Claims that Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero movies of all time are greatly exaggerated, but the DC Comics adaptation is definitely essential viewing, whether you come out disappointed with its imperfection following all the hype or ecstatic that finally there’s a major female superhero movie that isn’t bad.
Wonder Women is hopefully just the beginning for its kind, and for you it also needs to be just a start to appreciating what came before. Below is a list of recommendations that are important to understanding this movie’s influences and its contexts, both for the history it depicts and the history it represents and advances.
One of the most famous classic movies is deserving of its status. Set during World War II, Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick, a club owner in the titular North African city, where refugees go in hopes of finding safe passage to America. One night, the lost love of Rick’s life, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), walks in with her husband, a resistance leader on the run.
Drama ensues, but it’s not as basic as you’d think. The movie has something for everybody, including romance, suspense, and a cast of the most perfect character actors in the history of cinema (Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Claude Rains). Rick may have been misinformed about Casablanca, but there’s no misguidance when it comes to this movie.
Wonder Woman wishes it was the Casablanca of superhero movies, but its combination of wartime adventure (set earlier, during World War I) and love story does hearken back to that Golden Age of Hollywood production. It even features an ensemble of some of today’s best distinct character actors (Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, David Thewlis).
Director Patty Jenkins has admitted the influence of Casablanca. She told Fandango, “I wanted a great love story where both characters have integrity and it might be set in the complexity of war, but it turns into a grand love story.” And actor Chris Pine said at CinemaCon, “It has a Casablanca feel, which I don’t think we’ve seen in this universe before.”
Paths of Glory (1957)
As for movies set in World War I, there are plenty of imperative selections, from the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme to classics such as The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Wings, and Lawrence of Arabia. Then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which is among the best war movies ever made, for any conflict.
No picture does a better job putting us inside the trenches or on the battlefield of the front lines, as Kubrick tracks us through the tight confines of the French Army’s safe canyon, along with Kirk Douglas or George Macready, and then up and over and into the explosive “no man’s land.” That might sound thrilling, but just know this is one of the harshest anti-war films ever made.
The soon-to-be-iconic (and surely ironic for the battlefield nickname) scene in Wonder Woman where she heads into “no man’s land” alone and triumphant might be a bit insensitive to the seriousness of what occurred in those actual trenches and on those battlefields. The superhero movie is a bit sloppy in its depiction of the Great War, but some of it admittedly looks cool.
Paths of Glory doesn’t give you any better an understanding of the entirety of the conflicts of World War I than does Wonder Woman — that’s not an easy thing to do with any feature film — but it does fill you in, masterfully, on the intensity of one significant part of the war that is also shown through the pop historicism of a period-set comic book movie.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Probably the best way to sell Wonder Woman is the buzz that it aims for and achieves the uncynical tone of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. Having seen the new movie, I wouldn’t say it’s even close to being so pure but it does have an earnest quality that makes it closer to that era of DC superhero movies than what we’ve been seeing the last 10 years.
“I miss that kind of movie and this felt like a perfect place to be old and new again in that way,” Jenkins told Fandango. “I’m so happy that people have noticed that…commenting that she’s hitting the same buttons that Christopher Reeve did, which is like a dream come true. It’s everything that we went for. That was the big inspiration.”
Jenkins is not just throwing out fan-service with her interest in Superman, as you can see with a recent DGA Quarterly article in which she thoroughly discusses the greatness of Richard Donner’s movie. She also admits to direct homage in Wonder Woman, particularly how she lifted its alley mugging scene but gave it a twist — and made it much deadlier.
Another notable difference between the two is in the ending and how the superhero’s personal realization of how much he/she loves another character (who, unlike them, is a human) affects something that happens during the movie’s climax. That’s one part where Superman can be criticized for its ridiculousness. Wonder Woman gets it right, even if it’s more heartbreaking.
Jenkins on Superman:
It’s such a feel-good movie. It hits all those main buttons so delightfully. I think that grand, simple storytelling has gone out of vogue. But there are thousands of years of telling stories in a similar way, and knowing how to tell them is an art form that takes time and patience. It’s about withholding, rather than bombarding people or going too fast. You have to tell a great story and then have confidence in that story to tell it well. Richard Donner does that here.
City of Women (1980)
If you’re not a fan of Federico Fellini already, or if you’ve never seen one of his movies, this isn’t a good place to start or to try to change your mind. It’s probably not even liked by many of his fans. However, it is a gorgeous work that should be seen, especially as it relates to a history of “Lady Land” fantasy stories and to the context of feminist cinema.
“Lady Land” movies are best understood through a recent Fandor video essay by Catherine Stratton highlighting the sci-fi version of the male fantasy where Earthmen land on a planet inhabited only by beautiful women. Titles include Cat-Women of the Moon (later remade as Missile to the Moon), Fire Maidens of Outer Space, and Queen of Outer Space.
