This week’s recommendations include the greatest World War I film of all time and the greatest superhero movie of all time.
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.