They finally got it right! After three DCEU films that have ranged from mediocre to terrible, the stars have aligned and given them a film that is worthy of praise. Wonder Woman has had a long and hard road to the big screen but the end result makes it feel like all the patience paid off. This is a prime example of a popcorn film that is bolstered by its lead cast, an intriguing period setting and a surprisingly strong emotional resonance that elevates it above being merely about spectacle.
This is Wonder Woman’s “origin story” but it isn’t bogged down by it. Sometimes comic book origin films can drag a bit because so much time can be spent introducing us to the characters but Wonder Woman finds a balance that works. We learn enough about Diana to feel like we’re not completely lost but the narrative always feels like it’s moving forward. This narrative flow is very rare for comic book origin films so the movie deserves many accolades for even achieving that.
Although the character was awkwardly inserted into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (awkward yet she was the best thing about an otherwise mess of a film), this outing provides context to her appearances in that movie. The character is arguably the third best-known member of the DC superhero family (after Superman and Batman). Like Hulk, Wonder Woman’s profile was enhanced as a result of a 1970’s primetime TV show and, as campy as the Lynda Carter version was, it nevertheless made Wonder Woman a household name. As a result, this movie arrives in theaters with more buzz and anticipation than it might otherwise have (the 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t hurt either).
The origin story has a bit of a twist. The biggest comparison to be made is between this film and Captain America: The First Avenger. Much like that film, it skips back in time to introduce the character’s beginnings during a different era. With the exception of two short framing sequences, all the action transpires in the early part of the 1900’s (with a majority in 1918). This proves to be a huge asset for the film because it makes it visually unique when compared to its counterparts and, with the exception of the scenes that begin and end the film, there are no real attempts to connect this film to any future movies in the DCEU. Batman v. Superman haphazardly threw in a few cameos to let us know that Justice League was eventually coming and Suicide Squad shoehorned Batman in to make that film connect more with the universe as well. Wonder Woman isn’t bogged down by these necessities. It gets to tell its own story and it proves to be their strongest recent effort because it feels entirely focused.
Wonder Woman’s central premise – that the main character, Diana (Gal Gadot), is the demigod daughter of the immortal Zeus and the Amazon Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems absurd on paper but the screenplay, credited to Allan Heinberg, develops this fantasy-flavored alternate reality in such a way that we buy into it. After some early getting-to-know-you scenes that illustrate aspects of life on the island of Themyscira, which is populated exclusively by adult warrior women, the story is propelled forward by the crash-landing of American intelligence officer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). After speaking passionately about the evils of war, Steve inadvertently convinces Diana that she must accompany him back to “Man’s World” to find and do battle with Ares, the God of War. Only with his defeat can the human race have a chance to find peace.
From there, the film moves to London, where Steve and Diana promote a secret mission into German territory to destroy a cache of gas weapons. They are thwarted by the diplomat Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), who believes any such covert operation would threaten the planned armistice. Behind-the-scenes, however, Sir Patrick agrees to help. Steve recruits three compatriots – Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – to come along. Their goal is twofold: stop the Germans from deploying and using a new kind of mustard gas and allow Diana to confront German officer General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), whom she believes to be Ares.
The scenes in London, that show Diana incorporating herself into a world she doesn’t quite understand are the strongest in the film. The fish out of water appeal is reminiscent of 1978’s Superman and gives the movie a bit of a throwback sensibility that is very refreshing. Some of her reactions to a world she’s unfamiliar with are played for comedy (finding a sensible outfit for a warrior woman proves quite comical) but some of them are also played for drama, and effectively so. The scene that takes place in No Man’s Land is a prime example of this. She wants to halt their mission in order to help but the others insist they move on. Her genuine response to their reluctance is surprisingly gripping and it leads to the best action sequence in the film. Not only does director Patty Jenkins have no issues showing us the scope of the sequence (her depiction of combat in these scenes reach a level of realism for a comic book film that I haven’t quite seen before) but the No Man’s Land scene is more than displaying action. This is about Diana taking charge and showing her strength and power. This aspect gives the sequence a palpable emotional resonance that only makes the action greater.
This might be a topic of debate for fans who have enjoyed the previous three DCEU films but the filmmakers have learned from the failings of their immediate predecessors when it comes to tone and style. The darkness inherited from Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Trilogy remains but it’s lightened by humor and a flirtatious romantic element. There’s a charm to the Steve/Diana boat scenes and the fish-out-of-water aspect of her arrival in London. The movie takes itself seriously but not so seriously that it’s afraid to crack the occasional joke. When color and vibrancy is needed, the film isn’t afraid to display and when things need to play darker, it knows when to do it. This is a recent DCEU film that finally seems to “get it.”
Gal Gadot showed promise in her few scenes in Batman v. Superman but with her own outing, she proves worthy of the task to carry her own film. She’s not a completely polished actress but, in the case of this role, it adds to the likability of the character. She also is able to display great moments of strength mixed with candid moments of vulnerability. It’s no easy task to do this but Gadot does it with ease. The best thing to be said is that she has a strong screen presence and she’s always believable in the role.
Chris Pine exudes the right amount of charm as Steve and it’s interesting to see a man in the love interest role of a comic book movie. He’s not quite a damsel in distress because he’s strong in his own right but he never threatens to outshine Gadot, and that’s a good thing. He develops an engaging enough personality that we care when he’s in danger and he shares an unforced chemistry with Gadot that adds even more emotional weight to the film. Love stories can sometimes feel thankless in these kinds of films but it proves to be an asset here.
If there is one gripe to be addressed it’s that the last act isn’t nearly as strong as the first two. It doesn’t derail the film by any means but it does fall into the familiar superhero trap of having a CGI-heavy climax that seems standard for the genre. The special effects battle does have a bit more heft because there is more at stake but it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been there and done that by the time we reach the climactic battle. There are moments sprinkled throughout the sequence that prove to be strong but it feels very familiar and not as fresh as what has come before it.
Nevertheless, Wonder Woman is a crowning achievement and is certainly the best DC film since The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a rousing adventure that feels like a breath of fresh air and it gives me some hope that DCEU can get this right and produce a quality motion picture. It may have taken Wonder Woman a long time to reach the big screen but she was certainly worth the wait.
Reel Talk gives Wonder Woman 3.5 Reels