Sometime this weekend, if you’re really still, you might hear it: no… not the wind, but a collective sigh of relief. That’s the multitudes of cinemagoers around the world, allowing themselves to declench as they realize: praise be, they’ve done it! Warner Bros. and DC have finally made a good DC Extended Universe movie.
While there are nits to pick (more on those later), and something does have to be said for contrast (almost anything coming on the heels of the misguided misfire that was Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and the utter trainwreck that Suicide Squad was is going to look refreshing), Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman delivers. It eschews those films’ thematic darkness and excessive posturing, focusing on character and relationships, giving weight to the drama that engulfs both.
The most important thing that Wonder Woman does right is get its main character right. This has been a problem with Superman in Man of Steel and Batman in BVS: they might wear the costume but they aren’t recognizable to fans who know something’s severely off when Superman kills and Batman practically exults in brutality and uses guns/cannons with seeming abandon. Diana is true to her character in Wonder Woman; this is the hero and champion that has been a pillar of DC Comics for almost 80 years (and, perhaps ironically, is the only one among “the trinity” for whom it would be in character to take a life if necessary, having been raised in a martial culture). The film tells her origin story confidently and effectively, with interesting supporting characters and a rich history tied to her home of Themyscira. Though Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright only appear in the first 30 minutes of the film (until Diana must leave the island), they make strong impressions, and you see the forces that shaped Diana’s development.
Scriptwriter Allan Heinberg was a wise choice; his comics story Who Is Wonder Woman? was one of the best WW stories of this century. It’s surprising that this is his first produced screenplay for a movie (his credits are mostly shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The O.C.) but his familiarity and handle of the character shine through. The sequences where she makes her way in London mark a stark contrast to her upbringing in an all-female society: it has never occurred to her to not speak her voice, to be fearful or to doubt her capabilities. Though the film can’t entirely avoid some of the tropes associated with a “Born Sexy Yesterday” character, it doesn’t delve into the murkier aspects; her naivete and ignorance of modern social mores don’t make her any less a powerful, self-actualized person of agency.
And here it needs to be mentioned how perfect the casting of Gal Gadot is. She inhabits the role like it was tailor-made for her, not like it’s been around 50 years before she was even born. She only really figured in the last act of BVS, but here she gets to show her range, and fully unleash the charisma that, if weaponized, would demolish us all. From steely determination to betrayal and anguish to delight at snow, Gadot just is Wonder Woman. Witness the scene where she tastes ice cream for the first time: in that moment, we are all Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)—marveling and sharing in the wonder of something that we have taken for granted. It’s an odd experience to be watching the film and noticing that your critical faculties are actually weakening in their resolve in the face of Gadot’s… well, charm. Things one might find cheesy when done by other actors rings true because of her sheer conviction and earnestness. There’s not a malicious bone in her body.
Chris Pine does his best work as Trevor; in some ways his role is not unlike Tom Hardy’s in Fury Road: stay out of the way of the lady and let her do her thing. But he does good work in his moments: he must represent what is worth saving in the world outside Paradise Island. And it’s not just an easy, clean-cut answer: that they go for a more complex idea of what makes humans so frustrating and wonderful is to be lauded. That the capacity for great good and evil exists in everyone isn’t the usual simplistic conclusion Hollywood prefers. Supporting players like Lucy Davis and Said Taghmaoui provide more than adequate support in terms of comic relief and color commentary.
Patty Jenkins might not be the first person you think of for a superhero movie whose main character was raised to be a warrior, but you wouldn’t know it from what she’s able to orchestrate, especially a kinetic attack on Themyscira and a stirring raid of a war-torn village. She’s just as adept at hero moments as when Diana emerges from the trenches to enter No Man’s Land (wink wink). The history lesson as moving paintings is also a standout.
The problems arise in the third act. Long the treacherous ground of most Hollywood blockbusters and superhero movies especially, an unnecessary twist prolongs the running time, saddles us with expository speechifying and a very messy finale makes for… well, not the best last impression. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, for example: largely a period piece, taking place in a World War, only for the sequel to be set in modern times.
The final battle, which takes place at night, features the players surrounded by flames and an overreliance on CG; it’s unimpressive, and looks familiar. Where have we seen this before? Oh, right– it’s practically the same final battle that’s in BVS. Some sequences are too dark and gloomy, colorless when it should be just the opposite. This is Wonder Woman! Not Batman, and not Zack Snyder’s brooding version of Superman. This likely has more to do with Jenkins being beholden to a “house style” for DCEU movies, one unfortunately established by Snyder’s drab, morose Man of Steel. The sooner they allow more color, the sooner they’ll get to where they want (Marvel).
But it’s to Jenkins and team’s credit that despite some missteps at the end, Wonder Woman was able to build up such goodwill in its first two-thirds that it’s forgivable. However it may have ended, this is a fine showcase for a character who’s long been overlooked in the canon of superheroes. With this movie, the inspiration that is Diana/Wonder Woman is no longer known only by those who’ve been reading the comics.
Photos from IMDB
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