The DC cinematic universe has had diminishing returns ever since 2013’s Man of Steel in the eyes of critics and many of its fans. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proved to be fairly divisive, and Suicide Squad didn’t win many over. One can debate the many reasons why DC has faltered where Marvel succeeded, but one often pointed to is the fact that the Marvel movies are more fun, while DC seems content to have its heroes dark and brooding. However one felt about BvS, most seem to agree that the one bright spot in that film was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. She lent a much needed flair to the otherwise gloomy proceedings, and seemed a better foil for Bruce Wayne than Clark Kent. Now in 2017, after many unsuccessful attempts to bring the character to the big screen (beginning back in 1996, including the failed 2005 Joss Whedon attempt), William Moulton Marston’s creation finally gets her own feature in the cineplexes.
And what a feature it is. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) succeeds in making Wonder Woman the very film DC needed to right its floundering cinematic universe. Gal Gadot portrays Diana as an idealistic hero, filled with hope and wanting to bring justice to the world. She encounters darkness, but never allows herself to become dark. Tragedies don’t mold her, but instead provide the inspiration to right the wrongs, to bring light into the world of men through a power guided by love. Her enthusiasm and determination sets her apart from her brooding DC counterparts. Unlike Batman and Superman, who were both born of tragedy (batman from the murder of his parents, Superman from the destruction of Krypton), Wonder Woman became a hero by choice. She chose to leave her paradise island of Themyscira because she believed it was the right thing to do. And it is that freedom of choice that elevates her and makes her a brighter hero for us to root for.
Gal Gadot turns out to be a perfect choice to play Diana, princess of Themyscira. She builds on her performance from BvS, showing strength, optimism, wonder, and when confronted with the horrors of World War 1, gut wrenching emotion. Few actors are a perfect fit for a comic book character (think Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine), but Gadot proves herself with this film. The screenplay by Allan Heinberg (The Catch), working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder (who even plays an uncredited role as an American soldier), and Jason Fuchs (Pan) frame Diana’s origin story nicely, with three very distinct acts book-ended by the present day. Each act shows a natural progression in Diana, with all three shadowed by the same dark villain. War is the true villain here, though it has its personifications in General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), Dr. Maru, aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), and the Greek God of War himself, Ares.
Things begin innocently enough on the bright island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons, a group of warrior women who live without the aid or the company of men. Young Diana (played by Lilly Aspell as an 8 year old, and by Emily Carey at age 12) is eager to learn the ways of the warrior, much to the consternation of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Hippolyta wants to protect Diana and keep her from harm. Her right hand, Antiope (Robin Wright), believes otherwise, and trains the girl, first in secret, and then more openly as she convinces Hippolyta the wisdom of doing so. A good thing she does, as soon the outside world intrudes upon Themyscira in the form of pilot/spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who is plucked from the ocean when his plane crashes. Turns out he was fleeing the Germans, who turn out to be close behind. This invading force gives us the film’s first memorable battle scene, with Amazon warriors rappelling down a cliff and performing gymnastic feats with bow and spear against German soldiers armed with rifles. It’s a well executed sequence, done with smooth camera work and nice use of slow motion.
The event spurs Diana too accompany Trevor back to the world of men, which is embroiled in war. She believes this is Ares at work, and so, grabbing her sword, shield, and lasso of truth (a rope that glows when use din battle and when wrapped around someone compels them to speak truly), she sets out with Steve on a journey that first takes her to London, and then eventually the front where the war is being waged. They have an urgency to stop Ludendorff and Maru from creating a new deadly weapon, one that will kill thousands and threaten the armistice that is being negotiated. This second act allows for moments of inspired humor that is genuinely funny and never feels forced or shoehorned in. We get to meet Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who helps Diana to blend in with her surroundings. We get to see some unbridled joy from Diana here, as she spots a baby and has her first taste of ice cream. We also get to see her sense of righteousness and justice, as she is angered by the generals seeming reluctance to take action in light of Trevor’s information about Ludendorff’s and Maru’s plans.
Naturally, that doesn’t stop Steve and Diana from taking action on their own, and acquiring three allies- Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock)- they set off for the front and to stop Ludendorff from carrying out his plan. It is here where Diana makes her transition to hero, as well as showing her humanity, though she is more than human. The action scenes are brilliantly staged, from her striding out of a trench across No Man’s Land, deflecting bullets with her bracelets and shield, and inspiring the soldiers to move forward. Her horrified reaction to a gassed village is heartbreaking, and Gadot imparts every bit of emotion to the audience. Our hearts break along with hers at the sight of the horrors of war, and in that Diana becomes far more relatable than any of the other superheroes on screen to date. The final conflict is thrilling and special effects laden, with a nice little twist. Diana is spurred to show her true power, though it’s one she doesn’t revel in using. Love is more of the key than the use of great force in her eyes, and it’s that she wishes to use to aid the world of men, as she can no longer return home.
Those action scenes are very well done, though some of the special effects are quite up to snuff, but they work well enough. Aside from Gadot, the performances of the supporting cast are all terrific. Chris Pine does a great job as Steve Trevor, acting both as foil and guide to Diana. Their relationship feels natural and not forced, and Jenkins wisely doesn’t linger on a love scene that just would have slowed things down. Davis brings some nice comic relief in Etta, though it would have been nice to see more of her. Taghmaoui, Bremmer, and Brave Rock all bring a humanity and humor to their characters, even with them only being in the film’s latter half. Huston brings a gleeful villainy to the screen as General Ludendorff, and Anaya’s Dr. Maru is done nicely as a twisted creator working to make a deadly weapon. Nielsen brings a regal presence to Hippolyta, and the scenes between her and Gadot are well staged and make them believable as mother and daughter. Wright’s Antiope is a nice melding of idealism and pragmatism, and she trains Diana hard because she knows that’s what she will need. The film is beautifully shot, as cinematographer Matthew Jensen (Game of Thrones) frames each shot well, capturing the brightness of Themyscira and the darkness of the front. The musical score by Rupert Gregson-Williams (Hacksaw Ridge, The Legend of Tarzan) is suitably epic, and while Diana’s theme of rock guitars may echo the Tyler Bates score in Zack Snyder’s 300 a little too closely, it definitely fits the character.
In all, it took a woman director to get a female superhero on the big screen right (Rob Bowman didn’t fare so well as director of 2005’s Elektra, the only other female comic book character to get the big screen treatment). Wonder Woman gives us a truly super origin tale, showing Diana’s beginning before she gained her superhero moniker. Gadot delivers perfectly, embodying Diana with strength, compassion, determination, and wide eyed wonder. It helps that not only is her performance great, but that her fellow cast members rise to the task as well, all serving to move Diana forward and to make her what she becomes by the time the events in BvS roll around. As long as audiences take to the movie (and they should), this may very well have righted the ship for DC and Warner Bros, and it has me looking forward to Justice League and for Diana to have more solo films. Wonder Woman gets it right, and this truly super origin tale is one you need to see on the big screen.
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