There is no comic book film that has been more overdue than Wonder Woman. The iconic heroine has been around for over 75 years, but didn’t make her theatrical debut until last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, courtesy of director Patty Jenkins, she has at long last received her first solo film—a film which was well worth the wait.
This is the fourth film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), which began with Man of Steel, followed by Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. Those films have been big successes at the box office, but have been divisive among fans and critics. While they are all entertaining in their own rights, they all have had flaws as well. Wonder Woman, however, retains everything that works about previous DCEU entries, while fixing the things they didn’t get right, resulting in a pure cinematic triumph.
The movie tells the story of Wonder Woman’s origin, set against the backdrop of World War I. Diana (Gal Gadot) is a young princess on the island of Themyscira, a paradise inhabited by Amazonians, an all-female race of warriors tasked by Zeus with protecting the earth from the vanquished god of war Ares, should he ever return. When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island and tells the Amazonians of the war currently ravaging the world, Diana concludes that Ares must be responsible, and so she leaves the island with Steve to join the war, kill Ares, and thereby save mankind.
The film does a great job of setting up the mythology of Themyscira, and its opening never drags. Jenkins makes the moments that are somewhat exposition heavy still feel interesting, and viewers are completely drawn into the world that the movie builds. It doesn’t rush into the action too soon, but doesn’t draw out the set up any longer than needed.
Once Diana leaves the island and ventures into the world of men, things only get better. There’s a lot of humour that comes from her fish out of water scenario, as she struggles to grasp the conventions of war-time politics and the inferiority with which women are treated during the early 1900s. There are a lot of great, funny moments, that elicit genuine laughs from the audience—something that previous DCEU entries have been lacking. That’s not to say that the serious and dark tone of previous films is bad, just that Wonder Woman helps bring some levity to the screen. But, the humour always feels integrated naturally, and the film knows exactly when to step back and be serious, never undercutting itself with forced laughs at inappropriate moments (Marvel should be taking notes).
Despite its excellent humour, the film does take itself very seriously. It makes the most of the World War I setting, and doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors of war. In fact, Diana’s reactions to the battlefield atrocities help inform her character, and create an emotional connection between her and the audience. Overall, the entire script by Allan Heinberg (from a story he co-wrote with Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs) is a winner. The film strikes the perfect balance of seriousness, humour, action, character development, and emotion.
It does come as a bit of a surprise that a comic book movie has so much heart and emotion—it’s not always expected from the genre. All of that, though, is thanks to our heroine. Wonder Woman is such a great character; despite her incredible strength, magic lasso, and fighting prowess, the attributes that most make her a hero are her compassion, sense of honour and justice, and love. She’s not driven by tragedy and a thirst for vengeance like Batman, nor does she shoulder the weight of the world like Superman. Instead, she is compelled into battle by an innate sense of goodness that she displays throughout the entire film. Before she sets off on her journey, her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nelson), warns her that mankind is not worthy of her, and she may not return from the perilous quest. But there is no other choice for Diana; she settles the matter by simply saying “who would I be if I stayed?”
All the elements of her character work thanks to Gal Gadot, who is quite simply perfect in the role. She looks absolutely stunning, and seeing her own the screen truly feels like watching a comic come to life. She carries herself with grace and strength, commanding the attention of the audience. We never doubt her incredible power, nor her courage and conviction. To Wonder Woman, any loss of life is a tragedy, and her horror at war resonates with the audience; Gadot doesn’t just show us Diana’s compassion, she makes us feel it. She even delivers lines such as “only love can truly save the world,” which could otherwise have come across as cheesy or clichéd, with such genuine sincerity that they feel authentic and fitting. Never before has a big screen superhero felt so inspiring and heroic, and she is the perfect balance to the (also valid) dark side of heroism we see from characters such as Wolverine or Batman. Diana is a hero for the ages, and Gadot’s performance is magical.
She doesn’t have to carry the film on her own, though; the rest of the cast is equally fantastic. Chris Pine delivers his best performance to date as Steve Trevor, and he and Gadot share a special chemistry together. Their romance, as it slowly blossoms, is lovely, and it feels real. Though he’s more world-weary and cynical than Diana, he still stands strong in his own principles, and the film treats him as an equal to the heroine. They both teach and inspire the other; they’re the best romantic superhero pairing in a long time.
The supporting cast is also well-developed, and the characters who join Steve and Diana to aid in their mission perform admirably. Without stealing focus from the leads, they are still all interesting characters in their own right, and you can’t help but root for the band of ragtag heroes.
On the evil end of the spectrum, the villains are well realized, which is hard to pull off in a superhero origin story. Though their roles are relatively minor, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya make for serviceable secondary antagonists, thanks to their memorable performances. When Ares is finally revealed for the climactic final battle, his depiction is very interesting, and he challenges not just Diana’s strength and power, but her beliefs and her conviction as well. He causes her to question herself and her mission, which makes for a compelling bad guy.
The film further succeeds from a visual standpoint; Jenkin’s vision for the hero is brought to life beautifully. Themyscira truly feels like a paradise, and the grim wartime setting is authentic, without becoming so drab that it drags down the audience. When it comes time for Wonder Woman to take up sword and shield and jump into battle, it’s absolutely dazzling. The set pieces are truly thrilling, and Jenkins clearly has an eye for capturing action, aided by outstanding work from cinematographer Matthew Jensen. Good use is made of slow-motion without it becoming gratuitous, and the fights all feel well thought out, clean, and exciting.
In the best action scene of the film, Diana boldly crosses into no man’s land, despite being told that it’s a battle which our heroes cannot win, to liberate an enemy-occupied village. It’s the first time she’s fully revealed in her Wonder Woman armour and an awe-inspiring moment that the film has built up to since the first frame. Shield in hand, she presses through a storm of bullets and bombs with unwavering determination, and later we see her using her lasso to save German soldiers who her allies are shooting at; she truly wants to save everyone. The best kind of action is the kind that informs the story and shows us something about the characters who are fighting, and Jenkins accomplishes that here. Even the final battle, which is heavy in CGI, is able to pile on the effects without drowning out the setting and characters around the conflict, and aside from being thrilling to watch, builds to a powerful emotional crescendo. Across the board, this is spectacular filmmaking.
The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams also deserves mentioning. He takes the instantly recognizable theme that Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenberg composed for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman and integrates it seamlessly into his own compositions, while still creating rich, lush, and heroic music of his own that carries sweeping emotion through the film. It’s the best work the composer has ever done, and some of the best music that’s been written for a modern superhero movie.
Wonder Woman is a film that feels like it comes from the heart, and everything about it just works. The world would be a much better place if we all tried to be a bit more like Diana, and that’s a message the movie delivers with masterful execution. This film is a shining example of what the superhero genre can achieve when it’s at its best, and a reminder of why we fall in love with movies in the first place.
(Featured Image: Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. Pictures)