The “No Man’s Land” sequence in Wonder Woman lasts just around three minutes, from the moment Diana (Gal Gadot) tells Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to get stuffed for doubting her ability to take on an army to the sight of her soaring over the German defenses. But those 180 seconds have remained the defining image of what superhero cinema can be, not only for Warner Bros.’ loosely connected universe of DC films, but also Disney’s box office-busting MCU and beyond. It’s been three years since Wonder Woman, and the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, is about to drop on HBO Max, but unlike Diana herself, I’m still not quite past “No Man’s Land,” which set a bar that’d take much more than a single bound to overtake.
Like most art that stands the test of time, some didn’t understand why it needed to exist in the first place. “It was our own crew who were, at points, going, ‘Why are you doing this scene? She’s not even fighting anything,'” director Patty Jenkins said in a 2017 interview.
“I think that in superhero movies, they fight other people. They fight villains,” Jenkins explained. “So when I started to really hunker in on the significance of No Man’s Land, there were a couple people who were deeply confused, wondering, like, ‘Well, what is she going to do? How many bullets can she fight?’ And I kept saying, ‘It’s not about that. This is a different scene than that. This is a scene about her becoming Wonder Woman.”
Part of the scene’s power is rooted in the idea of heroism itself. When Diana steps out of the trenches and into the line of fire, deflecting a single bullet, then another, it’s exactly what we’ve expected from a blockbuster’s big second-act moment; it’s why the first question would be “okay but whose ASS is she about to KICK.” But like life’s little problems the bullets don’t just stop coming; Diana has to dig in her heels and survive an onslaught. Like Jenkins said, it becomes far less about the enemies in front of her and more about the friends at her back. Diana takes the fire of an entire frontline long enough for the men behind her to finally believe the impossible might be possible.
It’s not just in the story and themes, it’s in the way Jenkins and DP Matthew Jensen frame Diana. (Two years ago, I wrote that no comic book film since Richard Donner‘s Superman managed to make its superhero look as, well, super as Wonder Woman, and I only believe that more today.) The shot below, right after the entire German line has focused their fire on Diana, is the best of the bunch. Gadot isn’t centered, she’s to the right of the frame, drawing attention to the stretch of bombed-out wasteland she’s already crossed while also highlighting the barrage she’d have to endure to keep going. It’s a classic superhero image that’s striking for the way it emphasizes a very human struggle.
This isn’t to say there weren’t any striking images in the DCEU before Wonder Woman. Say what you will about original DC Universe architect Zack Snyder as a storyteller, but that wonderful neck-snapping madman can bring a splash page to life. Superman (Henry Cavill) putting an entire oil rig on his shoulders in Man of Steel. Two titans clashing against a lightning-flash backdrop in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But so much of the early-days DCEU—and, especially, its imagery—were rooted in the idea of heroes-as-gods, writing the “super” part of “superhero” in bold, neon letters. Conversely, “No Man’s Land” feels like being overwhelmed by humanity; like Jenkins said, it’s hard to process at first, but that’s only because you don’t expect to see yourself in a mythological figure blocking bullets during World War I.
It’s a tough act to follow. Hell, Wonder Woman itself, with its wonky third-act showdown between Diana and David Thewlis‘ CGI god-bod, struggled to maintain that level of awe. But it was worth it, because those three minutes busted a hole in the DCEU, allowing a palpable sense of humanity into the DCEU. There’s a direct line between that image of an Amazonian down in the dirt—fighting not so much against an enemy but for an ideal—and the unbridled glee of Aquaman, the heartwarming joy of Shazam!, and the kick-ass pleasures in Birds of Prey. The darker sides of the DCEU still exist, as they should, because—to borrow a phrase from across the comic book line—all things should be balanced. But Wonder Woman crossed “No Man’s Land” and dragged a little lightness along with her.
“It was always the most important scene in the movie to me, in that it is the birth of Wonder Woman,” Jenkins said. Three years on, it feels like the birth of much more.
‘Die Hard’, ‘Batman Returns’, and ‘The Family Stone’ all on one streaming service.
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