It’s not my intent to damn Wonder Woman with too much faint praise by measuring it favorably against the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After all, saying this movie is leagues better than that one is akin to lauding really good fast food over something you found in the dumpster because, well, at least it isn’t actual garbage. The comparison needs to be made, though, because both exist in DC’s attempt at a Marvel-style cinematic universe, and the character made her debut in that earlier film. Wonder Woman is a well-crafted action spectacle with its greatest strength (both the title character and the actress playing her) right at the center. The elements orbiting that center, though, keep it from being transcendent.
This first installment in the saga of Wonder Woman (there is at least one sequel on the way, and the character will appear in the upcoming Justice League) is both origin story and fish-out-of-water story. We are told early in the film about the magical, hidden world of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Greek gods as protectors of man. As a young girl, our hero, Diana, desires nothing more than to train to be a fighter, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta, forbids it.
She explains to Diana that the god of war, Ares, has killed the other gods, and corrupted the world of men, so it’s not safe for any of the Amazons to leave their hidden island. Luckily for her – and us – Diana’s aunt, Antiope, trains her in secret. That training comes in handy when World War I Allied soldier Steve Trevor crashes into Diana’s world, literally. She saves him from drowning after his plane goes down off the shore of the island. His tale of The War to End All Wars convinces Diana that Ares is to blame, and it is her duty to stop him.
The main draw of the movie, Wonder Woman herself, doesn’t disappoint in any way. She’s just what you want in a superhero. Some people think Superman is too clean-cut and vanilla, others see Batman as being too cynical and dark. Wonder Woman gives us a hero who walks that fine line: a realist who refuses to give up on the basic goodness of humanity. The picture also gives us a satisfying arc as we see Diana shed her sheltered naïveté and transform into a benevolent protector.
Along with that psychological strength comes the thing everyone wants in an action movie superhero: totally badass physical prowess. Enter actress Gal Gadot. Quite simply, Gadot owns the screen every second she’s on it. To prepare for the role, the actress learned several different types of martial arts and underwent a special diet and training regimen, putting on 17 pounds of pure muscle. In the action sequences, she kicks much ass. In every other sequence, she evinces a natural, effortless control of her character and the camera.
If only everyone around Gadot could rise to her level, Wonder Woman might be unforgettable. Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, the American spy who acts as Diana’s guide in this new foreign land in which she finds herself. Pine’s charm goes a long way in making up for what he lacks in acting chops. There is a moment in the movie where his limitations are on full display, though. The Amazons want to know Steve’s true motives, so they put the Lasso of Truth – a rope that magically compels the ensnared person to be honest – around him. Pine goes full William Shatner when he helplessly blurts out that he is a spy for the Americans. He might have done it purposefully, in that moment his character is tied up with something called the Lasso of Truth, after all, but the moment (for me) elicited more of a laugh at him than with him.
There is also a disappointment with the rogue’s gallery Steve puts together to help get Diana across enemy lines, so she can confront the man she believes is Ares in disguise. Screenwriter Allan Heinberg adds to the mix secret agent and master of disguise Sameer, sharpshooter Charlie, and mercenary Chief. The most fun of these three is Scottish actor Ewen Bremner as Charlie, but even he isn’t given much to do, and when compared with the all-out whipassery of Gadot’s Wonder Woman, we’re left to wonder why they’re there at all.
Helping Gadot out – not that she needs it – is Patty Jenkins in the director’s chair. One of the biggest complaints about Batman v Superman was Zack Snyder’s oppressive, muddled direction. Jenkins is a welcome antidote to that. She brings a steady, clear-eyed mastery to the action scenes in the DC universe. Her action set pieces are clean, exciting, and well photographed. What’s even more impressive is that Jenkins has no past experience with big-budget action movies. Prior to Wonder Woman, her biggest feature was the Oscar nominated 2003 film Monster, the indie about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, portrayed by Charlize Theron.
There is a slight over-reliance on the super slow-motion fight scenes, where the characters fly through the air and are suddenly slowed down to half-speed or more. This aesthetic touch is a hallmark of Snyder’s work, specifically 300 and Sucker Punch, and I have to guess the producers insisted on its inclusion here for visual continuity with the rest of the DC movies. It’s not overpowering, but it does become a bit tiresome.
Aside from the problems Wonder Woman has – including a climax that devolves into the same CGI slug-fest that is all too common in comic book movies – seeing the character brought to life by Gadot is a complete blast. Her presence alone makes me look forward to any future DC movies in which she will appear.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Weaknesses aside, Wonder Woman packs an exciting punch and adds enjoyment to the summer blockbuster landscape. Also: TAKE YOUR DAUGHTERS TO SEE IT! And, come to think of it, TAKE YOUR SONS, TOO!
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Being a man, with a full set of man-parts, it was brought to my attention that an element of the movie I was particularly down on is something women have been complaining about forever, and my essential man-ness may have made me not realize this. The "useless female sidekick" trope is essentially reversed with that rogue's gallery I mentioned in the review. I would like to take the opportunity to apologize for all man-ity on this front. I hope this will make me a credit to my gender.
- Two of my favorite actresses are present in the opening segment on the Amazon island. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen play Queen Hippolyta and Antiope, respectively. They both give a real sense of credibility to the movie early on.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Next week I'll be looking at the newest film by a director from my own back yard. Texas filmmaker Trey Edward Shults' first film, Krisha, got critical acclaim (I still have yet to catch up with it), and there's a lot of buzz surrounding his latest outing, It Comes at Night.