Wonder Woman: An Old-Fashioned Epic with Modern Sensibilities

Wonder Woman is a throwback to classic superhero movies and war melodramas like Casablanca, but with a very smart feminist touch.

This article contains Wonder Woman spoilers.

There is a scene almost exactly midway through Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman that divides the picture. It’s a before and after moment, one in which we transition from watching a young woman learning her place in a chaotic world to then bearing witness at the Wonder Woman finally come to life and made flesh. A pop culture icon who after the better part of a century is at last taking her spotlight and running with it all the way to Germany.

It’s a transcendent moment that will likely forever be enshrined in fan culture the same way that Christopher Reeve catching Margot Kidder in one hand and a helicopter in the other is, or how Michael Keaton hissing to a thug, “I’m Batman,” has become scripture. But the trick isn’t just about audiences finally getting to see Gal Gadot in the Wonder Woman costume doing battle; it’s that the entire movie has built up to this moment, and it is very much the payoff of both fan expectations and an expertly crafted passion project. One that was unconcerned with setting up sequels, teasing villains six years out, or even just winking at the fanbase by having Samuel L. Jackson crack a smile.

In fact, other than the cute (and superfluous) bookends set in 2017, Wonder Woman is a decided throwback to when superhero movies and summer spectacles were allowed to stand on their own. Where the most thrilling moment is the grandeur before your eyes, and not in a fleeting post-credits sting. Like the aforementioned Superman: The Movie, or even Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Wonder Woman is a full cinematic meal that’s informed by greater old-fashioned influences than Dick Donner and Marlon Brando. Albeit, it is now being viewed through a modern and refreshingly feminist prism.

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When we spoke with Patty Jenkins last March during a Wonder Woman edit bay visit, I saw a rough cut of the No Man’s Land scene where Diana runs across a battlefield after being told that no man can even try. And the director explicitly talked about what makes the scene so different—and ultimately satisfying—from other superhero action sequences.

“Not a lot of people understood what I wanted with No Man’s Land,” Jenkins said after screening the scene. “It’s like, ‘What is she going to do? How many bullets can she block?’ And I was saying it’s not about that. It’s not about action or fighting. It’s about her. It’s about ‘I’m going to do this thing’ and then getting her way across…. As a result, I storyboarded and treated it very much like I would a dramatic scene. It’s this rhythm, you know?”

Jenkins isn’t wrong. Unlike most superhero movies these days, and perhaps most notoriously those directed by her DCEU peer Zack Snyder, the action in Wonder Woman is not about how much CG-exhaustion the audience can be distracted by (or buried in); the fighting for Jenkins is usually told from the perspective of Diana Prince and informs her journey. Whether it be the horror of seeing war for the first time when Germans arrive on her mythical paradise island, Themyscira, the thrill of self-actualization discovered with every mortar blast that bounces off her shield in Belgium, or the acute pain that comes with realizing violence and fighting only begets more destruction and death at the end of the picture… it is always part of Diana Prince’s story.

So while the dazzle of action is very much up to our modern cutting-edge standards, the emphasis on drama, character, and classical storytelling is not. These elements are as old-fashioned as the many other types of movies that are clear influences on Wonder Woman, even if they’re ones not so blatantly obvious to the most comic book devout.

Throughout Wonder Woman, I was reminded time and again of old school Hollywood melodramas set in the backdrops of war, and typically World War II at that. While the film wisely moves its conflict to the morally ambiguous final days of November 1918, when the first Great War to end all wars dragged on with nearly 10 million dead (counting only soldiers), the picture is nonetheless informed by the 1940s era which first gave life to the Wonder Woman character in comic books.

Like 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Wonder Woman is a period piece. But unlike The First Avenger, it is in no hurry to rush its story toward a modern day team-up movie, nor is it afraid to actually embrace the cinematic lexicon of its roots.

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Wonder Woman moves like a ‘40s adventure story at times, with a hero—or in this case, heroine—realizing there is a greater sense of duty and service that calls her to take her head out of the sand and to join the fight. This is implicit in the scene where Diana saves the life of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy who inadvertently crash landed his biplane on Themyscira.

