There’s a moment in 2017’s Wonder Woman that’s so inspiring, and so largely unprecedented, that it literally brought audiences to tears. It happened so many times that it became its own meme. It became a part of the experience. It’s the scene where Wonder Woman vaults out of a World War I trench and charges straight into enemy territory.
Leading up to that moment, we’d seen Gal Gadot’s Diana—the movie never actually calls her Wonder Woman—as a proud warrior woman who’d been brought up by other proud warrior women. She’d never known any other way to be. She’d studied human history, but confronted with the rules and expectations of 20th-century life, she’d found cruel absurdity after cruel absurdity, and she’d reacted to them with anger but also bemusement. And in that one scene, she decides instinctively that she’s had enough, that industrial death machines aren’t going to stop her from completing her mission. So she runs full-speed across a gray, muddy battlefield, bullets sparking as they ricochet off of her gauntlets. Behind her, the men who have been stuck in the trenches, living with constant dread and death, feel a sudden rush of inspiration, and they charge in behind her.
It’s stirring stuff. And it’s not the only scene like that in Wonder Woman. There’s also the one where German soldiers invade the beach at Themyscira, where Amazon warriors with bows and swords take on rifle-toting troops and win. Seeing women fighting historically felt new. No one had seen it before in movies—not like that, anyway. It hadn’t been done.
Superhero movies, I’d argue, are basically our version of folklore. They’re grand, mythic stories about people discovering extraordinary abilities, taking on outsized forces, and fighting for the good of all humanity. They’re power fantasies. And the vast majority of the time, they’re male power fantasies. There had been movies about female superheroes before Wonder Woman—1984’s Supergirl, 2004’s Catwoman, 2005’s Elektra. But those movies were all half-assed, never giving the impression that they’re even trying to be good. I’m awfully partial to The Heroic Trio, the 1993 Hong Kong movie that features a hero named Wonder Woman, at least in the dubbed VHS version that I owned as a teenager, but that one didn’t exactly cause any major cultural waves in the U.S. Wonder Woman was something else.
It was a long time coming. Wonder Woman was the movie that finally gave women access to that power-fantasy feeling. As a man, I’ve been desensitized to that feeling for so long that I don’t even remember its visceral force; it’s expected, to the point where it isn’t really thrilling anymore. But a whole lot of women had never had a chance to feel that. And the success of Wonder Woman shows just how powerful that fantasy could still be. Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, also happens to be the first woman ever entrusted with a potential blockbuster of that scope, and she knows how to weaponize that feeling, how to give women that soaring sensation that men have long taken for granted.
It’s also a pretty good movie. A lot of that comes down to its star. Gal Gadot was probably a risky choice, a former model and Israeli combat instructor who’d mostly only acted in Fast & Furious movies. But she’s great in those movies, and nobody who witnessed her Gisele character sacrificing her life for Han in Fast & Furious 6 could’ve questioned her ability to become a superhero. In the godawful-ugly death-trudge that was Zack Snyder’s 2016 movie Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Gadot is a rare bright spot, the only person onscreen who seems to have any idea that this superhero shit is supposed to be fun. But in Wonder Woman, she gets room to turn that persona into something resembling a character. In her own way, she’s as perfect for her character as Chris Evans is for Captain America. She’s got that same impossible blend of silliness, steeliness, sweetness, bemused not-made-for-these-times confusion, and general absurd attractiveness. She’s also, it turns out, really good at hitting superhero poses convincingly. Nobody could’ve played the character better.
And Gadot showed up at the right time. The DC Extended Universe needed a win. Under Zack Snyder’s guidance, the movie franchise had transformed Superman into a chilly, indifferent god and Batman into a grunting basket case—sides of the two characters that obviously existed, but sides that were never going to be as appealing as the wild parade of charisma that Marvel was offering. Meanwhile, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was an unwatchable blender-edited shitshow. None of the three previous movies had flopped, but none of them had offered the world much to latch onto either. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, told a self-contained story about a vivid and fun character, getting at the whole reason that anyone might’ve cared about Wonder Woman in the first place.
