Wonder Woman is a film that was created through blending things that don’t really belong together. It blends the CGI slo-mo of Zack Snyder with the morally diverse characters of Patty Jenkins. It blends the screwball comedy with the superhero genre, with a good dose of war thrown in as well. It blends the elegance of ancient combat with the total destruction of modern warfare. And, perhaps most importantly, and oddest of all, it blends the optimism of the late 60s and 70s superheroes with the cynicism of the modern trends. These swirling contradictions would make it damn difficult for almost any film and filmmaker to have any chance of success. And yet, despite some small stumbles at the beginning and the end, Wonder Woman manages to defy these potential problems and rise as one of the better superhero films in the modern day.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is the Princess of Themyscira, home of the Amazons. An ancient group of warriors known as the Amazons. Assigned to protect mankind by Zeus from the God of War, Ares, the Amazons live hidden from the rest of the world, waiting for his return. One day, an American spy crash lands on the island. His name is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and he informs them that the world is engaged in a War To End All Wars, and that a rogue German general (Jack Huston) has teamed up with a mad scientist (Elena Anaya) to create a Super Mustard Gas that will kill every soldier on the battlefield. Convinced Ares is behind it, Diana leaves her home with Trevor on a voyage to London to kill the evil deity. Armed with the legendary God Killer sword, her trusty shield, powerful armor and manacles, and the Lasso of Aphrodite, she eventually makes her way to the Western Front, determined to bring the war to an end.
I’m going to get my critiques out of the way immediately, because I want to focus on why this movie is such a joy. When the movie begins, it may be easy to think to yourself, “Really? This is what everyone is excited about?” You wouldn’t be wrong to think that, because the first ten minutes are a hodgepodge of rough filmmaking. The dialogue is almost all explanation, the CGI is a bit poorly rendered, and the young girl playing the child Diana, Lilly Aspel, can’t act to save her life. Similarly, the final twenty minutes (give or take) of the film are quite rough. After an admirable, but utterly predictable, reveal of a twist, the finale devolves into a beat-em-up that is horrendously choreographed and terribly rendered-although, thankfully, the film lacks anything resembling a giant sky portal, making it feel like a breath of fresh air. What’s more, one of the film’s key action sequences, an early battle showcasing the Amazonian warriors and their skills, always feels like it’s just about to be as awesome as it feels, but never quite reaches that level. Oh, it’s awesome to watch Robin Wright quite literally slay with all the poise and grace that comes with being Robin Wright, but considering the buildup and the expectations, it just feels like it needed more oomph (although I believe this is one of the first sequences shot, and Jenkins has never done action before, so I chalk that up to her greenness in the genre). Part of the reason this sequence, as well as the final battle, feel so rough is the use of the Snyder Slo-Mo in every battle sequence. You see, Snyder loves to throw slo-mo into every movie he does, for better or worse. Because the film is a continuation of Snyder’s DC series, the film continues with his trademark, ad naseum. That’s right, almost every scene features a slo-mo sequence. And while some of the sequences do feel properly awesome (we’ll get to that in a minute), it often feels a bit irritating and pointless. So with these major issues, this must be a pretty lackluster movie, right?
The answer to that is a resounding no. Because the middle hour thirty of this movie is some of the most fun you’ll have at the movies all summer, and will remind you why you love superhero movies to begin with. It might feel a little condescending to the first female-led superhero film to say that things don’t really become great until the male shows up, but please understand I’m using this simply as a time marker and not a profession of my belief that Steve Trevor is in any way, shape, or form as incredible as Wonder Woman. If he matters at all to the plot, it’s simply the fact that he’s the greatest sidekick that cinema has ever seen (take that, Short Round). The two have great chemistry and banter, and Jenkins finds the perfect way to show Diana’s naiveté about society while never undercutting her power. In fact, oftentimes when Diana misunderstands something about society, it serves as a sharp critique of what our society has become, and the way we treat others for something ridiculously benign, like race or gender. Take the film’s greatest sequence, the now famous No Man’s Land scene. Diana is forced to endure suffering animals, tired soldiers, and eventually, separated families, as she realizes the affects of the war on a small German town. The Germans treat the population as slaves, the British and Americans think of the town as a geographic victory, not a moral one, and therefore the citizens are left to suffer as governments destroy each other. Diana believes that the right thing to do is to stand and fight for the citizens, while it is mansplained to her that the “better option” would be to go for strategy and sacrifice the few for the many (and in any other movie, and perhaps a superhero-less world, that would be the correct option). Diana contemplates this alternative…and then leaps into action. And when she dons her costume for the first time, charges across the No Man’s Land, and single-handedly takes out an entire platoon of Germans as her superhero theme song plays, it is honestly breathtaking. Not only is it an incredible victory for the girls out there who have had to sit through movie upon movie of the guys getting to be badass while awesome music plays, but it is an incredible victory in filmmaking, serving as the perfect example of how to direct, choreograph, and perform an action set piece. I could literally spend the rest of this review describing this one sequence, but alas, there are other themes I want to talk about, so we must move on.
