Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is already in the history books. The first major female superhero film arrives over a decade since the heroes-in-spandex craze began with Sony’s Spider Man and after Marvel made 15 films without even ONE starring a female hero. Quality aside, this is film is a cultural milestone that’s long overdue and has come in a political and cultural climate that makes it feel “of the moment,” which, in my opinion, has made this film reviewed on a curve.
Gal Gadot stars as Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman. She plays the heroine with sincere innocence while exuding confidence and strength. In a run of the mill origin opening we’re introduced to Diana’s home of Themyscira, a hidden island full of Amazonian women. The women are training for battle (???the logic of this place doesn’t make much sense) and watching from a distance is young Diana, longing to be a warrior like them. She smiles while watching her own personal heroines just as the young girls in the audience are looking at Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins is aware of her film’s burden and knows who it’s speaking to.
Visually, Themyscira is bright, but photographed like a network TV show with a heavy reliance on green screen (a few shots, uhhh, needed more work), and the script isn’t concerned with exploring how this world functions and how these women live. 20 minutes or so of this tedious introduction to Diana’s origin without exploring this world verges on being poor storytelling; however, there’s a great sequence of animation that introduces us to their Greek legends and briefly gives the film mythos.
The film kicks into gear when the best part of the film, Chris Pine’s plucky WW1 Spy, Steve Trevor, crash lands on their beach. In a funny reversal of gender tropes, Diana saves him and he opens his eyes to her on the beach. He’s less surprised to be on a tropical beach than he is to be staring into the eyes of a woman. It’s this warm comic energy that Jenkins finds through her two stars that drives the film beyond its superhero origin restraints.
Trevor is questioned by the Amazonians and tells them of the horrors in World War 1. Diana is certain that Ares, the god of war, is behind it. So, she follows Trevor back into the war to find Ares, who may or may not exist. The story morphs from its fantasy roots into a comic adventure while still traveling familiar superhero terrain, but Jenkins and her stars consistently create an endearing likability that stems from Steve and Diana being fish out of water in each other’s cultures.
There’s a unique comic book goofiness to much of Wonder Woman that I haven’t seen in a while. The villains maniacally laugh; the heroes have plucky sincerity; the humor is old fashioned; the heroes smirk while in battle. On the whole this film is conventional and occasionally identical to stuff like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, but it’s colored in with warm tones, a clear action aesthetic, and an iconic heroine that makes the film seem fresh, even though it’s mostly wearing the same clothes as other comic origins. Technically it’s not anything new, but it feels new, and there’s something to be said for that.
When Diana and Trevor arrive in London they recruit a rag tag group of soldiers to help them sneak them into the front lines. Few things better in cinema than “assembling the team.” Folks, it’s always good as hell. The team of diverse oddballs elicit laughs and their minor bits in the action have a cornball charm I found more appealing than Wonder Woman’s sequences, which are strong visualizations of her empowerment and reaction to war, but also too big and without stakes. Jenkins takes Zack Snyder’s slo-mo, ramp-up speed action language and gives it a cleaner, more purposeful polish. All superhero action has begun to feel the same but the slight variation here makes it more digestible.
One issue that arises in Diana’s fight scenes is that the film sets up the Amazonians as peaceful and loving, but Diana hypocritically has no problem killing loads of Germans. It’s a nitpick (obviously she thinks the end justifies the means), but there’s a missed opportunity there that would’ve made a thematically richer film. Wonder Woman‘s broad brushes are pleasing but the finer details are lacking, especially as the film goes on.
For much of the film, it feels like DC has re-branded this franchise with a more universal and kid friendly tone. A 3rd act battle is the only embarrassingly bad flaw that feels like it’s from the 3rd act of Suicide Squad or Batman v Superman. Wonder Woman seems briefly interested in more substantial ideas when it forces Diana to understand the myths in her world and where they take root in the real world. It’s then unfortunate that the finale literalizes this idea in CGI form and nearly undercuts its own thematic point. It’s an ugly blemish on a film that’s otherwise well-made and consistently good fun.
Warner Bros. made a poor, but understandable decision when they decided to follow Marvel and build up to a team of superheroes. The error, in my estimation, is that DC characters function inherently different to Marvel heroes. Marvel’s movie universe heroes are about the hero’s heroic persona whereas DC’s heroes battle between their real persona and superhero identity. Their internal selves are reflected into external battles (Batman is the best superhero for this reason). DC would be better suited to give their characters their own universes rather than slam them all together and rob them of what makes each of the characters compelling. Wonder Woman partly succeeds because it’s a period film divorced from any branding or tie-ins to other DC characters.
Wonder Woman is standardly made but has an earnest spirit that helps it rise above its superhero conventions and poor “boss battle.” In lesser hands this script would be boring and by-the-numbers. Jenkins uncynically embraces her heroine and creates empowering moments with cinema’s first major female superhero. The film’s best images have a bright comic strip aesthetic that remind one of Donner’s Superman.
This is one better recent superhero films when it isn’t trying to be a superhero film. For example, Diana and Steve having a conversation on a boat about where they each should sleep has an awkward comic tone you’d be more likely to find in a film like When Harry Met Sally. Trevor escapes from the Germans by stealing a plane in a scene that has an Indiana Jones spirit. When they arrive in London, Diana sees a baby and runs up to it; it’s a small moment that shows strength in femininity, and that’s sorta what the whole film is about. When Trevor recruits some old friends to help them get to the front line, you might think you’re watching Kelly’s Heroes. The film is too plotted out and stiff to let these moments give the film life, but they’re pleasing doses throughout.
Wonder Woman’s first big screen adventure isn’t new in story, form, or aesthetic, but it is new in how it handles its content. There have been plenty of origin stories like this before, but it feels fresh, and knows young girls (every boy should see this too) will be watching and wanting to see a hero that they finally recognize in themselves. It may not sustain its quality for the entire runtime, but it delivers on that ambition, and maybe that’s enough. It’s a film “of the moment” and it’s a moment you should be a part of.