It’s worth mentioning that Wonder Woman isn’t exactly a rebuke to Snyder. Snyder still had plenty to do with the movie. He’s one of the movie’s producers, and he also gets a story credit. And Jenkins makes plenty of use of his visual trademarks, like the ecstatic mid-battle shot where a whole violent tableau goes into such extreme slo-mo that it almost stands still. But Jenkins uses those stylistic tics to different ends, and she also does a whole lot to make sure the movie stands apart from the ones that Snyder and Ayer had made. Every previous DC movie had been dour to the point of exhaustion, but in the early scenes on Themyscira, Jenkins piles on colors so bright and vivid that they’re almost disorienting. And while previous DC characters had seemed nonplussed about city-leveling explosions, Wonder Woman reacts to every violent human death—or every non-German human death, which is its own issue—by viscerally taking offense. The movie even hinges on the moment where she can’t bring herself to kill a particularly vicious secondary villain.
It matters, too, that Wonder Woman is a relatively contained story, without a lot of connection to greater DC mythology, and that it never feels the need to carry water for a larger cinematic project. It pulls this off by being a wartime period piece, which means that Wonder Woman ends up echoing a lot of things about Captain America: The First Avenger, which had the same idea a few years earlier. Both movies, after all, have climactic moments where guys named Chris, playing guys named Steve, make stoically good-humored speeches to the women they love and then sacrifice themselves by intentionally crashing planes, thus saving major Western cities from massive-scale death.
But Wonder Woman does things that The First Avenger doesn’t do. It might do too many things. At various points, the movie is a swords-and-sandals fantasy, a romantic comedy, a screwball fish-out-of-water comedy, a Dirty Dozen-esque mission movie, an espionage adventure, and a standard-issue energy-exploding-everywhere superhero movie. (The ending, where it hits all the expected superhero beats, is by far the weakest part of the movie. It’s the moment where the dialogue stops even trying: “I believe in love!” “Then I will destroy you!”) There’s even maybe a 30-second stretch in the middle where it tries to turn into Paths Of Glory.
But the movie survives all these rapid-fire tonal shifts, mostly because its leads are so appealing. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have an easy, megawatt chemistry, and a lot of its best moments are its quietest and silliest ones, like when Pine is struggling to deal with his own horniness in appropriate fashion. It’s funny: The arrival of the superhero movie, and the general dominance of special-effects event movies based on recognizable intellectual property, is supposed to spell the death of the movie star. The accepted wisdom these days is that stars don’t sell movies, franchises do. And yet a franchise movie like this depends entirely on how much fun it is to watch movie stars doing movie-star things.
Beyond that chemistry, Wonder Woman relies on a whole lot of tricks. Some of those tricks work. The magic lasso is a great way to squeeze in unforced exposition scenes, and visual touches like Dr. Poison’s destroyed face leave a deeper impression than more theatrical touches—a hammily evil speech, for instance—might’ve done. I like how, rather than forcing Gadot to lose her Israeli accent, the movie just gives all the other Amazons vaguely Israeli accents. (It works better than the old Schwarzenegger approach: “This guy is a small-town American sheriff who just happens to have a thick Austrian accent, and nobody ever comments on it. It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Or even the old Van Damme approach: “I guess we can make him Cajun or whatever?”)
But some of those tricks really don’t work. I would happily do without Steve Trevor’s team of misfit war buddies, who aren’t good for comic relief or added pathos and who come off like K-Mart-brand Howlin’ Commandos. And the movie’s version of World War I, where the Germans are one-dimensional bad guys who want to kill as many people as possible while the British and Americans are intrepid guardians of freedom, is just demonstrably wrong. There were no good guys or bad guys in World War I. It was just a meaningless and overwhelming miasma of death, a product of a time when people didn’t understand just how much devastation they were suddenly technologically capable of wreaking. If there were bad guys, they were the world leaders and commanding officers who kept sending wave upon wave of soldiers and civilians to their deaths for no reason. The movie vaguely acknowledges this idea at the end, when it turns into a struggle against the very idea of war, but that change isn’t exactly convincing.
So Wonder Woman is a movie with some problems. But it’s also an effective movie, and it’s a movie that needed to exist. As I’m writing this, Marvel’s Captain Marvel—another story about a superhero woman—is easily the most successful movie of the year thus far. And nobody makes a big deal about it. There was a weird little online movement to keep the movie down by sabotaging its Rotten Tomatoes audience score, but that ended up doing nothing to hurt the movie. It turns out that people just like superhero movies, especially good ones, whether or not the lead is a woman. Wonder Woman was the movie that made this point. Someone needed to.
