Film Review: ‘Wonder Woman’ delivers heart, soul, and a jolt to the superhero genre

Ever since the DC Expanded Universe had its film slate announced prior to the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’ve been absolutely terrified of one date in particular on the schedule: The release of Wonder Woman on June 2.

Not because I was afraid of a Wonder Woman movie or threatened by it — I grew up watching the Lynda Carter television show alongside the 1966 Batman and devoured the Boston-set George Perez comics as soon as I could get my hands on them — but because I was deeply afraid that they’d fuck it up. This is the same DCEU that introduced its Superman and Batman as stone-cold killers, that cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, and seemed to deeply misunderstand its characters and their motivations in favor of both macho posturing and bravado. In any case, it didn’t seem like the ideal environment for healthy films to grow in, and even when Wonder Woman was introduced in BvS, something about it felt off. Sure, she was the only character who had fun in that film, but everything else was so bad (including the action sequence she debuted in, where one of her first shots in action highlights what’s under her short skirt) that it was hard to take seriously. And for a while, every piece of good news that came with it seemed accompanied by a piece of bad news. Director Patty Jenkins wants to shoot on film? The set is a mess. Gal Gadot looks badass? Here’s an underwhelming trailer. And so on and so on, and I was panicked, writing articles like this as a way to express my skepticism.

Ladies (and gentlemen, I guess), I’m here to tell you that I was wrong, and I am so glad that I was.

Wonder Woman tells the story of Diana (Gal Gadot), Princess of the island Themyscira and daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who grows up the only girl on a isle full of women; immortal Amazons, the living embodiment of love and strength, hidden away from the world by Zeus to protect them from the wrath of God of War, Ares (spoilers, jeez), who slaughtered the other gods for their love of mankind. She lives a seemingly idyllic life, though she trains for some unknown calamity with her aunt Antiope, the general of the Amazonian army, in the cover of darkness, away from the prying eyes of her worried mother. Years pass, and after a particularly bizarre training session, Diana watches as a strange aircraft appears in the sky and crashes into the ground. Aboard is an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who is the first man that Diana’s ever seen in her life, and is also fleeing from the might of the German army. Trevor tells the Amazons of “the war to end all wars,” and his plans to stop it: He’s stolen a notebook of plans for a new chemical weapon, and wants to give them to his bosses in London so that they may alert those at the front. Diana and the Amazons believe that Ares is behind the whole ordeal, and so she accompanies him into the real world, embarking on a quest to both end the war and to kill Ares so that he can stop poisoning the hearts of men.

Those expecting a total overhaul of the DC template will find themselves deeply disappointed, as Allan Heinberg’s script adheres closely to the Snyder formula: Dead parental figures sacrificing themselves nobly, living parental figures discouraging their super-powered children from going out in the world and making a significant difference, a giant fight between super-powered beings that nearly overwhelms the subtleties of what came before it. The World War I setting is frankly a bit of an odd choice, especially given that, outside of a single action sequence in the middle of the film and the occasional moment involving unempathetic generals, it seems significantly more suited to a World War II setting, even if Captain America got there first. Part of this may just be due to the fact that WWII was the first American conflict to have the conventions of cinematic narrative firmly established, and the action of that war is significantly more suited to the screen than the lengthy tragedy of the trenches. Or, it might just come from the liberal cribbing from the Cap cliffnotes, down to the dancing. That’s not totally meant as a slight, as it’s done effectively and efficiently, but it’s hard to imagine it being done better in different hands, especially with the limitations of the Snyderverse.

The action, as it stands, is effective, though it’s hampered by some really garbage VFX that feels extremely weird in a movie this big. Most of the shots in which Diana jumps look terrible, and it’s weird that the notoriously cheap Marvel movies can one-up them on such a seemingly basic effect. The effects work that’s done on the big bad near the end of the film is terrible, though that might be more due to the design of the character itself, than anything else (it’s been a great summer at the movies for villains taken straight out of the Dark Souls franchise). Happily, most of the physical action succeeds, even if it suffers a bit from the Snyder-cam speed-ramping that’s defined the Trinity films so far during some of the more spectacular moments.

The fight scenes on Paradise Island are the standouts here, and that entire section of the film, from the beachhead fight between the Amazons and a battalion of German soldiers to the scenes of Diana’s training are a truly brilliant blend of the action found in your typical high-fantasy franchise and the stylings in the superhero genre itself, and despite adherence to the house style, it carves out a nice little niche for itself. Yet Jenkins is at her most comfortable directing her stars simply interacting with one another, and it’s absolutely a pleasure to watch her framing and editing choices within each of those scenes, and it gives a layer of old-fashioned Hollywood charm to the proceedings, though it strives to be significantly more inclusive.

It’s wonderful to see that Jenkins has filled out the Amazon ranks with legitimately tough-looking women (which is not to suggest that Gadot, here playing a young version of her character, isn’t). The director also manages to fit in a large range of body types and races in both worlds, with the romanticized post-racial WWI being presented here in a similar vein to the idealized WWII in Cap. Significant brownie points go to Jenkins for at least slightly addressing issues of race through Saïd Taghmaoui’s secret agent Sameer and Eugene Brave Rock’s Chief, and the great writing that informs those performances. Yet Paradise Island itself remains a beautiful glimpse into an alternate world, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s lush photography of those scenes helps to highlight the warmth of the otherworldly. As such, he utopian aspects of series creator William Moulton Marston’s matriarchy are well-preserved here by Jenkins, and they’re sure to be inspiring to a number of people in the audience that have previously felt left out by the big-budget, white and male-only world of Hollywood blockbusters.

