After two swings and misses with “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” DC Comics and movie producer Warner Bros. needed a movie to right a sinking ship, or risk their entire cinematic universe collapsing before it even really got going. Thankfully, “Wonder Woman” turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Led by stellar acting from Gal Gadot (who plays Diana Prince, also known as the titular character) and Chris Pine (who portrays Steve Trevor), the movie proved to be a breath of fresh air for fans put off by DC’s previous attempts at bringing notable comic book legends to life on the big screen. The film also received considerable praise for having both a female protagonist and female director, Patty Jenkins, and definitely proved that a good superhero movie about a woman is possible. Unfortunately, there was a rather large problem that almost ruined the entire movie: it’s third act.
Yes, Wonder Woman was a good superhero film, but it had the potential to be a great movie. Up until the third act, the movie had gotten almost everything right. Gadot played the main character perfectly, really selling the idea that Wonder Woman had spent her entire life on an isolated island, having never seen civilization (or men) until Steve Trevor (and it can’t be emphasized enough how good of a job Pine did with this role) crashed his plane right in front of her. The chemistry between Pine and Gadot was great, as Trevor told Prince about the ongoing ‘war to end all wars,’ prompting her to decide to go with him to put a stop to it. This is where the major theme of the movie comes into play. Prince believes that humanity is good, and wouldn’t fight to such an extent unless a dark, otherworldly force (in this case Ares, the Greek god of war who had been introduced in the movie's opening minutes) was corrupting it. Trevor is skeptical of her views and naivety, but keeps it to himself.
Jenkins does a magnificent job spinning a tale about the horrors of war. Prince and Trevor are joined by a motley gang of washouts and set off to single handedly end World War I. Prince is nothing but optimistic; once she kills Ares, humanity will stop fighting and everything will be okay. She holds none of the withdrawals about the mission that the others do. However, as the movie goes on, and she witnesses horror after horror, her optimism starts to wane. War is a horrible thing, and Jenkins makes this abundantly clear to the audience: displaying the effects of PTSD, frightened and wounded soldiers scraping for a glimmer of hope while they hunker down on the front lines, horrific weapons (a strain of mustard gas that the Germans create is actually a central plot point of the film), and even the massacre of an innocent town of civilians. This may sound overly bleak, but Jenkins is able to throw in just enough humor and action to keep the viewers thoroughly entertained and upbeat, without ruining the deeper undertones of the movie.
Prince’s harsh awakening to reality culminates when she finally manages to track down and kill German General Erich Ludendorff, whom she was certain was Ares. To her shock and appalment, the soldiers do not stop fighting after his death. The Germans carry on with a plan to drop a chemical bomb on Allied territory, which would kill millions and bring about a swift reversal of the war for the Central Powers. Prince can’t fathom that humans could be this vile without outside influence, and her subsequent exchange with Trevor drives home a point the movie appeared to have been trying to make the whole time:
Prince: I killed him, why are they doing this? Why are they still fighting?
Trevor: Because maybe it's them! Maybe people aren't always good, Ares or no Ares. Maybe it's just who they are.
It’s as if the movie is crying, ‘Does anyone get it yet? Humans aren’t the same! They argue, they fight, and sometimes they’ll disagree so strongly that they’re willing to kill each other.’ That’s a powerful message, especially given the setting, as some historians see World War I as an arbitrarily unnecessary conflict that quickly became one of the most deadly of all time.
Unfortunately, this is where the movie royally screwed up.
The obvious path for the movie to take would have been to drive home the message that war sucks and then send the heroes off on one last desperate attempt to foil the Germans, (the events take place in late 1918, as German high command was trying to surrender, so if they stop the plane with the bomb then the war will still be over). They would naturally succeed at stopping the plane, but at the cost of Trevor’s life, which would signify the end of Wonder Woman’s separation from the horrors of mankind. That would have been a fantastic movie. It would have made some very powerful statements about warfare and human nature, while still presenting the audience with an enjoyable plot about a superheroine. This was the first superhero movie solely about a female, and it had been written excellently. Wonder Woman was a likable protagonist, and never did the movie feel like it was trying too hard to shove it in the viewers’ faces that she was female, a fallacy some modern movies have made in the name of being inclusive.
Alas, that was not to be. Instead, Ares does appear, having been disguised as someone else the whole time. This might have been a better plot twist had the audience not seen it coming. The movie had made it blatantly obvious that Prince was misguided in her belief that Ludendorff was Ares, which left two options: either there was no Ares, or he was someone else. Unfortunately, the writers decided to go with option number two. He mocks Diana for awhile, goes off on some tangent about being the god of knowledge and not war, and then the two proceed to do the most stereotypical action at the end of every superhero movie ever: they have a big, CGI-filled fight. Explosions are everywhere, and the characters move so fast that one could barely tell what was even going on. Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to stop the plane, telling Diana he loves her, though she can’t hear him because her ears are ringing from all the explosions. That was the best part of the ending: his sacrifice, but it was rather curious that they omitted her being able to hear him state he loved her, just to have her realize that was what he said no more than two minutes later. Diana defeats Ares, and the humans stop fighting.
The inclusion of Ares as a physical villain- and not some MacGuffin that Prince was desperately clinging onto as her last hope for the good in humanity- was the film’s biggest mistake. Though he does try and claim that the humans were fighting on their own accord, he confesses to nudging them in the right direction, which only serves to prove Prince right and Trevor wrong. Humans aren’t as bad as everyone thinks. It can still all be rainbows and sunshine as long as there isn’t some fiendish god hiding around the corner, meddling in their affairs. Sure enough, once Ares is gone, the humans stop fighting. (Though, it should be noted that perhaps they were just purely exhausted by that point, and Ares’ defeat had nothing to do with it. Regardless, it does not help the third act’s case.) “Wonder Woman” spent the first two acts building up beautiful, brutally down to earth themes and morals. It’s a shame that the third act had to take those ideas, wad them up into a paper ball, and toss them out the window in the name of sticking to the tried-and-true superhero movie formula. It’s become a bit of a trope that every superhero flick needs to end with some grandiose punchout. For awhile, it really looked like this film was going to break that trope.
This was not a bad movie. It was fun to watch, and many would agree that it’s the best DC Extended Universe film yet, but it had a golden opportunity to be something more than just a superhero movie. It looked like it was going to make a true statement.
It really should have.