Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, David Thewlis
Since first appearing back in 1941, Diana, princess of the Amazons, also known as Wonder Woman, has been one of the most iconic members of DC Comics’ stable of characters. Yet for some reason (can anyone hazard a guess?), while there have been eight Batman movies, and seven Superman movies, Wonder Woman has never been given her own feature film adaptation. Until now. As well as being the character’s first movie, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is also the first film in either the DC or Marvel cinematic universes to have a female protagonist, and is both the first superhero movie and first blockbuster with a budget of over $100 million to be helmed by a female director. All of this means that Wonder Woman will be unfairly saddled with the burden of representation, with many people ready to make sweeping generalisations about the commercial viability of female centric and female directed blockbusters based on its performance. Luckily then, Jenkins’ film is not only good, it is exactly the shot in the arm that the much maligned DC Extended Universe needed.
After a brief prologue in modern day Paris, we jump back in time for an origin story. Diana (Gal Gadot), the only daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), lives on the mystical island of Themyscira with the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war. Zeus has hidden Themyscira from the world of men, so it exists as a place outside of time where Diana and the other Amazons train under the watchful eye of General Antiope (Robin Wright). But their peace is interrupted when a war plane crashes just off the coast. The pilot, who Diana pulls from the wreckage, is American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), on the run from the Germans having stolen important information relating to a chemical weapons program. Steve tells the Amazons of ‘the war to end all wars’ that is raging around them and Diana, convinced this points to the return of Ares, decides to leave the security of Themyscira with Steve to stop him.
For the best part of a decade the superhero film genre, and DC’s films in particular, have lived in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. But with its preference for idealism over cynicism, Wonder Woman manages to break free from that pressure to imitate Nolan’s films, feeling tonally much more akin to the Christopher Reeve Superman films and Captain America: The First Avenger. In Diana we have a protagonist who is not haunted by a past trauma. She is not brooding and tortured. She is not broken, drowning in angst. She is good. She is a hero, not an anti-hero. She fights to restore peace and harmony to the world.
While World War 2 is often Hollywood’s touchstone for classic stories of good vs evil, the decision has been made here to change Wonder Woman’s origin story, shifting it from the Second to the First World War. While she is dropped into the middle of this conflict, unlike Steve Trevor, she does not actually fight for a particular side. While it has rankled some conservative commentators in the US, it is significant that our heroine here is not actually American. Her enemy is not Germany. Her enemy is Ares, and as such, is war itself. World War I was a period which saw a technological leap forward in mankind’s ability to kill each other, and is therefore well suited to the interjection of a hero with Wonder Woman’s goals. It also provides a slightly different look than we are used to seeing in this type of rollicking wartime adventure, helping to differentiate the film not only from the first Captain America film, but also from the likes of Indiana Jones.
Jenkins and screenwriter Allen Heinberg achieve something that had thus far eluded the DCEU: they create likeable characters. While the villains – General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) – are pretty generic, in both writing and casting they hit the nail on the head with the two leads. Gadot captures the innate goodness and earnestness of Diana in a way that is genuine rather than cheesy. She effectively sells the fish-out-of-water comedy when the character first enters the modern world. Superhero films are always about the spectacle of the human body, and that is no exception here. But while Diana’s costume is still skimpy, albeit in a functional rather than gratuitous way, Jenkins refrains from objectifying her with the gaze of the camera. While other characters might ogle her, to the camera, Diana’s body is a site of power and agency. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in the sequence that occurs shortly after their arrival at the front, where Diana rises from the trenches and strides out into No Man’s Land, drawing the fire of the German soldiers and inspiring the Allied troops into action. It is the high point of the film.
Chris Pine has a lot of fun playing Steve as a sidekick who is used to being the feature attraction, and he and Gadot share strong on screen chemistry.
Unfortunately, after a narrative turn in the third act the picture culminates in a stock standard, uninspiring CGI super smash. This is unfortunate both because we have seen this exact scene numerous times before, and, with the exception of the aforementioned ‘No Man’s Land’ sequence, the combat scenes are the weakest part of the film. Jenkins exhibits a preference for shooting the fights in wide shots showing continuous, highly choreographed action. It is an approach which draws attention to the CGI, which is at times underwhelming.
But third act stumble aside, Wonder Woman is a lot of fun. While so many superhero films have skewed dark in an effort to resonate with the zeitgeist, it may just be that Wonder Woman’s message of love trumping hate is actually what we need at the moment.
Review by Duncan McLean
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