The pressure on Wonder Woman to succeed is an almost perverse confluence of events. Even without the Hollywood hesitation to fund or promote high-budget, woman-led action blockbusters. Even without the fact that Wonder Woman is the first film based on a solo female superhero in more than a decade and the first to be a part of a wider cinematic universe. Even without all that, we are three (or four, if you count Man of Steel) films into Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe franchise and are still looking for a single uncontroversially enjoyable movie.
And so it has fallen to a single female-led, female-directed project to buck every trend that could possibly be leveled toward it, to do what many have said was improbable, or impossible: to make a good Wonder Woman movie.
Patty Jenkins and company have done it.
Is Wonder Woman perfect? No, it’s not a magical golden lasso that ties disparate parts into a tidy bow. But its faults pale in comparison to its achievements, to the excitement of watching the spectacle and the human drama it puts in front of you. Wonder Woman still feels very much like a gift from the gods.
Aside from a brief framing device reminding us that Diana of Themyscira is an ally of Bruce of Gotham, the beginning of Wonder Woman delivers us fully into the fantasy world of the Amazons, an immortal race of warrior women on their hidden paradise island. Screenwriter Allan Heinberg puts his own slight spin on Diana’s childhood and the Amazons’ origin story, as have many writers before him: miracle child. A warrior born. Then: an American castaway, a war in Man’s World and a young fighter leaving her home for battlefields unknown.
Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves Themyscira in search of Ares, whom she and the Amazons believe to be at the heart of what Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) calls “the war to end all wars.” If she can destroy the god of war, and stop a German plan to deploy a deadly chemical weapon, millions of lives can be saved.
Wonder Woman is a film about the horrors of war, taking place as the German war machine is on its last legs and armistice is on the cusp of being drawn. The setting of World War I seems strange for the character at first. The Great War predates her creation as a historical event — predates the superhero genre itself by decades.
But it becomes clear over the course of the movie why this story simply could not be told about World War II. Jenkins uses Steve Trevor and his band of misfit operatives to drive home the particular horror of the First World War — that a conflict of its scale, brutality and unflinching endurance had no precedent in its time.
Diana is looking for a simple solution: Find the bad guys, stop them, save the world. And given that we’re following a movie that presupposes the existence of the Greek gods, we could be forgiven for believing her. But Wonder Woman has more to say than pinning a complicated historical conflict on a fictional supernatural force.
Previous DCEU movies have tried to use a cynical view of humanity’s complexity but ultimately failed to have any of it within their own characters. Wonder Woman explicitly grapples with the conflict between the allure of the simple solution and the complication of the real world, and how it does so — through character and theme — is something the rest of the franchise should be taking notes on.
Another thing it does better than the rest of its franchise is humor. It’s genuinely funny — rather than deadpan action quips, most of the film’s laughs come from moments of humorous vulnerability or uncertainty.
The way Gadot portrays Diana’s joy at discovering her powers is infectious, and her naïve Diana, one discovering the oddities of Man’s World, is immediately lovable. As is Emily Carey, who plays an elementary-aged Diana, an adorable moppet who, when presented with a sword that can kill a god, simply smiles. Pine performs admirably in the understated role of Steve Trevor.
Robin Wright stands out among the Amazonian sisterhood as Antiope, scarred and magnificent, the greatest warrior their race has ever known. This may be partly because the Amazons overall seem to be going for otherworldly, but the high language, affected accent and weighty subject matter often trends their scenes towards woodenness.
So it’s a very good thing that every time the Amazons fight, it is breathtaking. The choreography on the Amazons and Diana is balletic and powerful, and given a beautiful framing reserved just for them — leaving the soldiers of Man’s World suitably drab in comparison.
The villains are pure pulp, with only a little implied depth here and there, but they are fun to watch. Our final big bad guy, once revealed, is pitch-perfect casting and character design for our time and our political climate — especially for a villain whose menace is partly to make the heroine doubt her purpose and her hope. (Warning: Do not look up who is playing Ares. The film may be spoiled for you.)
That said, once our villain is out in the open, the climax of the film has too many stages, and it gets a little more epic and more heavy-handed than it can really support on a mountain of CGI and two dueling actors. Once its final battle is over, it draws to a close with all the swiftness of Hermes ushering an awkward soul to Hades.
Wonder Woman is heavy-handed — take the tragic backstories of Steve Trevor’s island of misfit commandos — but it’s heavy-handed in all the right directions. It’s the first film of the DC Extended Universe that doesn’t seem embarrassed by its premise. It is unabashedly about a superhero doing superheroic things explicitly because they are “right,” without requiring any further motivation. The moment in the film in which I was most moved, for example, is one where Diana encounters the full horror of trench warfare and simply refuses to take a step further without doing something about it.
It felt like Wonder Woman’s purest statement on the nature of the superhero genre: a setting where, when characters encounter injustice, they can say “no more” — and they can also have the power to ensure that there is no more.
A fantasy, certainly. But that is very much the point.