Other notable 2017 superhero movies: If Wonder Woman gave the DC Extended Universe a new lease on life, Justice League, which followed a few months later, came close to killing it. The movie had a notoriously difficult production, with Zack Snyder leaving partway through to deal with a family tragedy and Avengers director Joss Whedon filling in, and with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout mustache having to be digitally erased. There couldn’t really be two directors more fundamentally opposed than Snyder and Whedon, so there’s a severe tonal whiplash to the movie, and Whedon’s quippy patter simply doesn’t work when paired with Snyder’s epic-brood visuals. But there are issues that go way beyond that, too: an utterly forgettable villain, a MacGuffin-based plot that requires people to say the words “mother boxes” out loud many times, an utterly grating Flash, a Cyborg that looks like a Michael Bay Transformer who turns into a disco ball, and an overriding air of desperation. Basically, it seemed like DC was trying to force its own Avengers rather than organically building up to it, giving us things like a dramatic resurrection of Superman after he’s been dead for, like, an hour of screen time. What a mess.
For me, at least, the most purely entertaining DC movie had nothing to do with the DC extended universe and everything to do with the Lego extended universe. The Lego Batman Movie got a whole feature film out of the vainglorious version of Batman that Will Arnett had played in The Lego Movie, and it treats its character, and its world, with a giddy sense of loving disrespect. It’s the Batman movie that best understands the whole undercurrent about Batman kind of being an asshole, and it is a relentless delight. (The year gave us one other animated kids’ superhero movie in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, which has many, many fart jokes and which my kids have watched at least 10 times since it started streaming on Netflix. It’s okay.)
Marvel, meanwhile, would have one hell of a year, setting itself up for an even bigger year to follow. It started off strong with Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, a slightly overstuffed and incoherent sequel that nonetheless found room for a whole lot of fun bullshit. In keeping with its overarching theme—a swashbuckling space-adventure story that’s really about family—the villain is Kurt Russell, warm but imposing as Star-Lord’s absent father who turns out to be a living planet that wants to annihilate the entire rest of the universe. (Um, spoiler.) And the movie develops its characters nicely, gets in a few enjoyably ridiculous action scenes, and builds to a shockingly emotional finale—all things that had happened in the first movie, too, but which still worked a second time.
And after bringing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man into the fold in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel (or really Sony, leasing the character back to Marvel) gave him his own movie with Spider-Man: Homecoming, doing away with the origin story we’d already seen too many times and instead building an utterly disarming high school comedy around the character. Holland is a winning actor, and the movie gets all the important things about Spider-Man: He’s a kid in way too far over his head, he constantly cracks jokes because he’s insecure, and he feels totally insignificant around other superheroes even though he’s as brave and capable as any of them. The result might be the breeziest, most rewatchable movie that Marvel has yet given us.
And then there was Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, a small miracle of a movie that took what had been Marvel’s consistently weakest franchise and transformed it into something overwhelmingly goofy and entertaining. Everything that sucked about the first two Thor movies—the way-too-heavy mythology, the self-serious Shakespearean intonations, the dumb fantasy villains—becomes fuel for absurdist comedy in Waititi’s hands. And the thing looks like the design for a pinball game from the ’80s. The whole cast is great, especially Jeff Goldblum, who gets to wear glittery face paint and vamp hard. But the real revelation might be Chris Hemsworth, who’d always been good but who finally got a chance to go all the way big with his character’s basic absurdity. Watching Thor strut around, overconfident and determined to never admit any weakness, is a joy.
Outside the big two comic book universes, there were limited superhero-movie options. Kingsman: The Golden Circle had a little too much fun when it introduced the stereotypical American counterparts to stereotypical British heroes, and it didn’t have anything that could stand up to the church-massacre set piece of the first Kingsman movie. But it did have plenty of knowingly light-hearted splatter, and it also had a bit where Elton John, playing himself, handed out platform-booted, CGI-assisted ass-kickings, so it’s worth your time anyway. (And there was also a Power Rangers movie that I never got around to seeing, if that counts.)
But my favorite superhero movie of 2017—maybe my favorite ever—was James Mangold’s Logan, a hyper-violent dystopian Western that gave its hero the respect of transforming him into a gruesome killing machine and granting him some long-sought redemption. The movie paints a bleak image of a future in a world where superheroes exist, and it also pulls fun and pathos from the way people react to the few superheroes who haven’t been wiped out yet. And it gives a grand sendoff to Hugh Jackman, a man who spent nearly two decades playing one character. It grants him something that no movie superhero ever gets: finality.
Next time: Black Panther elevates the superhero movie on every conceivable level, turning it into a vision of an Afrofuturist utopia, dominating cultural conversation, and making a fuck-ton of money.