Warner Bros and DC have wedged themselves into a tight spot following the over-hype and subsequent backlash of the first few films in their DCEU. “Man of Steel” was criticized for being too angsty. “Batman V Superman” was lambasted for being exactly what fans said they always wanted, a movie with so many inside references and easter eggs that it was incoherent to most. Even those who did enjoy it cringed at some of the 3rd act dialog. (MARRRTHA!) And “Suicide Squad”?? That movie was left in confetti pieces on the floor of a Trailer Editing Company. What we saw was a poorly pieced together highlight reel glued together with tired cliches. With “Justice League” coming out in a few months alongside rumors that with extensive reshoots it has been “essentially remade…twice” WB/DC are in desperate need of a Win.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on the first female-led superhero film in over a decade especially when you consider Marvel had reportedly cut back on Black Widow toys due to concerns that they wouldn’t sell. Thankfully, Patty Jenkins was brought on to direct, and although this is her first feature since 2003’s Monster, Jenkins obviously understand strong female characters.
Opening shortly after the events of BvS, a modern day Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) begins narrating an explanation behind why she has become so cynical, living amongst humans for decades and rarely lifting a finger to help. While at the Louvre, a package arrives that fulfills Bruce Wayne’s promise to her and we are whisked hundreds(?) of years into the past to Diana’s youth on the hidden island of Themyscira. An incredibly cute young Diana (Lilly Aspell) gleefully runs around evading her babysitter and shadow training with the adult Amazon Warriors. Although forbidden to train by her overprotective mother (Antiope) Connie Nielsen, it’s not long until she is sparring with the best, and demonstrating some unexpected abilities. Soon thereafter while pondering her powers atop a precarious precipice a plane pierces the protective partition which hides Themyscira from potential passerbys. Diana, seeing the pilot in peril, plunges into the water and drags him to shore. The pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) under the compelling power of a magic rope, tells the Amazons of an unimaginable War to End All Wars. He has personally learned that two Germans, Dr. Maru(Elena Anaya) and Ludendorff(Danny Huston) are on the cusp of creating a new poison gas that can wipe our entire battalions at once.
Diana, being both incredibly honorable and naive, believes Ludendorff to be Aries, the God of War. Based on the Fables she was raised on, Diana is convinced if she can vanquish him, the war will end.
All of the above is covered in an uneven first act that stumbles over itself in a hurry to deliver as much exposition as possible. Some of the visuals are stunning, while others are shockingly bad. Some moments earn an immediate grin, while others invoke a groan. Some of the dialog is intelligent and natural, while others are taken directly from the cliche handbook. “What have I done?” “She mustn’t know the truth” “She must know the truth!” And last but not least, “NOoooo!” (Shouted as one character throws their body in front of a bullet, dying to save the life of another.)
Thankfully, the balance is tipped in favor of good right as Diana is about to leave with Steve towards Europe. As she turns and faces her mother in defiance, all the hints point to another painfully familiar verbal battle. Instead, the short conversation they share is filled with understanding, love, and hope. Simple yet refreshing. These refreshing moments are sprinkled through the long but competently paced film. The action, humor and character building fall into an expert rhythm and we are bound to their story. It’s also here that Patty Jenkins’s influence can be felt. She knows how to pull the right expressions and stances from Gal Gadot. When Wonder Woman would set her mind to something, drop her shoulder and start walking with determination, the audience literally cheered. (Scarlet Johansen’s awkward walk in “Ghost in the Shell” is an example of how others get this painfully wrong) Jenkins’s direction portrays Diana on the screen as incredibly attractive without over-sexualizing her. While there is some humor to be found in the fish-out-of-water sequences, the best part about Diana’s innocence is it strips away the blindness of complacency. She immediately sees a situation for what it is, and neither social norms or embarrassment ever dare silence her. Her character becomes a looking glass for the audience into exactly how ridiculous the sexism and barbarians in our cultures is.
The final act of the film starts out great but near the very end stumbles once again into the pitfall MOST superhero films have. The Boss Battle. Once again, it’s a CGI Extravaganza of two avatars pounding the stuffing out of one another while spouting off dime-store philosophy, psychology 101 catchphrases, and pausing mysteriously right when the plot needs them too. While it may sound like a huge complaint to some, it’s actually rather minor. Consider the final fight in Iron Man; it’s arguably the weakest part in the entire film, yet the movie is still beloved. This is because the main characters are well developed, they are entertaining, and we care about them. THAT is the greatest strength in “Wonder Woman.” We like the characters and are internally cheering them on towards their goals. When a character gets their moment on screen, it carries an emotional resonance with it that is only found amongst the best films.
Note: For those who enjoy “layers” within a story, while watching the film consider how closely the Pseudo-Greek story aligns with the Christian dogma, and in turn how this compares to the Superman-Jesus allegories. It would be fascinating if future movies explored this further, but after seeing the latest “Justice League” trailer, I wouldn’t count on it.