I think the reason I find this film so enjoyable is the way it uses the cynicism of modern superhero movies and uses it to build to optimism. It’s a unique system that gives the film an extra boost. You see, Diana is convinced that man is good-hearted, and that their moral flaws are simply the work of Ares. She also believes that the world is simplistic enough where one side can be the “good guys,” while the other can be the “bad guys.” As she travels the world, she discovers things aren’t quite so simple. She talks to a Muslim man who fights for the Allies despite the fact that the British “heroes” refuse to let him find work outside the military. Another comrade is a Native American chief who explains that in the last war, his people were wiped out by Steve Trevor, one of the main heroes’ people. And while she’s out on her mission, she learns hard truths about human nature, including self-destructive tendencies, altruistic sacrifice, and the horrors of a no-win scenario. Hell, even the villain’s plan boils down to demonstrating that the human race isn’t worth saving. These are heavy, morbid themes often reserved for the indie horror scene, not a big-budget pick-me-up. And yet, the film manages to make them work, mainly because Diana truly is Wonder Woman. From the comics to the big screen, her true power has always been faith in humanity, preserving peace, and above all, love. Her optimism is infectious, and no matter how awful humanity gets, no matter how much we seem to be doomed to repeat our own mistakes, and no matter how self-destructive we tend to get, the fact that the most powerful being in the world is willing to stand up and say that we are much more than useless creatures feels like such a warm message that I can’t help but applaud Jenkins for pulling it off so flawlessly.
Of course, this movie really only works because of two words: Gal Gadot. Quite simply, Gadot is Diana, Princess of Themyrsicra, in a way that few actors have ever truly been with superheroes, where you can only imagine them when you think of the character. The closest comparisons are Christopher Reeve as Superman and Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man. She exudes grace, charm, beauty, emotion, and altogether raw bad-assery that makes you want to stand up and cheer whenever she’s onscreen. Oh, and she’s really funny. A good portion of this movie plays like It Happened One Night, with the girl who doesn’t understand the “real world” being taught by a roguish male as they fall in love, except in this case the girl is also the greatest warrior in all of history. It’s quite fun to watch. While 98% of that should be accredited to Gadot’s incredible performance, I should point out that Chris Pine is great as her second-banana. He’s handsome, charming, and equally funny, and he knows exactly how to be tough and heroic without ever undermining the true hero of this story. Oh, and he willingly allows the film to make a choice that is incredibly, incredibly brave, and I believe pays off in a big way. Of the other characters (few of whom actually matter in the long run), Danny Huston and Elena Anaya both make interesting enough villains, and Trevor’s team of Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock are all just endearing enough to drive the plot forward. David Thewlis is good in a frankly underwritten role, and the duo of Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, quite frankly, needed much more to do. If any actor broke out outside of our main duo, it is Lucy Davis as Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy. Her plotline is left unresolved, which is fairly annoying, but she is one of the funniest parts of this movie, and she works great as the Zeppo to the group’s Marx Brothers routine.
I suppose the best way to sum up Wonder Woman is like this. I’ve told anyone who will listen about my issues with that beginning and ending. But the other day, when discussing comic book movies with a friend of mine, I noticed a pattern. We were talking about every superhero movie in the past ten years, and I found myself consistently saying the words “Yeah, but Wonder Woman did it better.” I think that’s the kind of film this is. It’s a film with many flaws, but even more subtly brilliant moments and choices, ones that slowly burrow into your brain for future reference. When combined with fun and thrilling filmmaking, as well as the fact that we finally have brought one of comic book lore’s greatest creations to the big screen in a truly stunning way, you’re left with a film that is the perfect response to the call for a good summer blockbuster.