Visually, the image of Diana leaning over a dazed and confused Steve while on a beach is straight out of From Here to Eternity (1953), a WWII-set melodrama that among other things features Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making passionate love in the Hawaiian surf on the eve of war and the Pearl Harbor attack. While this sequence is not a necessarily romantic one in Wonder Woman (or at least no more so than the also similar moment in Disney’s The Little Mermaid), it signals Jenkins’ desire to make an old-fashioned epic that winds up to the grimness of a war that will challenge and perhaps destroy her characters. Like Eternity, not everyone in Wonder Woman walks away from this historic catastrophe.

Indeed, Wonder Woman is littered with allusions to these kind of movies, and the fellow films they inspired, such as Steven Spielberg’s crackerjack entertainments in the Indiana Jones saga. This becomes most visible in a London scene where spies follow Diana and Steve into an alleyway. The actual bullet-catching confrontation intentionally echoes another iconic sequence in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, but it also is evocative of Raiders of the Lost Ark where bespectacled German spies stalk fedora-adorned heroes and their female companions, only now it is the said female companion who is the hero, and the masculine fedora is a damsel.

This reversal of expectation becomes most pronounced in the movie’s finale where Steve Trevor must board a plane that’ll take him away from Diana forever. This is an unsubtle and fascinating inverse of the iconic ending to the greatest wartime melodrama of them all: Casablanca (1942). In that masterpiece, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine forces a reluctant Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) onto a plane that’ll take her out of the city of Casablanca and Rick’s life forevermore. She was married to a dead French Resistance fighter (Paul Henreid) when she met Rick, but her husband turned out not to be dead, and though she loves Rick more, her spouse needs her and Rick can best serve the cause of the war by operating as a spy right here in North Africa, alone… well other than for the delightful company of Claude Rains, of course.

In Wonder Woman, it is the man who must get on the plane because, as he happily tells Diana, he can save this day and their current cause, but Diana can go on to save the world. As Ilsa loves Rick, so does Steve love Diana, but the problems of a few little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, so he gives himself up to a bigger cause, which in this case involves self-immolation.

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It’s the kind of grand movie moment that is so devoid of snark or self-awareness that it would never risk occurring in a modern Marvel Studios production, and its earnest classicalism allows Jenkins’ movie to stand apart.

As Jenkins told me in March, “I ended up being very ‘Superman meets Casablanca. [Those] came up a lot, and Indiana Jones. It was those three films where I was like, ‘It’s a classic film. We are making a classic film.’ We care about humor, we care about epic, we care about heroism, we care about arc and story, and [we] make it elegant.”

She accomplished all of that, but she added one other element: She made it modern.

All of these classical Hollywood influences are more than welcome in Wonder Woman; they are a blessed relief from the blockbuster drudgery that comprised the May 2017 releases. But for all its old-fashionedness, Wonder Woman is not antiquated or regressive. It updates all of these ideas with a sense of 21st century femininity.

Is Patty Jenkins’ movie an old school melodrama and even romance in the context of a larger war story? Yes, but this time it is the woman who is the hero, realizing she can’t refuse the call to action and remain an isolationist. Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) might be more than a wee bit wary of men—she does tell her daughter, “They do not deserve you”—but she’d likely have gotten along pretty well with Casablanca’s Rick. In that movie’s first act he states, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Like Rick, Diana learns that isolationism doesn’t work, and the war will come to you whether you want it or not. But it is her strength and conviction that can tip the balance, as opposed to Steve. Steve dies a hero’s death, but Diana lives a superhero’s life. She will make the difference, and she makes it through traits that are traditionally associated with the feminine: compassion, rationality, and empathy.

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Whereas Zack Snyder’s meatheaded version of Superman snapped his villain’s neck at the first opportunity in Man of Steel (2013), Diana spares the life of Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), a German scientist whose weapons have likely killed tens of thousands if not more. She also comes to the conclusion that this is not a war about victors or losers, but one about those suffering on all sides, like the refugees she saw at the battlefield of No Man’s Land. Victory is to make the war simply stop. Period.

This is not normally the goal of classic wartime melodramas where winning is everything, but that is the secret to Wonder Woman’s biggest victory of all: making a classic that is entirely appropriate to modern feminist ideals. And it does so while looking good as those bullets and mortar shells bounce off her bracelets like so many impotent tweets. It’s a scene built to last. For generations.

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