I could, in this introduction, talk about how DC and its “DCEU” is treading water, critically at least, with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman in the unenviable position of needing to right the ship. I could talk about how it needs to measure up to the latest offerings from Marvel, and set-up Justice League. But that would all just be deflection and missing the point. Wonder Woman has more important things riding on its success.
This is about women, in the superhero genre, in Hollywood, in films in general. That’s what Wonder Woman needs to accomplish: critically and commercially, it needs to be good enough to show clearly to those that control the purse strings that there is a place for women-led movies in the realm of capes and in the realm of blockbusters. It’s a heavy burden, and it isn’t fair, but here we are. It has a good director, a good cast, a decent introduction in Batman V Superman. But does it all come together? Does it pave the way? Is it what the genre, the medium, the gender, needs it to be?
The ancient and immortal Amazons reside on the hidden island of Themyscira, ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) who raises her daughter, Diana (Gal Gadot), to respect their traditions and be mindful of the inevitable return of the God of War, Ares, whom the Amazons were instrumental in defeating eons ago. In 1918 American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on Themyscira pursued by German agents: soon, Diana and he depart on a vital mission to bring an end to the “War To End All Wars”, a task that sees them come against the megalomaniacal German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).
Midway or so through Wonder Woman, the titular heroine is told by a straight-faced Steve Trevor that “You can’t save everyone”. Diana turns around, and decides she’s going to try and do just that anyway, and damn anyone who thinks that she can’t. And in an instant, Wonder Woman shows you the kind of film it wants to be, and the kind of hero it wants to showcase: a woman who isn’t going to take being told what to do, or to accept restrictions, anymore. And that is exactly what you need, in a film that is engaging, entertaining and altogether appropriate for the character on the cover.
And it would be nothing without that strong well-presented character journey at the heart, propped up by Gal Gadot’s stirring performance. A former Israeli soldier with the looks to match what you would expect of Diana Prince: pretty much hitting the nail on the head as it were. We see the young Wonder Woman grow up on screen, moving from a rebellious child to a would-be saviour. We see her take a mix of charming naivete and untested knowledge into the world of man. We see her as an outsider intent on wrecking a terrible patriarchal, racist system. And we see her as a conflicted person, trying to determine whether brute force is as effective an answer to the problems she faces as it may seem. She doesn’t come off as patronising, overdone or unrelatable, even with the super strength and agility. Instead, she’s just a strong female character, in every sense of the term: magnetic, a suitable role-model for her gender, and an interesting person to watch.
We cannot, and should not, underestimate the importance of Wonder Woman as a female character. The movie takes only a short time to showcase women as warriors of equal or greater skill than men, thanks largely to Robin Wright’s kickass General Antiope character, and it takes little time to showcase woman as serious figures of authority, as in the case of Nielson Hippolyta. And while from there it is largely the Diana Prince show alone in terms of female characters – bar Lucy Davis as Trevor’s assistant in a few brief comedic asides, and Elena Anaya as the secondary villain “Dr Poison” – it can’t be denied that Wonder Woman is the most female friendly and female-positive superhero film ever made. Diana navigates a world where she is not expected to talk in the company of men, let alone go out and fight on the trenches of western Europe. But nothing stops her, not the Allied Command, not a “greater good” sentiment from the otherwise sympathetic Steve Trevor and not German bullets.
There’s something wonderful about seeing a woman be both a leader, an asskicker, relatable and interesting. Wonder Woman accomplishes it all, and in a genre whose lack of representation for women has been a stunning and inexcusable disgrace. And while I don’t want to get too much into the comparative battle, it took DC three films to get to this point, while the MCU will be 0-19 before Captain Marvel makes it to screens in two years’ time. 0-19!
