Review: ‘WONDER WOMAN’ Rises to the Challenge

Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot haven’t just delivered a great superhero film, but a great film, period — and not a moment too soon.

Wonder Woman was burdened with more than just the weight of its franchise tag. As the first female superhero film from either DC or Marvel and the the first with a female director, any sign of commercial or critical failure and Hollywood execs would abruptly conclude that super women don’t sell (a conclusion that’s, strangely, never applied to white men in the industry). If the comic glass ceiling wasn’t enough, the film also had to rehabilitate the DC Extended Universe after cold receptions to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. In fans’ eyes, the lack of character and literal color had the DCEU trailing far behind its Marvel counterpart.

As it turns out, Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins, and her titular lead (played by Gal Gadot) bear the burden with ease. The film is a direct repudiation of Batman v Superman; instead of dark tones and boring, broody protagonists, the audience is treated to vibrant vistas and fun characters. It starts with Gadot, who brings idealism, vitality, and genuine joy to the role of Diana Prince, popping off the screen as this series’s True North.

The movie breaks neatly into three acts. The first narrows in on the world-building Greek mythology and Diana’s upbringing as a lone child on the island of Themyscira. Populated solely by the Amazons (superpowered female warriors), Themyscira had adopted an isolationist policy since the days of antiquity, eschewing the world of men to maintain their women-only utopia.  This all goes by the wayside with the sudden arrival of American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who brings the Great War with him when his plane crashes off Themyscira’s coast. To Diana, this news could only mean the return of Ares, the Greek God of War. Beckoned by purpose, Diana leaves paradise behind to join Trevor on his mission to get vital German intelligence to London.

The second act takes place in London, and provides some of the film’s most charming sequences as Diana learns about the outside world, from fashion to technology to the pragmatism of politics. Gadot strikes the perfect balance between wide-eyed wonderment and frustration at the bureacracry binding her and Steve from acting against Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who Diana believes to be Ares reincarnate. Unwilling to let evil go unchallenged, Diana and Steve assemble their own strike team, working under the unofficial supervision of British official Sir Patrick (played by the ever-endearing David Thewlis).  Armed with mythic weapons from Themyscira, Diana and company head off to the warfront for the film’s final act, wisely using the concept of No Man’s Land (the dead space between the German and British forces during World War I) to accentuate the confident femininity of our hero.

The supporting cast is exceptionally strong, starting with Pine’s Trevor. Steve is warm and witty, a less arrogant Captain Kirk, but his awe at the powerful beauty before him never leaves his eyes. Robin Wright also has a wonderful turn as Antiope, Diana’s master-at-arms who trains her in Amazonian combat and weaponry. Thewlis’s Sir Patrick has all the charm and confidence audiences should recognize from his role in the Harry Potter series.

The ensemble should also be noted for its diversity. Between the island paradise, London, and war in the European front, it would have been exceedingly easy to select a white cast. Instead, with Diana’s teammates Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), and others, the film makes them more than tokens — it says something worthwhile about it. Sameer reflects on how his brown skin prevents him from living his dream as an actor. Meanwhile, the Chief laments the loss of his home and people at the hands of Americans. Through this, Diana begins to unravel the complex and tragic history of human nature.

But truly, the star of the film is Gal Gadot. She brings a softness to her heroics but without any hint of weakness, calling back to her Golden Age origins. Created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston (with assists from his wife Elizabeth and artist Harry Peter), Wonder Woman lionizes a new type of hero. Whereas her predecessors solved problems with strength (Superman) and smarts (Batman), Diana weaponizes her love for mankind to defeat her foes. Gadot brings all this to the big screen, not letting the ugliness of man’s wars erode her optimism and hope.

In the film’s highest moment, the horrors of war seemingly overwhelm Diana. Instead, she hardens with duty, striding confidently into No Man’s Land and donning her iconic gear. The audience gets its first, unadulterated taste of Wonder Woman in these moments. While Ares poses the ultimate threat, Diana achieving her own kind of humanity is the most rewarding conflict of the story.

The search for the “strong female character” has been persistent in art, but it often hides a discomforting truth. We usually herald female characters as being “strong” simply because they act like men. Using Game of Thrones as an example, conquerers and warriors like Daenerys and Brienne receive this praise. Yet few apply this descriptor to the more internalized strength of Cersei, Margaery, or Sansa. What made Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa strong wasn’t how she drove a truck or fired a gun, but her unflagging determination and willingness to sacrifice everything for her cause.

Diana never losing her femininity is what makes Wonder Woman, well, wonderful. Her presence as a woman, in patriarchal London society or on the front lines, defines Diana’s arc. She is both fierce and gentle, unrelenting yet compassionate, quick to act yet quick to laugh. Jenkins, Gadot, and screenwriter Allan Heinberg walk this line without betraying the character or falling into trope.

The movie does have a couple of flaws, though none that significantly hinder it. The pacing is goofy in the first two acts, lingering too long with some scenes and not enough elsewhere. And while I usually reject the “run time was too long” complaint, axing 15-20 minutes would have made for a leaner narrative. The CGI is inconsistent, especially in Themyscira where the matte paintings are far less realistic than elsewhere. The action and camera work flow well during traditional hand-to-hand combat, but the CGI-intense scenes are far choppier.

The film also borrows heavily from Captain America: The First Avenger, which is not necessarily a drawback. It does hit many of the same beats, which can come off as playing it safe. To be fair, Marston created Wonder Woman within months of Captain America, when pop culture was first wrapping its head around a Nazi threat. Moving Diana’s timeline back to the first War was a wise move, and allows Jenkins to use the horrors of trench warfare for narrative effect. The setpieces also far surpass anything in First Avenger, making the highs more fulfilling and captivating.

Ultimately, the minor nitpicking can’t take away from what Wonder Woman undoubtedly is: a resounding success. For the first time since the Nolan Batman days, Warner Bros. and DC have created a charming, engaging superhero film. Instead of letting brand history sell the product like BvS, Jenkins and Gadot fully invest us in Diana Prince. We get to experience the world through her eyes, and feel the wonderment as she discovers her own power. Above all, it’s fun, which has been notably absent from the rest of the DCEU. Even if Justice League flounders, Diana Prince’s presence will have me there opening day.

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