a woman is front and center. Throughout all of that discussion, it could be hard to overlook the qualities Wonder Woman possesses as a film, separate from the shadow of the industry. Many critics have noted the film’s optimistic tone and the positivity of its heroine and moral center, a marked contrast from the DCEU’s previous output which had prized more conflicted heroes. It is in that intense commitment to Diana Prince’s message, and the ways she presents it to the world, that puts Wonder Woman head and shoulders above its competition, and establishes her as the true icon of the DCEU.
The power of the superhero as a cultural force is rooted in its iconography: Superman’s cape and the instantly recognizable symbol on his chest, Batman’s pointed ears and utility belt, even Aquaman’s trident or Thor’s hammer or the Iron Man suit. Designs may change, and they have done so radically throughout the decades as tastes evolved and trends made an impact, but the basic mold stays the same. For much of the DCU’s run, the films have seemed tentative to embrace the vibrancy of their iconography. The colours in Superman’s outfit aren't as vibrant as previous iterations to suit the tone of Man of Steel; Ben Affleck’s Batsuit amped up the muscles and emphasized grit over symbolism; even Lex Luthor, arguably the most recognizable villain in Superman lore, morphed into a Mark Zuckerberg clone (a decision some fans are still fighting over). There’s nothing inherently wrong with making changes to such iconography to suit a filmmaker’s vision or a shift in tone, but coupled with the decidedly more cynical direction taken by the movies, the DCU couldn’t help but feel disconnected from the source material so many love.
This is where Wonder Woman, both the film and the character, rise to the top. Diana’s iconic costume is vibrant, proudly colorful and instantly recognizable. Its most famous elements – the lasso of truth, the Grecian shield, the W-shaped headpiece – are given pride of place and shot with such love by director Patty Jenkins. When Diana steps onto No Man’s Land and strides across the battlefield, bouncing bullets off her cuffs and standing against machine gun fire, the film fully embraces the image of Diana that has inspired countless women throughout the decades. It’s a moment of feminine power, clad in distinct iconography, and the film embraces that earnest appeal. There’s no shame in Jenkins’s delight to broadcast this.
Outside of Wonder Woman as a specific image, the film also excels in its approach to Diana’s morals. The golden age of superheroes, particularly for DC, were defined by their easily digested, often starkly simple moralistic take on the world: Good versus evil, hope against darkness, truth, justice, and the American way. While further shades of complexity were added, these comics were mostly intended for children and saw no issue in teaching those readers a lesson on heroism. Such notions are often written off as cheesy or childish, and in our attempts to make the characters more suited to adult audiences and expectations, the optimism has been left to the side. Jenkins herself took a stand against the notion of “cheesy” being a bad thing in a recent interview with the New York Times:
"Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis."
She’s not wrong either. She later goes on to say that she "wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind." This is what makes Wonder Woman so striking and gives it the edge over her male counterparts. Jenkins isn't afraid to revel in the inherent silliness of the genre, from the Amazon swords and sandals chosen one fighting to the dress-up montage and awkward culture clash as Diana tries to exit a building while carrying a sword half her size. There’s joy in watching Diana discovering her powers, and while she is weighed down by the responsibilities of her position, she finds strength in that nobility. It is not a dour journey, even amidst the darkness, and that's because its hero lacks the internal turmoil others have had to deal with.
Jenkins is also aware of Diana’s status as an icon for women and young girls. A scene early in the film where young Diana watches the Amazons practice their fighting and joins in on the sidelines evokes images of every girl who grew up reading the comics or watching the TV series and played along. Jenkins understands how rare it is to see these stories on such a scale, and she allows the film to revel in that scope.
Wonder Woman is a hero and one who isn’t afraid to be heroic. Her narrative isn’t bogged down in ponderous grit or the exhausting explosions of concrete that plagued both Batman and Superman’s turns in the DCU. This is the first movie in the franchise to truly understand why Diana is a hero and the inherent value in telling that story. For our protagonist, her motivation is simple – love – and Wonder Woman refuses to reject the supposed cheesiness of such things, instead seeing the power in it. After decades of waiting, we finally got a Wonder Woman movie, and one that wholeheartedly understands why the simple symbols and morals of heroes matter. It is in that simplicity that allows Wonder Woman to be the icon the DCU desperately needed.