Wonder Woman captured the attention and approbation of hordes of moviegoers interested in seeing a heroic female fantasy character. It wasn’t personally meaningful to me the way that it seems to have been to a lot of people. I think the movie was pretty and entertaining but that, like many others that don’t have a well-crafted core story, it could have been thematically stronger.
Keep reading for more on the movie’s many possible themes and some questions I had (possibly because I’m not familiar with the source material) and things I liked, along with a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Themes in Wonder Woman
What was the main theme?
I really thought it was going to be something like “be the change you wish to see in the world“, since there was a very significant-sounding conversation about “doing nothing” vs. “doing something” if you see a problem in the world that needs fixing.
The theme could have been something about following your heart or making decisions independently in the face of opposition. Diana stubbornly insists on going to fight the war rather than standing aside as her mother advises her to do, but “just do it” is not really the main theme, either.
The salient thematic message in the finale was the rather vague and sentimental idea that “all you need is love” or perhaps “love conquers all“. It’s not clear whether the necessary type of love is selfless, universal Christian love for a naturally flawed race of humans, or the very personal romantic love for an attractive member of the opposite sex. It seems like the focus should be one or the other, but you could make a case for either one:
Universal love is the answer: After turning the other cheek and not killing the defeated and pathetic but clearly evil chemist, Diana leaps into the air, her body forming a cross shape in the sky. Salvation can’t be earned, only given as a gift. Diana’s function is to deliver that salvation by killing Ares, whether or not humanity deserves to be saved.
Romantic love is the answer: The thought that gives Diana the power to become the salvation of humanity is the memory of Steve saying “I love you” right before flying straight up into the sky on a suicide mission.
Maybe the theme was that even flawed humans like Steve (who confesses he and his friends are liars, smugglers, and murderers) are capable of great acts, thus humans are worthy of love and salvation.
Maybe the main theme was meant to be a feminist one such as “women can kick butt (and look good doing it)” or “there’s no particular reason men should always get to tell women what to do“. Those themes are definitely in there, but they don’t drive the plot and aren’t consistently highlighted in the dialogue.
Then there’s a darker, more political issue: of whether it ever makes sense to kill for peace rather than compromise. In other words, if Diana kills “bad guys”, is she just perpetuating the war? She certainly acts as though she thinks it’s okay to kill to defend your people.
This review suggests that the point is that religious beliefs shouldn’t be weaponized (good luck with that).
The world isn’t morally black-and-white. Diana believes staunchly in truth and straightforward action, but the world is full of shades of grey. That could have been the whole movie right there: it could have been a coming-of-age tale where Diana finds out that everything she was taught was totally inaccurate or a lie, and she has to learn the hard way that she must apply her admirable but simplistic principles in ways more subtle than she ever imagined.
If I had to pick, maybe I would choose as the theme of the movie the self-deprecating toast: “May we get what we want; may we get what we need; but may we never get what we deserve.” In a world of mighty Greek gods who could easily extinguish them, the best humans can hope for is to be tolerated. In a world that may or may not have a god or gods depending on whom you ask, we are still lucky if we are treated well. Much in life is earned or at least earnable, but then, much is not.
My Beat Sheet for Wonder Woman
Diana is working in a fancy office at the Louvre, where a Wayne Industries truck delivers a briefcase containing a photo.
A child version of Diana is running joyfully around the island. She wants to fight.
Adult Diana’s mother does not want her to fight but the general of the Amazons is secretly teaching her. We learn that the women are waiting for a time when the last god, Ares, will need to be killed with a special, secret god-killing weapon that is hidden on the island. Diana learns that she has abilities other Amazons don’t have; actually, she’s not an Amazon, but her mother doesn’t want her to find out what she is.
Steve the American spy/pilot, trying to escape the Germans of WWI with a notebook full of formulas for biological weapons, crash lands in the water near the hidden island and Diana saves him from drowning, kinda like Ariel saves Eric in The Little Mermaid.
Steve wants to go back and give the notebook to his boss to help the war effort because that’s his job. Diana becomes convinced that the war is proof that the Amazons need to go kill Ares.
