I really want to talk about the No Man's Land scene, except I feel like I can't. If you haven't seen Wonder Woman, I would very much like you to experience the scene as fresh as possible; if you have seen Wonder Woman, there's nothing for me to say. And yet I really want to talk about it, or at least allude to how wonderfully it works, from start to finish: how you start to anticipate, from the little look on Diana's (Gal Gadot) face that she's not going to let this slide, and this clearly means that an "ohhhh shiiiit" moment is in the offing; how director Patty Jenkins has waited not just until this scene, but until exactly the moment that anticipation erupts into action to let us see Diana in the full glory of the very awesome costume these films have designed for her (and I mean, sure, we already saw it in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - it was a great moment there, too - but there it was a fan moment, and here it's a character moment); how the film uses a pitch-perfect blend of close-ups and vast aerial shots, of regular speed and dramatic slow-downs, to allow us to attend to the rich physicality of the action scene that follows, and the vivid poses Gadot strikes throughout, every one of them as stately and iconic as a comic book splash page.

Basically, I want to talk about how the No Man's Land scene is everything, literally absolutely every last thing that every comic book movie should always be aspiring to. It is gorgeously composed by Jenkins cinematographer Matthew Jensen to make Wonder Woman (never so named within the film) seems as much larger than life as can be managed, it is thick with emotional and thematic resonance, it pulses with operatic life thanks to Rupert Gregson-Williams's wonderfully bombastic score (with a big assist from the wonderful heavy metal Wonder Woman theme that Gregson-Williams's mentor Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL wrote for Batman v Superman). It gives us a striking image of this hero as both a concerned moral actor as well as something so much bigger than human; she is god, she is myth, she is icon. It's a scene whose pure comic book magic is on par with the nighttime flight around Metropolis in the 1978 Superman, and... I don't know, surely something since then, in all the goddamn comic book movies we've had in the last 40 years. That one big aerial long take in The Avengers, I guess, and that more or less taps me out.

If I say that nothing else in Wonder Woman matches or tops that scene, I'm not saying anything that slights the film. Whole entire summers go by without even one movie coming up with a sequence that's so much everything good and beautiful about popcorn movies as the No Man's Land scene. And if you take everything else but that scene, you're still left with a damn good popcorn movie, easily the best comic book movie since... well, if Logan hadn't just come out a few months ago, it would be an impressively long time since we had a comic book movie this good. And anyway, Logan kind of doesn't count.

One of the biggest reasons for Wonder Woman's success, I think, is how self-contained it is. Even the one overt nod to the greater DC film universe (the opening and closing scenes find Diana receiving a note from Batman) is massaged by screenwriter Allan Heinberg into something that, if you didn't know that Batman v Superman had existed and Justice League was yet to exist, would just feel like the kind of random late-chronology framework that has been used by a thousand biopics. All the rest tells one story, and it tells it well: on the hidden island of Themyscira, populated by the dying Greek gods by a race of powerful, functionally immortal female warriors, called Amazons, lives the child princess Diana, first seen adorably mimicing the warriors in their attack poses, in the best imaginable one-image summary of the primal, magnetic appeal of superhero iconography to the very young. She grows to adulthood under the watchful eye of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), trained as the finest warrior on the island by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). The Amazons stand as bulwark against the day that the last god, the warmongerin Ares, shows his face again, and it finally seems to have happened in 1918, when a German biplane piloted by American-born British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the Themysciran beach. All innocent optimism and moral fire, Diana decides to disobey Hippolyta and bring Steve back to the world of men, where she intends to take the fight directly to Ares, who she's certain must be responsible for the wanton, pointless slaughter of the First World War.

There's more to it than that, of course, but the film really just has the one neat and tidy arc: an innocent abroad learning to temper her innocence, but not the strength of her moral character, in the cauldron of trench warfare. It's much more of a WWI film than a superhero movie (even more so than Captain America: The First Avenger was a WWII movie), and if you took out the mythological & comic book trappings but left Diana the character, and Gadot's astoundingly layered performance, you'd have a film left that was still largely satisfying for most of the same reasons.

On the other hand, it seems clear that at least part of why it's so good is that Jenkins clearly takes the privilege and responsibility of making the first-ever Wonder Woman feature film extremely seriously, and has what's clearly a fan's enthusiasm for getting to put all these iconic images together. This is a movie that's madly in love with the character, and desperate to get her right: and not that I want to bag on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman more than they've been bagged on (I generally like both movies, anyway), it's bracing and wonderful that the franchise which brought us moody, angsty Superman and bitter, angry Batman has turned around to give us Wonder Woman as a figure of steel will, great intelligence and empathy, and a terrific badass on top of it. The No Man's Land scene is hardly the only point where Jenkins and Jensen assemble some beautiful ripped-from-the-pages composition, or where Gregson-Williams graces the film with a stirringly robust musical passage - Wonder Woman has easily the best score for any superhero movie since Man of Steel, if not all the way back the glory days when Danny Elfman was scoring Batman pictures.

Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry, both of them giving career-peak performances (Pine is essentially playing an unironic version of his egocentric prince from Into the Woods, and somehow it works amazingly well). There's not a bad member of the cast to be found, in fact: Wright struggles more than she ought to with the film's dubious decision to have all the Amazons speak with Gadot's Israeli accent, but her facial expressions make up for it, and the rest of the film is made up of the likes of a snarling, cartoon German played to the hilt by Danny Huston, or Steve's dryly sarcastic secretary played by Lucy Davis (greatly missed in the years since The Office wrapped up its short, stellar life). Even an actor of such gravity as David Thewlis shows up and seems to take what he's doing quite seriously while still having fun with the part. It's a funny movie: not quippy in the way of the Marvel films, but more about letting the actors have playful beats and reactions and sexual innuendo that feels more silly and affable than dirty-minded.

For all this, Wonder Woman still has to pay the piper: it's still a 2010s comic book movie, which means that yes, there's a climax where two people have a gigantic CGI-aided fistfight with... are those beams of light? Yes, they certainly are. The acting helps it a bit, but only so much. It's also a bit pacey; 141 minutes is a generous running time for the amount of plot we get, and it's not hard to start coming up with places where a little bit of tightening could have helped (particularly when Steve starts recruiting his band of misfits, themselves the one place where this film feels not only similar to but also weaker than Captain America: The First Avenger). Still, for any film in Wonder Woman's situation to turn out so well is a miracle and a half. It's fun, it's moving - even tearjerking, in places - and it routinely uses speed-ramping to suggest what a film by Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the story and produced) would look like if Zack Snyder had actual talent and a sense for how to move the audience through a space. I doubt very much that a comic book movie in the current market has a chance to be a legitimate masterpiece (unless it's actively working to subvert the genre, e.g. Logan), but Wonder Woman is the closest thing that I can imagine us getting, and it's quite possibly the most enjoyable, iconic, comic bookey comic book movie of the 2010s.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)