2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielson, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya | directed by Patty Jenkins | 2 hrs 21 mins |
Wonder Woman arrives in the summer of 2017 on a wave of self-congratulatory girl power hype that found female critics, who wouldn’t have cared less about a superhero movie 2 years prior, claiming they wept openly in the isle over the display of female empowerment on screen directed by the first female director. In contrast, almost all of the women I know hate this movie, thinking it is cheesy, embarrassing and pandering. Not only is Wonder Woman not even close to being the first female superhero we’ve seen on screen, Patty Jenkins isn’t the first female director, a title that goes to the underrated Lexi Alexander for The Punisher: War Zone. That Lexi Alexander doesn’t get more work is a living embodiment of the sexism Hollywood claims it is confronting with this movie. All that aside, I like it less than most pat-on-the-back critics, but more than most people. When Wonder Woman is good, it is near excellent.
We start out on an idyllic fantasy world, an island of Amazon women who spend their days practicing for battle and learning about their ancient Greek god history. Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), world is changed when a fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes in the ocean in front of the island. His tales of the world gripped in a great war to end all wars using new weapons of unimaginable carnage line up with the stories Diana’s mother (Connie Nielson) told her about God of War Aries. They escape the island and trek to the world of men where they assemble a rag-tag group of soldiers and head to the front lines where spy Steve attempts to bring down a chemical weapon’s engineer named Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and Diana searches for Aries to stop the war.
Wonder Woman has a story more clever than most in the DC (and frankly Marvel) cannon to date. Blending Diana’s hunt for the God of War with the rarely seen-in-movies theater of World War 1 is a stroke of imagination, turning Diana’s fish-out-of-water story into a power fantasy where immeasurable strength goes up against machine guns and Diana’s sheltered naivety goes up against London’s gender dynamics. Director Jenkins (of the Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster) takes the World War world-building seriously, crafting a pre-Churchill London, trench warfare and small Italian towns in a classic period vibe. You can close your eyes, throw a rock and hit an action movie set in WW2, but The Great War is something more nuanced to depict on-screen. Like some of the best comic book movies, Wonder Woman approaches it’s fanciful elements through real-world grounding. It is a WW1 film in the same way The Dark Knight is wrapped in a gangster movie or Logan is a father-daughter story. These sequences have resonance. Jenkins lets the movie slow down and breath in ways that other DC films haven’t, offering quiet character moments. The film is 2 1/2 hours and richer for it.
In the process Jenkins tones down the more comic-book elements of the character (no invisible jet and Diana’s outfit is a bit color muted to match) in some areas, while indulging in comic book fun in others. In one scene Dr. Poison and her military partner Ludendorff (Danny Huston), trap soldiers in a room to die then giggle outside and scurry away like villains in the old Batman series. Pine is terrific here as well, giving Steve a fun Harrison Ford devil may care quality. The action scenes look great, with Diana and the Amazon’s mid-air fighting captured in just enough slow motion to keep it from feeling over-edited. Jenkins approaches this movie with faithful inspiration from Richard Donner’s Superman movies and crafts the film into something that more resembles that then the Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the story) DC Universe films.
Where Wonder Woman doesn’t work is in the sections that feel obviously studio mandated to fit the film into the rest of that hastily put together DC Universe. Instead of making an Iron Man stand-alone film, it has an unnecessary wrap around to tie the film back to Snyder’s Batman films. The third act in particular feels rushed, coming on very quickly as if a scene was deleted and then explodes in a garish, bombastic video game boss fight. It doesn’t match the rest of the tone and let’s us down that for once we might get out of a superhero movie without a light and sound CGI battle at the end. It’s both too big, given what we’ve seen before, and too small given that two gods are battle each other and can only think to throw metal rods and nearby tanks at each other. The final also checks off two of my most tired cliches: the disposable male willing to sacrifice himself at the drop of a hat and the Female Villain Reversal, which like in Hardcore Henry and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, sets up a nasty female villain and then brushes them aside to duke it out with a dude. It’s still a reconciliation with the reality that audiences may still not be comfortable with seeing a woman being killed on-screen – even if they are a diabolical, world-ending villain.
Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot’s star-making performance do a solid job of making Diana both incredibly powerful and given a flaw, naively innocent to the horrors of mankind. This flaw doesn’t turn into a character arc for her as she is proven right by the end. I can’t help but wonder if there is a version of this movie where Diana’s quest for Aries – which sounds crazy the entire film – ends up being proven wrong and the ending took her to a different, more grounded truth. Still, that might not fit with a movie about immortal Amazon women who use a lasso of truth. Wonder Woman is a rock solid film, unique in the superhero genre with great performances, grounded in reality and a vision by Patty Jenkins. The jewel in the tiny, miserable crown of the DC Universe, unlike Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, this movie is a lot of fun.