OnScreen Review: 'Wonder Woman'
- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
I could spend a lot of time re-litigating the case against Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad and all the apprehension that surrounded Wonder Woman given the spotty track record at DC since they decided to make a DC Cinematic Universe. Instead, I’ll just refer to my reviews of both movies from my old blog, because I want this review to focus primarily on Wonder Woman. With a lot riding on this film, Wonder Woman steps up to the plate and delivers in a way that the previous DCCU installments have failed to do.
Set during World War I, Wonder Woman gives us the origin story of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the daughter of the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). The Amazons, created by Zeus to protect mankind, live in seclusion on their island of Themyscira , training in case Ares, the god of war returns. Afraid of losing her, her mother is reluctant to have her become a warrior, despite Diana’s eagerness to train. Trained in secret by her aunt (Robin Wright) until her mother finally relents, Diana is pushed harder than any other warrior. Hidden from the outside world, Themyscira’s isolation is broken when a pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane in the ocean nearby and is saved by Diana. Revealing himself to be an Allied spy, he is carrying valuable intelligence he stole from German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his mad scientist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Dr. Poison. News of the great “war to end all wars” leads Diana to conclude that Ares has returned and must be stopped. Armed with the sword known as “The Godkiller,” a shield, and the lasso of truth, Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve to confront Ares and help put an end to the war.
Much has been made of the fact that Wonder Woman represents the first female superhero movie directed by a female director, in this case Patty Jenkins. What direct bearing it has on the end product of this film is likely beyond me (or perhaps I just haven’t taken the time to consider it). Directing is definitely a male-dominated position, but the gender of the director doesn’t factor into my equation when I think of films like Zero Dark Thirty or Selma, I just think of them as well-made pictures. I think it is easy to get lost in the weeds of this subject and my preference is to focus on the merits of the film; whether those merits are directly attributable to the film being directed by a woman or not, they certainly speak to the capability of Jenkins as a director. And they speak volumes.
If there is one attribute of this film that stands out more than anything (and it is something that DC was desperately in need of) it is the pervading feeling of fresh eyes being involved. Jenkins, as director, brings a different color palate and different visual style than Zack Snyder did with BvS and David Ayer did with Suicide Squad. To be frank, this film does not drastically deviate from the conventions of most superhero films. It shares some obvious similarities to Captain America: The First Avenger, which is unavoidable considering the backdrop of war. Yes, the final act turns into a giant boss fight like nearly every other superhero film, and, yes, there is seemingly a ring of fire around the fighting that nearly gave me flashbacks to the hellscape in downtown Metropolis at the end of BvS. However, it is toned down here, and it takes place at a military airfield, and the war makes it more palatable as a more natural environment for explosions and destruction. It’s also refreshing to not have a climactic battle have everything be doused in rain and look so murky that it can be difficult to make out everything that is going on (I’m looking at you, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
In the same way Jenkins brings new eyes to the film as director, Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman is a character with fresh eyes. Venturing into the outside world from an all-female society, everything appears new to her, but yet she has a level of poise to talk almost all of it in stride. It’s occasionally played for laughs, like when Steve is trying to guide her through the streets of London. Particularly entertaining is when she bursts in on a war council meeting and the men in the room are completely flummoxed at the presence of a woman in their midst. The wrong look on her face could engender critiques of playing it up as a moment of female empowerment against the patriarchy of the time. But the scene resists that and the look on her face is perfect; it doesn’t register in her mind why these men would have an issue with her being there.
There are other instances of her making a similar face or a situation where her status as a fish out of water or stranger in a strange land is highlighted. I struggled for the right words to describe it to myself throughout the film until the end. There is an earnestness and sincerity to the character that is incredibly refreshing. And based on some comments I’ve seen on social media, it is very deliberate choice by Jenkins. This is yet another characteristic Wonder Woman seems to share with Captain America. But oddly, she reminded me of Buddy the Elf in Elf in terms of how she steps out into this bigger world and approaches everything with an earnestness, an innocence, a little naiveté, and pureness of character that is rare in most people who are hardened by their experiences with the world. Another character she also evoked in my mind was Leeloo in The Fifth Element, who coincidentally had a male “sidekick” of sorts in Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas.
Gadot, who was arguably the best thing about BvS, is great in the role of Wonder Woman, perfectly embodying the physicality of the character as well as her previously mentioned sincerity. I also thoroughly enjoyed that she practically never listens whenever anyone tells her to stay put, whether her mother or Steve. Pine has quietly turned into one of the finer actors around, and fits in perfectly alongside Gadot’s heroine and serving as her tour guide of sorts to the “world of man” and doing his best to explain things from slow-dancing to why she can’t carry a sword in public. For the first time since the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, a DC movie features characters that feel fully formed.
A lot of superhero films portray their characters doing great feats in the name of love or out of a sense of duty (The old Spider-Man line, “With great powers comes great responsibility”) or moral obligation. Wonder Woman has those things too, but there was more to it. As a character experiencing the world for the first time, she’s witnessing death, pain, and suffering for the first time too. There is a moment early on when she sees another Amazon killed by a bullet. Later, as they approach the front lines, she sees the injured soldiers returning from the front. Her face is full of compassion. It’s that compassion that fuels her sense of duty and compels her to finally make a stand and say, “I’ve seen enough, I have the power to do something, I have to act.”
Superhero films regularly deal with the battle of good vs. evil. In this regard, I appreciated the nuanced approach that Wonder Woman takes to this topic. She is driven by the belief that if she kills Ares, mankind will stop their fighting and there will be lasting peace. Of course, as anyone knows from history, this mindset in a film set in World War I is pure folly. Fortunately, the film’s attitude is not so simple or cut and dry, as explained when she finally does come face to face with Ares.
Wonder Woman is a homerun. While at times a standard superhero film, the strength of the story and central character elevate it far above the previous film in the DCCU. Gadot is terrific in the lead. It’s a breath of fresh air in a series of films that have been dour and overly serious to this point. Attributable to a female perspective or not, it is a welcome and refreshing perspective on the genre. And maybe more than anything, it’s a ray of hope for DC Films.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars