Before I really get started… it feels good to say up front that Wonder Woman is a pretty great movie on all fronts. Looks great, better than expected story with some nice flourishes, good acting and chemistry between the main characters, a nice sense of humor, distinct feel, it all works really well and you should definitely go see it. It’s not the best superhero movie ever, it doesn’t revolutionize anything, but it absolutely nails Wonder Woman and is a lot of fun. If Warner Bros starts turning out DC movies on this level, we are in for a good time this next five years or so as they really begin to launch their own shared cinematic universe.
Wonder Woman is an origin story, of which we have seen plenty, but it’s one of the more interesting and novel ones out there. The basics are as follows. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the princess of Themyscira, a magically protected island where the Amazons of Greek mythology live and thrive in seclusion from the rest of the world until American soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies a plane through their magical barrier and crash lands on their beaches, bringing with him guns, Germans and the horrors of WWI. Sensing the handiwork of Ares, the evil god of war who wiped out the Greek pantheon thousands of years ago, in such a despicable and stupid war Diana ventures forth with Steve to first England, No Man’s Land in the middle of Europe and finally deep behind enemy lines to confront Ares and his warmongering ways once and for all. I’m pretty sure nobody actually calls her Wonder Woman in this film though I will throughout this review.
Like I said, the story is not really that original and in fact it will probably remind a lot of people of the first Captain America movie (they even do a similar, tragic death scene that makes about as much sense as it did in First Avenger), but there are a couple of things that make it unique. First, it’s set in WWI, a war that modern cinema and storytelling has almost completely forgotten. Besides being a pretty great superhero film, Wonder Woman is actually a pretty strong WWI film as well. Director Patty Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg took great pains to capture the muck and the mire that makes WWI such a uniquely terrible war; the combination of modern guns with outmoded tactics, trench warfare where armies sat for years and only gained a few feet and the absolute destruction and human misery that was most of Europe for a little over four years. WWI is a unique background to tell Wonder Woman’s first adventure and really works better than WWII ever could. While Diana is certain that Ares is behind this destruction, we the audience are much less sure and the movie keeps teasing us with whether or not he even exists to perpetuate all this senseless killing or if it’s just the evil and stupidity that is in the heart of all mankind. And while the movie does ultimately give Diana an Ares to punch and throw tanks at, it walks a really nice middle ground of still making WWI a human creation and not one that can be blamed on a god. Diana has to confront that reality and it makes for a nice character arc for her.
The second thing that makes the story work so well is Diana herself. I’ll get to Gadot’s performance in a moment, but the way they write and present her is extraordinary. Inexperienced and naive are often mistaken for each other, but they aren’t actually the same thing, the same with simple and straightforward. It would have been easy for Diana to be presented as simple and naive, but they chose inexperienced and straightforward and the movie would have failed without this distinction. Trevor does spend a lot of time explaining things to her, to be sure, but it’s because she has literally lived on an island for thousands of years, not because she is dimwitted herself. She grasps the things that he is explaining to her, but instead of accepting them she oftentimes outright rejects them. She knows who she is and she knows what she stands for and if the world of WWI Europe can’t handle it, then she will reshape that world through her own strength and determination. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s really profound on the screen and really works as the heart of the character where all her strength, ideals and bravery flows from. Wonder Woman as an archetype, as an idea, is often overcomplicated and lost next to Superman or Batman; she’s often thought of as just a badass who inspires people, especially female characters and readers, in a generic, nebulous way. But that’s not who she really is and the writing and storytelling do her full justice here.
