Warner Bros.’ attempt to get in on the Marvel comic book universe game has been off to a rocky start. While the first few DCU movies have their supporters, the detractors are legion and vocal, tired of the studio’s insistence that grimness is the same as gravity. The ‘Wonder Woman’ movie arrives with a mixture of excitement and trepidation – excitement because this character is long overdue for a blockbuster, trepidation because the team behind ‘Batman v. Superman’ is still in charge. Thankfully, they finally got one right. This film is a blast and deserves any and all success coming its way.
The big-budget tentpole by director Patty Jenkins (‘Monster’) isn’t perfect. It’s overburdened by mythology, which often hampers most origin tales. Fortunately, the sequences most hurt by this come early. That happens as we get a crash course in the character’s origin on the tropical island of Themyscia, populated entirely by women. In the faithfully convoluted backstory, we learn that Diana (Gal Gadot) was a god fashioned out of clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She was destined to battle evil and banished god Ares to save humanity, but lived isolated amongst the Amazons in her hidden home. Her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) trained her for battle despite her loving mother’s wishes and… blah, blah, blah, it’s all fairly stilted and devoid of life, a combination of Greek mythology and comic book lore that could have been a movie to itself, instead condensed to an all-too-brief rush of overused imagery and mannered performances from actresses with important parts but little character to play. (There’s also a weird mixture of accents in an attempt to excuse Gadot’s.) However, the backstory is important and Jenkins at least knows that while reverence is necessary, brevity is crucial.
Things pick up when WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the island and is rescued by Diana before battling some pursuing Germans along with her warrior sisters. They quickly surmise that Ares must be back and up to his old tricks (you know, god of war and so forth). Diana insists on taking Steve back to the modern world to help save him and humanity. She does and soon finds herself in early 20th Century England, gawking in shock at all the blatant sexism and warmongering while Steve pulls her around. It’s here that the film comes alive with Jenkins’ playfully using Wonder Woman for some welcome feminist humor without ever making the icon the punchline. From there, Steve pulls together a motley crew of character actors (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock) to hit the front lines and try to stop the Germans from unleashing poison gas. Steve hopes to stop the war. Diana wants to stop all war by battling Ares. Maybe they’re both right?
What impresses most about ‘Wonder Woman’ is the way the filmmakers are able to honor their overtly politicized and reverently mythologized pop icon while still having fun. The film is filled with humor and almost all of it works. Yet it’s never too mocking of the material, nor does it feel like it’s copying the Marvel playbook. The movie has its own tone to deliver a cinematic Wonder Woman, one that serves as pop feminism social critique, exploration of human morality, and just some straight-up badass superheroics.
Jenkins nimbly balances tones and purpose, allowing her film to deal with serious issues without ever losing sense of the fun and action. Even though the plot can feel a little bogged down in exposition at times, pacing is often inconsistent for the sake of cramming in so much material, and she’s stuck with the DCU palette of dark hues and underexposure, these flaws are of the minor nitpick variety. For the most part, the film is an absolute blast, providing Indiana Jones style thrills while still addressing relevant themes. The action scenes are glorious, showing off everything that Wonder Woman is capable of without ever leaning too hard into CGI rubber reality. It’s a thrill ride that treats the title character with the respect she deserves, while still being knowing enough to acknowledge the absurdity of the material (like… say… the Lasso of Truth) without diluting the sincerity.
Gal Gadot proves to be ideally cast. Granted, she showed promise in last summer’s ‘Batman v. Superman’, but had little to do there except strike badass poses with only slightly more dramatic weight than she brought to the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise. Here she’s challenged to live up to an icon and provide weight that Wonder Woman has never received outside of comics. She does so handily, serving up dramatic speeches with gravitas, deadpan comedy with confidence, and action with athletic grace. Gadot is so good, any and all doubt ever felt about her ability to live up to the legend will vanish within minutes. She is Wonder Woman now, and DC officially has a cinematic representation of one of its comic book icons worthy of stretching into a franchise.
Chris Pine is also a delight. He gamely plays the wisecracking sidekick/love interest role with wit, charm and class. At times, Pine and Gadot bounce off each other with the breezy ease and charming romance of a screwball comedy so well you may even forget that superhuman heroics are around the corner. Jenkins cast every supporting role to perfection and has already proven how well she works with actors. To curate and collaborate with such a memorable ensemble without losing track of the superhero thrills and war movie chills isn’t easy, Jenkins just makes it look that way.
‘Wonder Woman’ doesn’t just work, it’s likely a superhero blockbuster that will be beloved by many for quite some time. The DCU may have gotten off to a shaky and confused start, but at least everyone involved respected Wonder Woman enough not to shortchange her in this long overdue feature. The movie has some minor issues, but only those that plague almost every single blockbuster of this scale. For the most part, it’s a thrill ride executed with style, humor, sincerity, and just enough subtle intelligence to keep the think-piece blog posts coming for a few weeks. It’s hard to imagine a Wonder Woman movie turning out much better than this. By Monday, the character should be an enshrined cinematic icon, Gal Gadot will be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and Patty Jenkins will be able to direct whatever the hell she wants. Kudos to all involved. You earned it.