It’s a daring vision to present a society of warrior women to a world that can occasionally seem hell-bent on confining them to the damsel role, or crammed in refrigerators for the emotional motivation of the male characters.

Wonder Woman, like most of the DC films that don’t rhyme with Puicide Pquad, is quite well-cast, and the supporting roster is able to be effective despite their limited screentime. Nielsen’s Queen Hippolyta is perhaps the best of the shitty DCEU parents, as the film’s able to spend enough time with the child Diana and the young woman she becomes to make her relatable in a way that Snyder could never quite capture with Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent. Likewise, her reluctance to endorse her daughter’s travels outside the confines of Themyscira is more palatable here than Pa Kent’s discouraging words to Clark ever were, even if it makes about the same narrative sense (one has a feeling that a third act revelation initially had greater stakes involved for Diana, but as it stands here, Hippolyta just feels a bit selfish and petty). Robin Wright is able to passionately bark orders at her troops and her young trainee, but she has trouble nailing the peculiarities of Gadot’s accent and comes across a bit like John Malkovich in Rounders at certain points. The sub-villains, Danny Huston’s evil German general and Elena Anaya’s pre-Mengele Doctor Poison, aren’t given much to do, aside from a particularly fun monologue that Huston gets to snarl at Diana during a ball sequence (I will point out how much I love the way that Anaya’s character moves and looks: She feels ripped straight out of a contemporaneous silent horror film, and it’s a really lovely touch).

As expected, Pine delivers a standout performance, one that matures deeply as the film trots along. While he’s still maintaining here the slipperiness that defined his take on Captain Kirk, it’s arguably put to a better use here, and Jenkins knows how to wring every single drop of humor from his quirks. He’s at his best when used as a grounding agent, effectively playing the Spock role to the limitless optimism espoused by Gadot, and much of the film’s humor comes directly from the charming relationship the two share. In fact, they’re so good together that they renders the appearance of Pine’s comic-relief secretary (Lucy Davis) an unnecessary diversion every time she’s ready to make a quip about “getting the vote” or her penchant for “fisticuffs.” Yet the humor between the two is grounded in a sense of drama and it’s the dramatic work he does later on in the film that proves singularly effective. Trevor’s not given expressive monologues about his past or what he’s done to wind up as an American working for British Intelligence aside from a few gentle hints that the fellow’s seen some trouble along the way. He is able to communicate all we need to know through subtle changes in tone and urgency, and it feels honest in a way that’s missing from many of his other performances.

For all of Pine’s great work, however, it’s really one woman’s show here.

Gadot, one of the standout performers of the whole damn DCEU, cements her position as the heart and soul of this particular universe. She’s playing a young Diana here, full of naivety and joy, set out into a world that’s full of suffering and misery and plenty of blue tint, and she’s a fantastic contrast to her surroundings. Her innocence never feels patronizing, it only feels righteous, especially when confronted with the injustice of it all (one wonders if there’s a good Buddha parallel hidden within her character’s arc). Above all else, and directly unlike any other DC hero put on film since 2008, she’s got a heart and the angst-free agency to do what’s right no matter what, and her lone refusal of the call comes not from selfishness, but from an honest-to-Christ doubt about the efficacy of her actions. It’s astonishing that the film’s greatest thrill comes not from the fights or the other daring feats that make up much of the runtime, but rather from Diana refusing to listen to Trevor’s attempts to dissuade her from saving a small Belgian town from the Central Powers. She removes her cloak, and steps out into No Man’s Land, bullets striking her bracelets and exploding into showers of sparks, and in those moments she looks invincible, much in the same way that the truly iconic male superheroes have in their film. It’s a thrill up there with seeing Christopher Reeves’ Superman take to the skies, or Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers truly assume the mantle of Captain America by rescuing a group of POWs from the clutches of Hydra. She’s got the heart to rise to the same iconic highs, and Gadot carries the movie heroically.

Yet on many levels, this movie wasn’t made for me, no matter how much I may love it or have my quibbles with it. There’s undeniably going to be a powerful response to Wonder Woman from the women and girls who get a chance to see it this week and others, and I’m incredibly glad and grateful that they’re going to get an experience taken with the same sort of seriousness that we’ve come to expect from all of our properties. I don’t mean this in terms of tone, but rather in terms of mutual respect — it doesn’t talk down to its audience, or berate them for being tremendous nerds as was the trend for a long time — and it gives us the chance to honestly admire it for what it is: One of the best superhero films that Warner Brothers has ever released, and an inspiring and rollicking good time.

It’s my hope that each young girl with an interest in superheroes and action is able to see this movie free of the toxicity that surrounds it, and that each young interested boy sees it to learn that women can be heroes too — and if he’s wrong to them, that they’ll kick his ass. And to the geeky women who’ve been shunned out of comic book stores by creepy clerks, or have been quizzed about their fandom by loser men who can’t tolerate having a “feee-male” potentially know more about what they like, or have been told by creators that they just can’t do anything about representation in media finally have something to point to, to show that they not only have a place at the table but are just as good and competent as everyone else. God knows they deserve that, and now they’ve got a movie worthy of it.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.

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