Break Into Two
Diana steals the sword and the Lasso of Truth and offers to help Steve off the island if he will take her to Ares. (Steve agrees, fully knowing he has no idea how to “take her to Ares”.) Diana’s mother catches them trying to leave, but gives her daughter her blessing and the dead general’s iconic headband thingy.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Cut to central London, where the little boat has rather magically arrived in no time at all (as in Madagascar 3). Diana needs contemporary clothes. Steve’s rotund secretary points out that whatever she’s wearing, she’ll turn heads, and that glasses will make no difference. Steve accidentally takes her to a war meeting and tries to explain about the evil chemist’s notebook. The army guys are impressed when Diana can read the multilingual code, but they don’t want to attack because there’s a peace agreement in the works.
Steve decides to attack with just his buddies, so he goes off to collect a Moroccan and a Scot from a bar. Steve’s boss shows up with the secretary and offers to support Steve secretly from the office. A Native American smuggles Team Diana onto the continent.
Diana sees people in need of help. To recapture a town on the far side of the enemy lines, she strips off her disguise and leads a charge from the trenches. Lots of dramatic, slow-motion closeups of the warrior woman here. Bullets, sparks, wavy dark hair, yelling… the whole nine yards.
When the good-guy sniper proves unable to kill the bad-guy sniper in the town, Team Diana makes a shield platform and launches her onto a church tower, which collapses and kills the last of the enemies. Wonder Woman looks down in proud triumph. A photographer takes a photo of her and her war buddies in the town square. The town has a party, and Diana dances with Steve in the snow.
Bad Guys Close In
The chemist has given her boss a collection of magic pills that can make him super strong, and she’s remembered how to make a particularly deadly gas. He uses it on the German army guys who are planning to sign the peace agreement, chucking a bioweapon and only one gas mask (which won’t actually help anyone) into the room where they’re meeting.
All Is Lost
Team Diana finds out about a German party and cleverly infiltrates the castle where it’s taking place. Diana believes the German general is Ares and wants to kill him. Steve believes he can find out where the chemist’s weapons are. At the party, they manage to prevent each other from achieving their separate goals. Result: the Germans launch a bioweapon that kills everybody in the town Diana just saved.
Dark Night of the Soul
Steve thinks Diana is crazy for believing in Ares and her personal mission to kill the German guy, and she thinks Steve—and everybody else, not just the Germans—has been corrupted by Ares.
Break into Three
Diana goes to attack the German guy by herself. He uses one of his magic pills, but she manages to kill him anyway.
The war doesn’t end when “Ares” dies. Clearly that guy wasn’t Ares. Steve shows up again and suggests that maybe Ares doesn’t really exist; maybe humans just fight each other because that’s what humans do. Steve goes off to try to destroy the bioweapons.
Then the real Ares shows up. It’s Steve’s boss! Diana tries to use the god-killer sword on him, but it disintegrates, because the weapon for killing Ares was never a sword, it was Diana herself. Ares tries to talk her over onto his side. Humans don’t deserve to be saved; let’s you and me just kill them all so that the earth can be beautiful again. (He sounds like Agent Smith in The Matrix. Humans are a disease!)
When given the choice, however, Diana decides not to kill the evil chemist. Steve, meanwhile, has found the bioweapons, which are mounted on a plane about to take off for London. He tries to go explain his plan to Diana, but Ares has been beating her up and stuff has been exploding, so she can’t hear him. Steve flies the plane straight up and ignites it. Diana realizes how much she loves him, and/or humanity generally, and kills Ares.
Team Diana is relieved to still be alive, but Steve is gone. He’s in the photo that was taken in France, though. Diana the museum curator takes it out of the briefcase and remembers him fondly.
Questions I Have About Wonder Woman
Why is she a museum curator? Couldn’t we just have not had the frame story where she’s a museum curator? I don’t need to see her emailing Bruce Wayne. Wait, no, I get it—that’s to tie into the DC movie I didn’t see. I still think it was unnecessary. They could have put the end of the frame story after the credits.
Do these Amazons age or reproduce? There are no children or men on the island, and Diana says they need men to reproduce. To me that means that they don’t age and that their numbers must be shrinking over time because of accidents. If they weren’t just backstory, declining numbers would be an important problem. I think the queen should have thrown a line in about how because there were so few of them left, they couldn’t risk fighting a war that might not have been started by Ares.
Why weren’t Diana’s days as an Amazon presented as flashbacks? Putting the Amazons at the beginning of the movie, just because that’s where they are in the story chronologically, made them seem more important than they were. (I had this problem with Rogue One, too.) The island would have been more believable if it had been presented as a kind of happy dream or bittersweet memory.
