REVIEW: ‘Wonder Woman’ is a striking meditation on war wrapped in a solid superhero package

 Gal Gadot as Diana of Themyscira in  Wonder Woman , directed by Patty Jenkins.

Gal Gadot as Diana of Themyscira in Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins.

It’s important to take note when a movie becomes the fuel for a cultural moment. From the tone of the coverage of the newest Warner Bros/DC release, Wonder Woman, the film is clearly a multi-faceted triumph. It’s the first superhero film in recent memory to feature a female lead, and less crucially (but still significantly), the first DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film to be remotely watchable. Many pixels of online writing will be devoted to analyzing the titular character to figure out how well she represents women everywhere, and perhaps an equal number of pixels will be committed to trying to tear those assertions down.

However meaningful that discussion is, it has more to do with the film’s eventual legacy, and that’s quite different from the construction and impact of the work as a movie. Happily (despite persistent rumours to the contrary) Patty Jenkins’ picture is a sturdy, involving piece of work on its own merits. It uses the broader DC universe as a stage for a reflection on the causes of war – is it something inherent in human nature, or something we can struggle to avoid? And it does so from the unique perspective of a woman being introduced to real combat (and the 20th century) for the first time. While Wonder Woman isn’t immune to the usual genre tropes (uninspiring villains, a messy climax), it’s still a good place to start; not just for female-led comic-book movies, but for the DC franchise as a whole.

From the way the story opens, you’d think that this was the film that was meant to kick off the series. There’s no mention of Superman, and just a quiet reference to Batman. It then takes us back to 1918, the final year of the First World War, and settles into the origins of Diana, Princess of Themyscira (Gal Gadot). The screenplay by Allan Heinberg is in no hurry to cram in characters or overload on plot threads (as Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad did). Instead we get a linear, but rather talky, opening section explaining the hidden island nation where Diana grew up. It’s the realm of the Amazons, who were created by the Greek gods to keep humans from warring amongst themselves. But when Ares, the god of war, decided that humans needed be wiped from the Earth, the Amazons were the ones chosen to oppose him.

 Chris Pine as American intelligence officer Steve Trevor.

Chris Pine as American intelligence officer Steve Trevor.

Many years later, as the war encroaches on the island, Diana teams up with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy who washes up on the beach, to find out whether it’s Ares himself driving the German war effort. But as Diana finally rides into battle, she begins to realize that her idealistic code of good versus evil may not translate to the real world, and that winning a war isn’t about swords, shields or magical lassos.

As Diana, Gadot continues the confident performance that made her one of the few redeeming features of 2016’s Batman v Superman. Only this time, she’s given an entire film to show off, and Gadot fills it with percussive action sequences, sparks of comedy and well-chosen moments of vulnerability. One of the best parts of the film has nothing to do with superpowers or monologuing villains, but lets Gadot wrestle with some newfound information about the human condition, unleashing a mixture of despair and wrath. It’s a scene that says more about Diana’s role as a godlike character than two whole DCEU films have managed about Superman’s similar situation.

When it comes to the superhero action itself, Jenkins acquits herself well, despite Wonder Woman being her first stab at big-budget sequences. Jenkins taps into the visual language established by Zack Snyder for the series, using his recognizable speed ramping, but somehow more judiciously. It’s just enough to evoke a comic book panel here and there, but not so much that the production forgets it’s a movie – something that happens all too often in Snyder’s work.

That being said, the film can’t break every shackle in the genre. There’s a little too much investment in a big red herring regarding the villains, which creates a sloppy showdown in the third act, noteworthy though it may be for trying to keep the audience guessing. Ares is left to bellow a number of typical villain-esque things, which is just enough to psyche Diana up to unlock her true power. And though Pine and Gadot have some fine chemistry, the romance written for them is fairly canned, suggesting that other forces are at work (like the need of the screenplay to get Diana’s story to the present day).

 Danny Huston as General Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. 

Danny Huston as General Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. 

Tropes aside, the film still leaves a distinct impression. If we pull back once again to compare Wonder Woman to the other DCEU entries, it stands out as being a balanced combination of all the elements we’ve been calling for from the franchise: relatable characters, a willingness to poke fun at itself, and an embrace of that indefinable comic-book-ness. The last item is usually the first thing to go when a superhero film tries to be gritty or “realistic”, and a movie usually suffers for it.

Thankfully, when Diana climbs out of that trench in her full armour, ready to take on the horrors of the battlefield, it announces that we’re dealing with something different. The hell of No Man’s Land here is naturally a stand-in for the larger battle being fought for representation of all sorts of people. Wonder Woman isn’t the only step to take, but it gives us a damn good footing.

Wonder Woman gets three stars out of four.

 
 

Stray thoughts:

  • The showdown with Ares wasn’t the most special scene of its kind, but he did get blowed up real good, and I liked it.
  • I have a feeling a bunch of the Etta (Lucy Davis) material ended up as deleted scenes, which is a shame.
  • Did Steve and Diana sail from the Mediterranean to England? It looks like they were only at sea for one night!