Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis
Director: Patty Jenkins
Running Time: 141 mins
Synopsis: Princess Diana (Gadot) has been raised on Themisycera, an island hidden from mankind, amongst a civilisation of battle ready women. Raised to be the strongest and bravest fighter of them all but never allowed to leave, she begins to question her purpose when American spy Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands nearby. The world is in the last throes of the Great War and Diana ventures back with Steve to face the God of War, Ares, whom she believes is the instigator of all this suffering. Amongst the grey world of 1918 Europe she begins to find herself and step toward becoming the powerful hero Wonder Woman.
There is almost an insurmountable amount of pressure on Wonder Woman. Enough that even an Amazonian warrior bred for battle and capable of slinging tanks over her shoulders like they were paper planes would think twice about tackling. Wonder Woman has got to prove that the DC extended universe (DCEU if you were) is better than the sluggish painfully flawed previous movies have been (although I do have strong affection for MoS). To the point where if this one faced a critical mauling the franchise would need some serious refreshment. It also has to stand tall as the first big budget female led superhero film in a genre drenched in male machismo. We then have to take into account the intense focus given to director Patty Jenkins, not only a woman in a Hollywood where still too few films are given to those with an xx chromosome, but one who’s previous film was 14 years ago and cost but $8 million to make (Monster). Then you have the added weight of doing justice to an iconic character 75 years old and one who has routinely suffered the indignation of numerous failed screen attempts. It’s all enough to give up and move on. Fortunately Jenkins and her crew have delivered easily the best of the DCEU so far, flawed no doubt, but a massive feminine punch to the face!
Shrewdly Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg decide to distance the connections to the overall universe, save for an opening and closing bookend of scenes set in present day, and instead concentrate on delivering a true picture of this fierce powerful warrior lost in an unknown world. We spend the first 30 mins witnessing the development of Diana, Princess of the hidden world Themyscira (I had to look up the spelling), as she yearns to become a warrior like so many of her people. You see this land is home to nothing more than fierce battle hardened women. Training daily in order to prepare for the imminent arrival of Ares, God of War and sworn enemy of the Amazonians. Led by her aunt Antiope (a commanding humane performance from Robin Wright) Diana is immediately shown to be headstrong, stubborn and immensely compassionate. Unfortunately her mother, Connie Nielsen’s Hippolyta, wants nothing more than for Diana to live peacefully and forget notions of war. It is an exposition heavy set of moments but necessary in order to invest us in this world. Jenkins is smart enough to rely on her seasoned performers to deliver the somewhat silly dialogue with a gravitas and conviction that wins you over. The rather vague detailing of their backstories also goes some way towards making things palatable for what could’ve been confusing high fantasy. This is no Marvel, with their street level fighters dealing with internal weaknesses, the DCEU is more concerned with the high opera of myths and legends, a helpful distinction between the universes.
Soon enough a stranger literally lands in their midst. Steve Trevor is a spy during WW1, a welcome setting rarely seen in big budget cinema, who accidentally finds this hidden world as he escapes from the Germans. Chris Pine is charm personified as Trevor, but humanises him with a weariness fostered by years of fighting in one of the harshest conflicts ever seen. Upon rescuing him the film reveals its trump card. Their palpable spiky chemistry leaps off the screen. Seeing a man for the first time, and him a literal Goddess, they have an innocence about one another, a curiosity that instils an immediate bond between them. What serves this dynamic so well is that despite the intense physical attraction between them that is not the reason for their deep connection. She sees in him a man who wants to fight not for some sense of heroism but because he desires to just do something to help. His compassion is the root to her heart. Likewise for him her naivety about the world and her innate hopefulness give him a warmth that truly disarms. Their quiet reflective scenes are the anchor of emotion that centres the film and I would’ve gladly just watched two hours of them discovering the world together.
But this is not that sort of film and no sooner has Steve disrupted the Amazonians paradise when the Germans follow him through. Battle commences and Jenkins constructs an effective set piece, with clear geography but perhaps an over reliance on that old staple, slow motion. It is useful in showcasing the grace and skill of these warrior women but it still reeks of 90s cheese from time to time, especially as she continues to use it throughout the film. Action is balanced well across the picture with a mid film set piece set in No Mans Land an absolute triumph. This central set piece is her crowd pleasing moment, where she decides to fully reveal herself to be the Wonder Woman (costume and all), and charges towards the enemy, bullets pinging off her and enemies fleeing. It is brilliantly staged, rousingly scored and rooted in character. It is the best scene the DCEU has thus far produced.
Before we get to this point she has to leave the confines of her island home. Due predominately because Diana believes that their sworn enemy, God of War Ares, is behind this war, she finds herself in a dirty grey Europe as opposed to the bright glows of her paradise home (this is a DCEU that actually appreciates light). By far the strongest section of the film as it becomes a token fish of water tale, Diana hopelessly trying to blend in, whilst wielding a sword and bemoaning the lack of female rights. A political aspect that is hinted at but never truly delved into, after all this is a summer blockbuster! At this point we really must talk about Gal Gadot. She is a revelation here. Building on her scene stealing work in BvS, she is formidable, vulnerable, warm, witty, and of course a beautiful work of art. There is a delightful glint in her eye during the more comedic stretches of the film (unlike the rest of the DCEU this film remembers to have fun) and it is in her innocence where we see what true heroism is. The belief that we can be good and kind, that even in the darkest times we can use our friendships and love to bring some light. A corny message for sure but one that Gadot commits to with not a drip of cynicism.
Alas we must now reach the part where all good things fall apart (and yes I’m aware this review is running a little long). The final act. Wonder Woman is a nimble film. Over 2 hours long but moving with urgency and structured efficiency, but the last 30 mins lose focus. A large scale CGI heavy (and not always good CGI) battle set in that DCEU favourite, the dark! A true villain is revealed, to little surprise and a great deal of ham. Whilst the two previous villains; Danny Huston’s German General and Elena Anaya’s Dr Poison, are swiftly dispatched. The two of them do solid work but the material is paper thin, a routine issue in all origin stories. This finale reeks of Zack Snyder. Bombastic, messy and a little tiresome. Thankfully Gadot and Pine, as well as their small band of misfits each given just enough complexity to warm you to them, bring the emotional depth needed to bring the story to a head. Although Jenkins makes an editing decision revolving around the central twosome sharing an intimate moment that cruelly undermines a pivotal decision.
It is not enough to undermine all the good will the film has previously built up but proves that the DCEU still has some weaknesses when it comes to their central protagonists and final set-pieces. The ending also feels rather rushed with the emotional payoff not hitting as hard as say Captain America: The First Avenger of which this emulates almost too much. A number of familiar plot beats are hit, possibly a byproduct of also being set during wartime, but it can’t help leaving you with a distinct deja vu.
Despite all this those insurmountable pressures do not seem so heavy. The DCEU can now only build on the stronger balance of tones this film provides (we hope), a woman can most definitely lead a major (and majorly expensive) motion picture, Wonder Woman can certainly be brought to the screen with confidence and Patty Jenkins should now find herself at Hollywood’s beck and call. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid the feminist talk this film has inspired and the ridiculous backlash over the very much deserved women-only screenings (too damn right) as the film needs to speak for itself. See it, and realise that yes women do rule the world. Women of strength, intelligence, grace and passion, (both on screen and off) and what could be better than that!
Verdict: Wonder Woman can not entirely escape the DC film conventions notably in its overblown finale, but is overall a noble, thrilling and fun time at the movies. Gal Gadot is the true Wonder at its centre.