"Wonder Woman" finally wrangles a win for DC
An important movie is not always the same as a good movie.
In 2006, "An Inconvenient Truth" was a major conversation starter that managed to come away with the Best Documentary Oscar that year. It's also quite literally a two-hour PowerPoint presentation. And what of the half-dozen failed Oscar-bait Issue Movies that come and go faster than the daily headlines with which they're attempting to synchronize? Anyone watching "Denial" these days? "Freeheld"? "Suffragette"? The road to cinematic hell is paved with good intentions and overemphasis of the word "timely" in reviews.
Thankfully, "Wonder Woman" qualifies as both important and good, standing as a firm step forward for female representation – both in front of and behind the camera of a Hollywood blockbuster – as well as just a really entertaining, damn well-crafted time at the theater too.
Last seen trying her damnedest to salvage "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Superman" (hey, even Zeus's kid can only do so much), Wonder Woman takes an invisible jet ride back in time to her first mission: World War I. With the Great War beginning to encroach on her scenic and secluded island home of Themyscira, young Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) ventures to the Western Front with the help of American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Out in the trenches, Diana hopes to find the duplicitous god of war Ares – likely infecting mankind as the evil German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) with his masked poison gas mad genius Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya, "The Skin I Live In") – and introduce him to the pointy end of her self-explanatory "Godkiller" sword, thus bringing an end to all global conflict.
"Wonder Woman" gets off on the right foot, starting in a beamingly bright world of color and even some comedy, but still takes some shaky first steps on Themyscira. Yes, the island paradise is filled exclusively with boss-ass goddesses – led by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, both terrifically tender and tough – doing sweet slo-mo horse stunts and slinging arrows, three at a time if need be.
But the opening act also saddles Nielsen, Wright and company with a lot of stodgy and stilted fantasy-world exposition to wade through, and while director Patty Jenkins eventually acquits herself nicely to the world of behemoth comic book blockbuster action – her first and somehow only other feature film was 2003's acclaimed crime drama "Monster" – some of the early CG work and sequences show some seams.
Thankfully, though, around the time Diana grows up into Gadot and Pine comes literally crashing into the movie, sending our hero and the movie off to London, "Wonder Woman" eventually hits a stupendous stride – led mainly by those two leads.
Gadot and her dry raspy voice may not have the most range, but she makes up for it with her winning earnestness. In another actor's hands, Diana – who arrives in Europe knowing nothing of mankind, from wardrobe to watches and just men in general – could easily become frustratingly naïve; instead, she never loses her lasso's grip on the audience thanks to Gadot's sincere turn.
She turns what could've been a cut-worthy bit of fish-out-of-water comedy about becoming enraptured by ice cream, not even five seconds long, into exemplifying why she's already become beloved; she's just whole-heartedly passionate, compassionate and thrilled by the world – something Gadot pulls off without a drop of guile.
The former IDF soldier is just as compelling in combat too thanks to her fierce and feisty physicality. It says something that her signature big-screen move – starting in "Batman v Superman" – isn't some glossy CG creation or slick stunt move but instead a witty "really? OK then; my turn" head tilt and facial expression. It's a prime visual set-up line for action sequence punchlines Jenkins and "Wonder Woman" happily dole out to the crowd's giddy chuckles.
After taking the captain's chair in the "Star Trek" reboot, Pine is firmly second-in-command next to Gadot, but he's no less fun and winsome. The two spark a sensual chemistry worthy of a swooning romance and a sly comedic chemistry worthy of a winning double act – especially in some early flirty innuendo-soaked banter that would fit snuggly in a jaunty rom-com from a half-century ago. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast – from Nielsen and Wright, to Lucy Davis's Etta Candy and Said Taghmaoui's Sameer – nicely fills in the film's edges with brightness and personality.
Maybe too much color in the case of Huston, who's never met a villainous role he couldn't stuff with delectable ham, but even his character's issues are more on the page than in the performance. The script – from comic book writer Allan Heinberg, which maybe contributes to why this is the first DC film to truly get its title character – writes itself into a bit of a corner, having two potentially mere mortals serve as villains against a goddess.
To help, the screenplay introduces a goofy blue steroid rage gas for Ludendorff that does the opposite of help. Instead, it's ridiculous and completely out of place – not to mention why are the villains so set on this special mustard gas when they casually have a super-soldier serum just lying around?
That's a mild nitpick, though, in a movie that's otherwise smartly assembled – something we haven't been able to say about a DC movie yet since Christopher Nolan's run (and those are more his movies than DC's). The World War I setting isn't merely used to give "Wonder Woman" a different feel from the rest of the modern superhero morass; a world losing its sense of innocence in an unclear violent mess fits perfectly for a character of purity having her faith in humanity tested. That the audience knows the end is just the beginning of another cataclysmic war makes its lesson about loving mankind despite itself resonate even more.
"Wonder Woman" also smartly scales down – a weird thing to say about a movie set during a global conflict. At its heart, however, is a battle for one character's soul, not some giant vague literally world-imploding plot at the center. The stakes are deeper, not bigger.
Plus, it's truly a self-sustaining solo Hollywood blockbuster – a rarity whether you're watching Marvel, DC or apparently even a "Mummy" reboot. Other than two bookends – complete with dumb voiceover – as needless as a little "Justice League" lower-third pop-up ad like those you see on TV during sports, "Wonder Woman" is focused exclusively on exactly that: Wonder Woman, not building a universe, not tying together characters with overused floss.
The result is a completely satisfying introduction to a character, not a cinematic clusterbomb of IP, as well as a satisfying backhand slap to DC's thus-far failed premises on how to make a superhero movie. Even with a shaky start – and a final act that somewhat gives into explosion-filled, gravity-defying bombast – there's color beyond brick grey, dirt brown and tar black. There's humor – something once banned.
Snyder's way with visual iconography is here – the No Man's Land action sequence and true Wonder Woman introduction is deserving of its already assumed place in comic book cinema's most iconic moments – but Jenkins fills them with coherent characters and developed emotion. Instead of grimdark cynicism for the sake of grimdark cynicism, there's heart and sincerity.
And most of all, there's heroism, an ode to serving the world despite when the world lets you down. Indeed, after three post-Nolan DC films, they finally got around to making an actual superhero movie – frankly a better Superman movie, one truer to the character and feeling of the icon, than the two (or one and a half) we've gotten so far.
So celebrate this important movie, this movie of many firsts: the first major female superhero movie, the first superhero blockbuster directed by a woman and the first DC Extended Universe movie that's worth a damn.
"Wonder Woman": *** out of ****
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