Technically speaking, the summer movie season kicked off in earnest in late May, following the consecutive releases of Alien: Covenant, Diary of a Wimpy Kid 4, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, and Baywatch. However, since all those movies flopped, we’re gonna go ahead and pretend that didn’t happen. So, the summer movie season kicked off last weekend with the release of two long-anticipated superhero flicks: Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman and DreamWorks’ Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. True, these two don’t have much in common, but they both star iconic heroes making their big-screen debut. How do they both hold up, against each other and on their own?
Let’s start with Underpants, the one I saw first. Based on the popular (and phenomenal) children’s novel series by Dav Pilkey, it follows two enterprising school-age funnymen who wind up hypnotizing their mean principal into thinking he’s a superhero from the comics they wrote, and then accidentally giving him actual superpowers. Also, he wears underpants.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Underpants, even more than I was expecting. It distinguishes itself from much of the DreamWorks crop with really unique character design and animation. Of course, the animation is very tight, fluid, and fun, but it also isn’t afraid to look thoroughly cartoony where mainstream CG animation has recently tended towards realism. The comedy of the movie is a relatively even mix of potty humor and wittier stuff, but they cram as many jokes into this thing as possible, and a good amount of them hit. It also has a surprising amount of heart, and some truly emotional moments.
Next, there’s Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, it was interpreted by many as a last-ditch effort to save the DC Extended Universe, which has been marred by unpopular and underperforming releases thus far. Jenkins is said to have had much more creative control than DC directors Zack Snyder and David Ayer before her, and the film was screened for critics months in advance, although official reviews weren’t allowed to be released until several days before the film’s release.
I went into this one with a critical eye, knowing that the general consensus was that it was good and wanting to bring something new to the conversation. But it hooked me, and fast. I came out of it feeling that it was an unambiguously very good movie. It had the style and action I loved in Zack Snyder’s DC movies, but was scores better by virtue of not having its head up its own ass. The characters feel real, the structure is even, and it’s possibly the most cohesive superhero movie of all time. One could argue the romantic subplot was unnecessary (in this rare instance, I disagree), but it just fits into the rest of the movie so seamlessly. It feels like a complete, unilateral vision. It has a few flaws, of course. The origin story is rushed (I know we say we’re tired of origin stories, but we’ve never seen Wonder Woman’s before), Gal Gadot’s performance is a step above Batman v Superman but still at times one-dimensional, and there are serious inconsistencies with the Amazons’ knowledge of the outside world: Wonder Woman reads Socrates and speaks modern English, but has no concept of a gun or a penis or ice cream or fashion. It’s also less philosophical than previous entries in the DCEU, and while this can be seen as a positive (see: Granny’s peach tea), I was annoyed by the extent to which all characters in the movie, regardless of what species they were or what side they were on, was stuck on the idea that fighting and things that fight are inherently bad. And that mentality never changes. Sure, Wonder Woman comes to understand that humans are never simply good or bad, but she’s still laboring under the idea that fighting is some kind of mortal sin, an attitude seemingly shared by the rest of the Amazons, the entire Greek pantheon, and even the humans. Still, none of these took away from the overall experience of the film for me, which I felt was dazzling.
Now, pretty much every action movie in the present day is expected to, on some level, be a parody of itself, so a superhero comedy like Captain Underpants going up against a legitimate, even historically-significant film like Wonder Woman isn’t as much of a disparity as it once was, but it needs to be said that Wonder Woman is not a comedy. It’s more lighthearted than its predecessors, and has a lot of fantastical and heartfelt moments, but if you’re going into this looking for humor, you won’t find much. In fact, the closest classical classification for the film’s genre is actually that it’s a war movie. It takes place during World War I, and portrays some of the horrors of war with stark realism. Where Wonder Woman subverts tropes and roles of the superhero genre, Captain Underpants is an outright parody of it. The titular hero is a delusional man with no powers who’s made to believe he’s a character cooked up in the minds of two immature young artists. Captain Underpants needed to be faithful to the spirit of its source material, and did so beautifully. Wonder Woman needed to take the DC cinematic universe in a bold, strong new direction, and it also did so beautifully.
Both films get high marks across the board from me, though neither is without flaw. I’d give Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie an 86/100 and Wonder Woman a 90. I highly recommend both of them, but definitely see Wonder Woman first (which seems to be what most people did anyway, according to box office numbers). They signal a really solid start to what’ll hopefully be a great summer movie season, and ideally, a new dawn for both DC and DreamWorks.