But the strength of Wonder Woman as a female story should not overshadow the masculine dimension, namely Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, so intricately involved in proceedings that I have seen the joke “Wonder Woman: The Steve Trevor Story” made in several places. It’s an exaggeration, as Trevor never takes over the narrative or side-lines Diana in any scene, but he does have a very effective part to play. He lacks the backstory or the fleshing out of Wonder Woman, but we still get an interesting man nonetheless: committed to stopping the war, even if he isn’t completely sure that humanity at large is worth all the trouble. You can see a deeper side to Trevor, through the excellent script and through Pine’s performance: Captain Kirk is better suited for a role like this than he was in one of the last things I saw him in. Trevor is a classic masculine action hero, a Boys Own adventurer, but he has a very obvious despair in him that properly undercuts this.
Combining the two narratives produces a romantic angle that could easily sink Wonder Woman, and I was dreading it to be fair, but the film manages to not get too bogged down in the inevitability. The romance plot takes over here and there, and builds to a suitable moment near the end of the second act, but never derails or overshadows the central drama too much, and indeed is one of the better executed love plots of this particular genre. It helps that Gadot and Pine commit totally to the premise and to the relationship, in an effort that oozes just the right amount of sentimentality. As the viewer will know right from the start – the film opening with Diana in the modern day, sometime after Batman V Superman – Wonder Woman is obviously making it through her first standalone adventure, but the tension then comes from whether Steve’s reckless mission to ensure the end of World War One will mean the end of him.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Wonder Woman as a war movie. I’ll admit, when I first heard of the setting I was a bit taken aback, worried we were about to see a lame attempt to cash in on German bad guys under the pretence of an original setting. But those fears were allayed. While it is the Germans shooting at Wonder Woman, it’s made clear that the real enemy is the larger intangible concept of war and man’s inhumanity to man: the Germans just happen to be the ones in Diana’s way on this occasion, and Wonder Woman goes to no special pains to show any foot soldiers of World War One in an heroic or evil light. The depiction of the Western Front is visceral and horrific, capturing well the mud-filled conditions and shattered psyches’ of those engaged in trench warfare, and contrasting this brilliantly with the cathartic breakthrough that Diana offers. In many respects, Wonder Woman takes a few cues from Captain America: The First Avenger in terms of very loose structure – there is a bit of the Howling Commandos in the ragtag group of mercenaries Diana and Trevor lead around – only with the First World War subbing for the Second. Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock provide a multi-racial/national back-up crew, and actual manage to have a bit of character in the process while politicians back home – most notably the ever-excellent David Thewlis – barter over peace terms. A variety of different war-related points are touched on: PTSD, collateral civilian casualties, American hypocrisy over race and out of touch commanding officers are just some examples.
But still German accents on the bad guys. Huston plays a very fictionalised version of General Erich Ludendorff – indeed, I think they just took the name and slapped it on an original character – who is very much a cackling villain, and I mean that literally. Next to him is the understated in speech but rather creepy Anaya, the two impersonating a sort of Golden Age antagonist in every maniacal utterance and grand scheme for mass destruction. The true villain of the piece is the shadowy Ares, the God of War, whose identity remains a mystery until towards the end, but he too strays into almost comical territory with his writing: he literally screams “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” at one point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having some over the top villains, and at least these are colourful and memorable, unlike, say the Enchantress of Suicide Squad. They also have the benefit of being understandable and buyable, unlike Lex Luthor of Batman V Superman. But they are still rather cartoonish, and sometimes presented in a silly fashion: without spoiling, the revealing of facial hair for one villain in a flashback is a laughable moment.
But moving beyond that, what would a superhero film be without its action, and here Wonder Woman has a bit to overcome in a saturated market. We get a random mix of stuff, going from horses, arrows and swords against Mauser rifles, to hand-to-hand fisticuffs in the back alleys of London. Jenkins and her cinematographer Matthew Jensen play around a bit with perspectives and cuts – some nice overhead stuff offers great glimpses of kinetic sequences, but do delve a bit too much into the rapid slow/rapid speed up in other moments. Jenkins doesn’t have much action chops when it comes to her filmography but certainly gets the character, thankfully Jensen does have the experience with action– Chronicle, Game Of Thrones and Fantastic Four are in his back catalogue – so it’s a good combination. A sequence involving Diana crossing No Man’s Land (very pointedly named as such here) on her own is probably the best of the film, as we exhilarate to her shielding herself from three German machine gun nests at once, holding firm amid a sea of lead, but the action generally is quite good.
