A good friend of mine recently remarked, upon seeing the RottenTomatoes score for Wonder Woman, that he hoped there was not a “reverse Ghostbusters” effect at work – that critics fearful of accusations of sexism weren’t going soft or over-praising a weak movie. As I noted in an earlier piece, this film carries significant stakes with regards to the future of female superhero movies, and thus far the DC Cinematic Universe has been most notable for a distinctive absence of quality.
Wonder Woman is not the best superhero movie of all time, but that would be a very high bar to clear indeed. It is, however, in something of a rare league regarding just how good the film really is. Director Patty Jenkins, whose ouster from Marvel’s second Thor outing led to Natalie Portman’s public frustration with that studio, shows that Marvel bigwigs made the wrong call. Here, she delivers a fish-out-of-water long-haired superhero clad in gold, blue and red, wielding an ornate melee weapon and missing no beats in discussing personal ties with an ancient Earth mythology from an old European culture. I could keep adding parallels, but I’d risk dipping into spoiler territory and this one’s for people who haven’t yet seen it, so I shall behave myself.
The film opens with a flashback to young Diana, Princess of Themiscyra, the only child on an island of Amazons. She dreams of war and action, wishing to train under her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, having a great time) but forbidden to do so by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Her imagination fired by her mother’s stories about the sacred trust of the Amazons to bring peace to the world and oppose Ares, God of War, Diana trains in secret, learning all the arts of the Amazons.
Disruption arrives in the form of Captain Steve Trevor (a surprisingly restrained Chris Pine), a British Intelligence officer who has stolen dangerous military secrets from General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his pet monster “Dr. Poison” (Elena Anaya). Revealing the existence of “the war to end all wars” outside the concealed paradise of the Amazons, Captain Trevor’s entreaty persuades Diana to defy her mother and journey with him to the outside world. I had originally expected a World War II setting as in Captain America, but the film does us one better by being set in the ugly trenches and mustard gas clouds of World War I, an ideal setting to challenge the principles of love and peace absent the next war’s trappings of patriotism.
Gal Gadot rules over this movie as its face and heart; marketing has greatly oversold the role of Chris Pine in bringing levity and charisma to this movie – everyone and everything in it is made better by its real star. Diana is a brilliant character – not merely brave and superpowered but inquisitive, creative and tremendously active in her on story. Early scenes recall not only Captain America’s earnestness but also hearken to Spider-Man, specifically in the discovery of and delight in Diana’s abilities by the woman herself.
Chris Pine ends up playing the straight man not just to Diana’s fish out of water antics but also to her educated and progressive upbringing – she’s not going to be surprised or ashamed of a discussion about men and women sleeping together, and it’s made funnier because Steve Trevor shows off the conservatism of the time. Indeed, at some points he seems to get bulldozed by the plot around him. Lucy Davis is a scene-stealer as Etta Candy, and the film is good enough not to overuse her.
As for supporting characters… here, the film does slip up a bit. Three one-note sketches appear as vaguely racist stereotypes to round out Steve Trevor’s team, receiving little characterization (though for two of them, some token amount does arise) and oftentimes feeling like more bodies to fill out a scene. Dr. Poison is played by an actress who manages to constantly suggest deeper emotions and more complex drives than the script serves her with. Danny Huston’s German general, a vicious warmonger, is as preposterous as they come. A few other familiar faces crop up here and there, typically in token roles.
Battles tend to lean a bit heavily on dramatic slowdowns, evident from very early in the film, but Jenkins brings great visual style to the fights and some of them are a real joy to watch. Watching the Amazons spar and fight is an excellent showcase. A particularly brilliant scene in the second act is likely the showstopper, and was the moment that had me thinking “I’d like to tell people to bring their daughters to see this film.”
It is on the long side, however, and the third act has some of the drag and colorlessness that permeates anything Zack Snyder touches. The last big battle culminates with a few moments that may raise a few eyebrows, and not in a good way, though there’s not much more I can say about it without spoilers.
Wonder Woman will not be the best superhero film of the year; I suspect it may be fighting for third place with some later offerings. However, not only is it leagues (pun!) above anything in the DC canon thus far, it’s also just a truly enjoyable movie in its own right, to some degree separate from the genre it occupies. Jenkins somehow manages to avoid sexualizing a leggy supermodel in a miniskirt, and Gadot delivers a massive screen presence that puts her above and beyond Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill and easily in contention with Ben Affleck as the lead to beat in the DC stable at the moment. She may even be enough to save Justice League.
To those critics who say Gal Gadot is a better Superman than Henry Cavill, don’t be ridiculous. Gal Gadot isn’t any kind of Superman. She’s something better.
She is Wonder Woman.