Heartfelt Wonder Woman a Selflessly Entertaining Superheroic Spectacle
It’s difficult to watch Wonder Woman outside of the bubble of current events. Based on creator William Moulton Marston’s iconic comic book character, this is the first big budget Hollywood superhero film featuring a female heroine. More, it is directed by Patty Jenkins, the acclaimed indie auteur behind 2003’s Academy Award-winning Monster, the first woman to helm a motion picture of this scope and size since Kathryn Bigelow brought K-19: The Widowmaker into port back in 2002. It is also the adventure that is supposed to set things right as far as Warner Bros and DC Comics’ shared cinematic universe (DCEU) is concerned, the collective stench of Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice not likely to dissipate anytime soon.
All of which puts the film in an untenable position. Wonder Woman has to be a success, almost none of the reasons why having anything to do with whether or not the feature itself is any good or not. It’s the event picture of the summer that has to prove female-led superhero epics are viable. It has to be a hit to ensure more women get the opportunity to helm similar efforts like this one instead of getting passed over for the job for whichever young, up and coming male director with less experience might be sitting in the wings ready to pounce. Stuff like this, it’s just plain silly, trying to dissociate all of that lunacy from the big budget tentpole at hand close to impossible.
I’m still going to try. Taken just as itself, trying to erase all outside influences, it’s safe to say Jenkins and her talented team have little to be worried about. Wonder Woman is grandly entertaining, offering up a hero whose heart and sincerity reveal a palpable sense of decency and self-sacrifice our modern world could use to learn a little from. It’s a big, bold and beautiful origin story, one that does Marston’s character justice and shows there just might be life in the DCEU yet, the smile plastered on my face for almost every single one of the film’s 141 minutes genuine and heartfelt, just like the determined Princess of Themyscira herself proves to be.
Diana (Gal Gadot) has been raised by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, away from the prying eyes of the rest of humankind. On their hidden island home of Themyscira, she has been told stories of what the people on the rest of the planet are like, about how she and her people were brought to life by Zeus ages ago to help protect his creations from all threats, even the ones they have brought upon themselves. Trained to fight by her fearless aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana has a gift for combat that is only exceeded by the breadth and depth of her compassion, the two delicately intertwined, making this Amazon unique even amongst her own people.
All is quiet in Themyscira until one day the outside world comes crashing to these pristine sandy shores in the form of U.S. Army spy Steve Rogers (Chris Pine). He’s gotten hold of a secret German notebook that could help put an end to WWI. But for that to happen he’s got to make it back to London alive. Even though she’s never seen a man before, even though she has no idea what’s in store for her outside of the home she’s always known, Diana is compelled to journey with Steve into the heat of battle, learning much about who she is and the extent of her miraculous abilities in the process.
And so begins Wonder Woman, Jenkins, along with screenwriter Allan Heinberg and story co-writers Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) and Jason Fuchs (Pan), doing a splendid job building the world their heroine is making the decision to actively inhabit. Diana and Steve head to London, meet up with his secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and get support from a trusted member of the British Parliament (David Thewlis). They assemble a ragtag group of mercenaries (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) to assist them in a perilous quest, everyone heading into the heart of darkness as they attempt to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his lethal assistant Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from unleashing a weapon of such staggering violence it could allow this Great War to continue on into the future with no foreseeable end in sight.
Much of this is delightful. The scenes set on Themyscira, including a sensational German assault put down by an army of determined Amazons, are magnificent, and for as brief as they sadly are the imprint they leave upon the picture cannot be undervalued. I also quite enjoyed Diana’s first moments taking in a smog-filled London, a montage of her and Ms. Candy trying to find suitable clothes befitting a woman of the early 20th century (and not her normal warrior attire) delightfully engaging. From there, the movie gets bogged down a little in requisite bits of extraneous exposition, losing a little forward momentum up until the point Steve leads his atypical team of rogues and scoundrels into the British trenches that separates them from Germans.
It is here where Jenkins brings her movie back to life, Diana stepping out into the bloody wasteland between the trenches in order to free a small village from the bonds of tyrannical oppression. It’s a glorious moment, the one viewers have likely been waiting for, and the director stages it perfectly. Taking a page out of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman playbook, Jenkins makes sure we understand Diana’s intentions are pure right from the start, that she’s not unsheathing her sword because she’s a great fighter looking to kill but because she expects that by doing so she can rouse others to fight for a just cause and with any luck convince her adversaries to lay down their arms. It’s spectacular stuff, all of it building to a moment of superheroic achievement that’s made possible, not because of this Amazon’s powers, but because she’s a member of a team willing to work together to achieve victory.
Gadot, the best thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and an important member of The Fast and Furious gang until the events of the sixth chapter in that series made that tragically unfeasible, is divine as Diana. She was born to play this character, her charming, charismatic demeanor bringing forth a humanistic disposition that makes Diana unique to, not just the DCEU, but to the world of comic book cinematic heroes as well. The level of hope she displays, the way Gadot continually puts her heart out in the open, choosing to believe the best in all she encounters even when their actions might lead another to believe otherwise, all of this comes through with an eloquent thoughtfulness that’s outstanding. I loved what the actress does, and if this performance doesn’t make her an instant star I’d be hugely surprised.
As wonderful as all of this might be, the movie does suffer from some of the same drawbacks that almost every other superhero adventure brought to the screen does since Iron Man first put on his armor way back in 2008. Like Marvel’s cinematic excursions, DC seems to be having their own problem creating memorably diabolical villains, and as good as both Huston and Anaya might be neither General Ludendorff nor Dr. Maru are particularly noteworthy. Better handled is the depiction of the cost of a war that stretches across the face of the Earth at this time, the depiction of the impact of bullets and bombs upon a civilian population suitably devastating. As for Pine, he’s just terrific as Steve Rogers, and part of me would almost love to see an origin story spun entirely around him and his James Bond-like escapades spying on the Germans during the war’s early days.
It’s unfair all the extra elements that have been stuffed onto this film’s plate. But even with all that extra pressure, Jenkins acquits herself admirably, and while I’d personally have liked it had she not utilized quite so much slow motion and had been given a few more dollars to sharpen up some less than stellar visual effects, this movie’s strengths far outweigh any of its more obvious weaknesses. Wonder Woman is a hero made for now, this moment, and the fact the filmmakers don’t just seem to realize this, but embrace it as an unassailable fact to be celebrated, is worthy, in and of itself, of a standing ovation.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)