It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.
After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.
But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.
I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.
The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.
Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.
The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.
There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.
Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.
Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.
But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.
Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.
I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!