The exception is easily the finale itself, which is a somewhat disappointing step back into CGI-based carnage, where the great hand-to-hand of earlier is replaced with tanks and tracks and bits of rubble being thrown willy-nilly between two deadly and powerful adversaries. The surrounds thankfully preclude a passing of the carnage threshold, as Man Of Steel did and as Batman V Superman came close to doing, but there is something a bit deflating about an otherwise great and personal superhero film turning into a slightly edgier looking version of Dumbledore vs Voldemort in Order Of The Phoenix.
The direction generally outside of that is top-notch. While Wonder Woman keeps one toe firmly planted in the realm of Zach Snyder’s grimdark visuals at times – especially in expository sections detailing the far past and the fall of Ares, which are 300-esque – it never lets it dominate: instead, Jenkins wants to show you a world worth fighting for, it the dreamy depictions of paradise on Themyscira, or in the occasional looks at a Europe not totally wrecked from the fighting. When it is time for the mud and the blood to take centre stage, Jenkins pans back to let us take the full atrocity that is the Western Front, but leaves plenty of space for the more intimate moments, when the faces of Diana and Steve are magnified to a dreamlike state. Jenkins has a thing about faces really: Diana stern beauty, Steve’s quiet determination, Ludendorff’s barely concealed insanity, Maru’s hidden deformities.
Allan Heinburg’s script is a fast-moving and engaging thing. The narration never seems plodding and the interactions are crisp and meaningful, especially between Diana and Steve: playful quasi-flirting on the nature of sex quickly and effectively turns to deeper discussion on the nature of man’s capacity for destroying other men. Even minor characters, like General Antiope, Scottish sniper Charlie and “Chief” stand-out well because of the way they are written, with plenty of care for what would be throwaway characters in other productions. The film is also edited and paced with care, in a manner that Zach Snyder would do well to take note of: despite being near two and a half hours, Wonder Woman is a breeze to sit through, with the requisite beats of comedy (that never takes over things or ruins the drama, cough Marvel cough) story-advancement and action, even limiting its finale blow-out to an acceptable duration.
There may be some disappointment over Rupert Gregson-Williams score. Zimmer’s wonderful Wonder Woman theme from Batman V Superman may have been an outlier, it only rarely popping up here with its infectiously memorable cello arrangement. Beyond that, we’re in the realm of passable but forgettable strings and horns, not out of line with any number of recent blockbusters, that fail to really make Wonder Woman stand-out musically.
So, Wonder Woman is, overall a great success, and on its own merits bodes well for what’s to come with the DCEU. Or, maybe not. The Justice League adaptation was getting much the same pre-opening treatment as Batman V Superman did from the nerd commentariat, ahead of the tragic revealing of Zach and Deborah Snyder’s terrible bereavement earlier this year, that leaves the film in the hands of Joss Whedon for the closing stages of its production. Such news, rightly or wrongly, will likely temper some of what I am confident is pre-prepared criticism for the latest superhero team-up, but it would not be an unsafe bet to place that Justice League will not be well-loved, it being grimdark as all hell based on the trailers. I liked Batman V Superman, and I’ve been a defender of Snyder’s visual choices, but even I was struck by how mundane and oppressive Justice League looks. But the involvement of Wonder Woman, now a beloved movie character, gives me hope that the film might rise above its visuals, and if DC’s standalone characters follow in the same vein, then the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg might all elevate it too, before we get to their own productions.
But I digress. Wonder Woman is, well, a wonderful picture. Its cast is doing great work, the story is strong, the visual direction is solid. Sure, the music could be better and the finale fails to pop like it should, but let’s be clear here: Wonder Woman does just what it needs to do, and that’s be a great superhero movie with a woman in the lead. It’s the best superhero film I have seen a long time. You should see it too. Twice preferably. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).