Why couldn’t we have had more stuff about Hestia’s Lasso of Truth? It mostly just gets used as a kind of whip-style weapon, not to learn true facts or honest opinions. When captured by the Amazons, Steve tries hard to conceal the fact that he’s a spy (though I’m not really sure why he would), and he uses the lasso to prove to Diana that he is still going to fight even though his boss has told him not to.
Does Ares have the ability to lie to the Lasso of Truth? Maybe he just blocks it from affecting him, or maybe he’s telling the truth as he sees it. I really wasn’t sure what was going on there when he was using his white-blue lightning against the golden lasso.
Can Ares look like anyone? Did that one guy make a deal with the devil, or did Ares just possess him, or is he just Ares and not human at all? I’m confused. Actually, I think the movie would have been better if Ares hadn’t existed; if the point was for Diana to learn to understand and love the flawed human race, then the point would have been driven home more forcefully if there were no god of war at all (and no CGI battle where she vanquishes him).
Is Diana a god or a demi-god or what? I thought she wasn’t really made from clay and given life by Zeus because that seemed like a lie her mother told her to obscure her role as the god-killer; and surely she’s a god because only a god could kill another god. I also thought maybe this Diana was Diana/Artemis, one of the twelve really important Greek gods, in part because Artemis was a skilled hunter. In the DC Comics world, there seems to be more than one origin story, so Wonder Woman’s parentage and identity aren’t totally clear, but she’s definitely not Artemis.
What I Liked about Wonder Woman
The feminism wasn’t over-the-top like it was in Marvel’s Agent Carter or Timeless or The Legend of Tarzan. This whole movie could just have been more of that same exaggerated awful nonsense. It wasn’t.
Some liberties were definitely taken with Greek mythology somewhere along the line, but I liked the “moving painting” way in which that part of the story was shown on screen.
Diana is beautiful and womanly, innocent but fierce. The character is warm. We can care about her because she cares about everybody; she gives people the benefit of the doubt. She’s earnest. Moreover, she’s stubborn; that’s the opposite of spineless, and IMO spineless is the worst thing a character can be.
There were some funny lines; maybe not as many as I’d have liked, but some, and that’s important. This movie takes itself pretty seriously, but it isn’t dark or gritty. I didn’t like Skyfall. I didn’t like Logan. They’re depressing! Bring back more of this sunshine and laughter.
It’s easier to find fault than to praise, and I don’t want to find fault just for the sake of finding fault or to sound a contrasting note, but it’s still worth saying that I didn’t think this was a great movie because I would like to be able to say other movies are great that are better than this one.
For some people, it seems that Wonder Woman was great more or less because it was about a female warrior. For me, what makes a movie great is a finely tuned story. I’m not an expert on story, but like any number of other people on the internet, I have an opinion, and my opinion is this: The beginning was weighed down with too much backstory. The end was weighed down with too much CGI. The middle lacked the kind of anguish, despair, or time of somber reflection that would have allowed the character and viewers to absorb the movie’s core message. Worst of all, the movie didn’t seem to have a core message. If what matters to me is story, and this is how I see the story, I can’t call it a great movie.
Not everybody loved it. I think some of those who say they did are grading on a curve as this highly contentious review says. (The reviewer, whatever his faults, uses an impressive literary pun to praise the Israeli star: he says it was worth “waiting for Gadot”.)
Another review points out that the movie makes use of history to say that Americans are the good guys. Yeah, I noticed that, too. I often feel bad for contemporary Germans (and Russians), who must be darn sick of being depicted as villains.
Another review points out (among other things) that Diana doesn’t properly mourn the destruction of the town she saved. That bothered me quite a lot. I would have liked to see less time spent on Amazons doing pretend fighting on a magic island and more time spent on Europeans doing real fighting in Europe, because I’m way more capable of having emotions about Europeans. That was a real war, and the character didn’t really engage with the people in it as deeply as she should have.
2 Aug 2017 Edit
The more I think about it, the more it bothers me how Wonder Woman’s charge across the battlefield is undercut by what happens later. She saves the town, but everyone in it then dies because she and her team screw up. She’s naive, and the town pays the price. Charging up out of the trenches, saving the town, and taking that memorable group photo all simply goes to show that pride goeth before a fall. The triumph of that scene was false; it was worse than useless, it was proof of overconfidence. People are choosing to see that scene in isolation rather than as part of the story. If you see the scene as empowering, well, then, literally, more power to you, I guess, but I see the scene as proof of how wrong Diana was about the world and her place in it.