I remember being as surprised as anybody by the news that Gal Gadot had being cast as Wonder Woman. I was never concerned about her physical frame, Hollywood has been able to beef up actors for decades and has honed it to a science in this superhero era we live in. Rather I just didn’t know anything about her, even less than some of the choices Marvel has made over the years, like Chris Hemsworth. But she crushes it. Her physicality, her presence, and yes ever her beauty all work to transform her into Diana in a way that I had not thought possible; even her accent adds to the performance. It’s funny, we are going on two decades of flesh and blood actors bringing these larger than life comic book characters to life and it still surprises me from time to time when they pull it off. She somehow makes a fur coat, full Amazonian armor with sword and shield while running around the trenches and besieged towns of Europe work… it’s kind of amazing really. There is a big scene where she climbs out of a trench and charges the enemy lines deflecting machine gun fire with her shield and It is a sight to behold. Gal Gadot’s performance and screen presence make me want to see any DC movie she is in going forward, and considering how unimpressive they have been, that’s saying quite a bit.
If Gadot had even a smidge less presence on the screen, Chris Pine might have stolen the movie from her because he is pretty great here. From his resistance to the Lasso of Truth all the way to the end of the movie, he is warm, funny, haunted and determined to end this conflict. His chemistry with Gadot sparkles throughout the movie and not just in a romantic way. They form a team and friendship that is not merely romantic and work together on equal terms almost from the beginning. The rest of the WWI based cast is also good, though not nearly as memorable as the two leads, though they do have their moments.
This film starring a woman was directed by a woman; it includes the Amazons, the definition of strong woman, and the first big fight scene has a contingent of Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) and General Antiope (Robin Wright, who is great) cut through a regiment of German troops who are invading their homeland. Feminism and representation (which I talked about in my Briggs Land review here) are unavoidable when talking about this film but I’m only going to talk about representation for now. The film never shies away from Gal Gadot’s beauty or her body, but it never objectifies her either. The camera treats her with respect and the weight that she deserves in a way that male directed films often don’t and I think that comes from having a female director. The amazons are a diverse group of woman, representing all shapes, sizes and skin tones (google Ann Wolfe) and take a back seat to nobody. This sense of representation even extends to the men Trevor recruits for their mission; a talented actor with the wrong skin color (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Native American on nobody’s side (Eugene Brave Rock) and Scotsman with a bad case of PTSD. They all play second fiddle, no doubt, but they offer nice moments that give Diana a better understanding of the world and all its faults. A straight white director might have given them the nuance they had in the final product, but it feels like something that comes from Patty Jenkins as much as anything else. Simply by being who she is, director Patty Jenkins reshapes parts of the movie for the better. Sometimes, it really does just come down to giving women or minorities more power and freedom to do their thing.
But the thing that I found most remarkable was the fight scenes centered around Wonder Woman. She does things that I don’t think I have ever seen a woman do in an action movie or any movie at all. She picks up tanks, she cuts men down with skill and determination and she even body slams through the bell tower of a church to get a sniper almost bringing down the whole building while she’s at it. She busts through a wall, lands on another building, runs along it and then jumps into another building where men start flying out the windows screaming. In her big fight with Ares there is a moment where she dashes off screen, Ares is looking for her and she shoulder checks him from the side into a plane, something I’ve seen Superman or Iron Man do, but never saw Catwoman or Black Widow do. There has always been strong woman on screen and there has even been badass woman who kick butt just as well as any man, but I really don’t think I have ever seen a female character have such power and raw physical strength as is shown in Wonder Woman; she picks up a tank in the middle of the movie and I can’t even begin to explain to you the emotional response I had to it. Trinity from the Matrix is the only real comparison that comes to mind and it’s just not the same. Similar to Laura in the Logan movie (my review here), there is something special about seeing a woman effortlessly over power scores of men in a fight scene. It’s almost the best part of the movie (you can read the reaction women had to these scenes here and here).
Wonder Woman stands alone as Warner Bros first really great DC movie and it stands apart from the equally great Marvel movies in terms of its tone and style. I actually like Zack Snyder’s visual directing, but it felt out of place in Batman v Superman. Here, his house style is nicely toned down and balanced by sunlight and bright colors and some good humor. Not everything needs to be so grimdark and I hope Wonder Woman offers them a better, lighter path forward for the DCEU, though I don’t have the highest of hopes for Justice League. Take your girlfriends, take you sisters and especially take your daughters to Wonder Woman.