There are many other examples of stories of all-women planets, islands, and societies (just this year there was Smurfs: The Lost Village) akin to the Amazon-populated Themyscira of Wonder Woman. In City of Women, the equivalent is a hotel full of women encountered by the womanizing lead character. The twist is that they’re there for a feminists convention.
Well, it’s Fellini’s sexist view of what feminists are like — mostly man haters, the sort anti-Wonder Woman and anti-all-women Wonder Woman screening dudebros are scared of. While Wonder Woman is perfectly set not just during WWI but also during the women’s suffrage movement in the UK. City of Women is a personal, albeit misogynistic response to the late 20th century women’s liberation movement.
Another inspiration for Wonder Woman, according to screenwriter Allan Heinberg, is Disney’s The Little Mermaid. “This is a woman who has been raised in a very protective, sheltered life,” he told Entertainment Weekly of Wonder Woman, “She’s curious about what life is like outside and she wants to have her own experience. She wants to be where the people are.”
But I see Disney’s earlier, live-action mermaid picture as more akin to the new superhero movie. Producer Geoff Johns recognizes this, too. He told EW, “There is a drop of Splash in it when it comes to the observations she has about our world. Some are light and fun. Some are poignant. But she’s pointing out things that are absolutely true.”
There are some very similar scenes between Splash and Wonder Woman with the comedic fish-out-of-water material, but the new movie also subverts some of what we expect from this sort of story, not unlike it does with the “Lady Lands” trope. The 1980s were full of exotic female stranger films serving male fantasies, including Mannequin, Weird Science, and Date with an Angel.
Of course, Marvel also subverted the trope in its own way with Thor, which is one of the two MCU movies Wonder Woman seems like a cross between (the other being the period-set Captain America: The First Avenger). The first Thor is basically, at least for a brief section, Splash with an exotic male creature new to Earth.
Jenkins’s first and only other feature starts out with the narrated line “I always wanted to be in the movies.” Wonder Woman‘s opening line, also in voiceover, has a similar past-tense statement of something once desired: “I used to want to save the world.” Both wind up being fulfilled for their respective characters even if the lines are said with rather wry effect.
Real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos (portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Charlize Theron) is nothing like Diana, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) except that they both had optimistic ideas about the world and their place and future in it. Wuornos sadly was mistreated and wound up a murderer, subject of this and other films. Diana won a war then stopped bothering to be a hero, laying low from society for a century until other heroes needed her help.
Both movies have a feminist angle to them, with the newer one being slightly more hopeful and at least more positively empowering. You get to see the protagonists of both kill a bunch of bad men, if that’s therapeutic for anyone feeling oppressed by the patriarchy. In another kind of movie, maybe one based on a comic, or in another universe, Wuornos would at least be more recognized as a vigilante antihero. If only she had put on a costume while committing her believed acts of justice.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
One of the collaborators Jenkins specifically chose for Wonder Woman is French production designer Aline Bonetto. She’s best known for her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and received Oscar nominations for her contributions to his movies Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. The latter is a more relevant precursor to Wonder Woman in that it’s set during World War I.
A Very Long Engagement was Jeunet’s follow-up to the huge hit Amelie and it wasn’t nearly as successful even though it also stars Audrey Tautou and features Jeunet’s signature whimsy and fantastical charms. But it’s heavier, being that it involves the violence of one of history’s greatest and bloodiest conflicts. It’s often more serious and slower than typical Jeunet.
Here, a woman is also the hero. Not on the battlefield of war but in the romantic narrative of a detective story where Tautou plays the fiancee of a soldier she believes in her heart is still alive. Her love was one of a handful who tried to escape military service and certain death only to be caught and convicted and supposedly killed in battle.
Bonetto’s work is evident throughout Wonder Woman, but the parts that might recall Jeunet’s films best involve the chemical labs and appearance of Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), aka “Doctor Poison,” particularly the character’s partial face mask covering up scars caused by her own experiments. That could also be the work of costume designer Lindy Hemming, though.
Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)
Obviously Wonder Woman is a major part of this documentary by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan about exactly what the film’s subtitle says. While depending too much on man-on-the-street interviews in addition to the important talking heads, such as Gloria Steinem and TV’s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, it all serves the point on how few heroic women are part of pop culture.
The history lesson focuses on comics, television, and movies and emphasizes the importance of Wonder Woman to all three, having been the most notable female superhero on the page, then pioneering a trend on the small screen with the Carter-led series, which gave way to movies such as Aliens then to more shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess.
Watching this doc, you’ll be confounded as to how a Wonder Woman movie never happened before now, how few female superhero movies there are, and how the ones that do exist were done so poorly and have been so unpopular. You’ll also learn why not all women (feminist rocker Kathleen Hanna, for instance) have taken to celebrating certain female heroes.
Another documentary that I often confuse with Wonder Women! that’s relevant and worth watching for female empowerment is Double Dare, Amanda Micheli’s look at stuntwomen. Carter is in it, too, along with her Wonder Woman double, Jeannie Epper, and Quentin Tarantino favorite Zoe Bell is a primary subject, profiled as she starts training for Kill Bill.