Directed By: Patty Jenkins
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis
It's impossible to discuss exactly why Wonder Woman - the latest entry in the budding cinematic franchise known collectively as the DC Extended Universe - is a resounding success without first diving into what has come before it. And before I do, let me make it clear: Wonder Woman really is that light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who have been frustrated with the DCEU's failings so far, stuck watching helplessly as so much potential has been squandered.
The DCEU kicked off in 2013 with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, a film that introduced the world to its newest Superman while dividing audiences and critics. Personally, though it's far from perfect, I enjoyed it, and up until last night, it was my favorite of the DCEU films if only because its two successors - last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad - were tough experiences to get through, let alone enjoy. Both films have their moments and merits, but there's just too much wrong with both of them that those few bright spots are almost completely hidden in the shadows as a result, and their genuine inability to be entertaining (or even engaging) from beginning to end meant that any excitement I should've had over the future of the DCEU, which includes a Justice League movie later this year and future solo outings for characters like The Flash and Aquaman, was immediately tempered.
When the first trailer for Wonder Woman was released, I was genuinely surprised, but still didn't want to get my hopes up, "just in case." As played by Gal Gadot, the character was one of those aforementioned bright spots of the otherwise boring Batman v Superman, and as a cultural icon, Wonder Woman herself has been long overdue for a big screen adventure all her own. It's amazing that after decades of existence as one-third of DC's Holy Trinity - a mantle shared with Batman and Superman - the character has never headlined a film of her own, while her two counterparts have been brought to life time and again. To put it simply, a solo Wonder Woman film needed to be more than just another entry in the DCEU franchise. It needed to pay off years of patience from fans who have waited far too long to see Diana Prince where she belongs, and - more importantly - it needed to do justice to such a strong, storied female character that doesn't deserve to have her first big screen outing lumped into a category where films like 2004's Catwoman or 2005's Elektra exist.
It truly feels amazing that director Patty Jenkins and everyone involved in bringing this film to the big screen have succeeded on all fronts. Hands down, it is the best DCEU film yet, finally capitalizing on and embracing the potential of the universe's characters, mythology, and history in a way the past films simply haven't. This is a film full of color; a film where warriors leap into battle and are framed as though they're leaping straight out of a comic book panel to do so. It's a movie where Gods like Zeus and Ares actually exist, where positive ideals are cherished instead of buried under pessimism, and where storytelling and character work mostly triumphs over spectacle.
Though the film is framed by post-Batman v Superman scenes set in the present day, Wonder Woman is entirely an origin story. We're treated to scenes of Diana as a child growing up on the island of Themyscira, the secluded home of the warrior women, the Amazons, the young girl desiring nothing more than to fight alongside her friends and family to be ready for the day Ares - the missing God of War who allegedly once corrupted the hearts and minds of men - returns to start the war to end all wars. When she's older, she witnesses a plane crash off the coast piloted by Steve Trevor, a U.S. spy with Germans hot on his tail who finally opens Diana's eyes to the world at large, bringing stories of the horrors of World War I to the island that move the young warrior into action. Believing that Ares is behind it all, and against the wishes of her own people, Diana sets out with Steve back into the real world, determined to find and defeat the fallen God once and for all in order to save mankind.
Narrative twists and turns abound, of course, but the real joy of the film is watching Diana explore the world for the first time, guided by Steve Trevor. Gal Gadot really shines here, proving why she stole the show in Batman v Superman, deftly moving through a host of comedic, fish-out-of-water moments like Diana's first taste of ice cream, seeing her first baby, and an encounter with a revolving door, and handling the more dramatic moments with aplomb, selling Diana's true confusion and frustration with people's apathy or her desire to do the right thing even if no one else will stand by her side. Even though the film's underlying narrative plays out as expected, that's okay, because Diana's own personal journey throughout is what really matters here, and Gadot proves that with every cracked smile, furrowed brow, and kicked ass.
Fortunately, too, Diana isn't the only strong presence in the film. The supporting cast is solid, particularly the ragtag team that joins her on her adventure, but the real standouts are Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy, Steve Trevor's secretary, a hilarious member of the cast who regrettably disappears for much of the film not long after she's introduced, and Steve himself. As played by Chris Pine, Steve provides just as much of a beating heart to the film as Diana herself does, and the chemistry between he and Gadot is easily one of the best parts about the whole film. The two form a friendship early on upon which mutual respect is genuinely earned and not artificially forced, and their rapport throughout is, quite simply, charming. Diana and Steve, as characters and as friends, work incredibly well together, and had their dynamic not gelled together this well, the film would be far lesser for it.
In some ways, Wonder Woman feels like an assemblance of aspects of numerous other comic book films we've seen before, whether it's the fish-out-of-water angle of a superhero stepping into "the real world" from Thor or the pulpy period piece action of Captain America: The First Avenger or the simple, "aw shucks" earnestness of Superman: The Movie, and while it maintains the general aesthetic of the DCEU films before it - some glossy green screen work and the usage of slow motion during the action scenes, for instance - what keeps it from feeling like a complete rehash of any of it is the way in which Patty Jenkins puts it all together. The fantasy elements blend surprisingly well with the darker "war movie" elements, and the lighthearted nature of the film present in, say, Diana's naivety or Steve's ability to deliver a one-liner never overshadow moments where Diana can only helplessly watch as the horrors of war pass her by (and vice versa).
Even the action scenes here carry a kind of weight that the film’s DCEU predecessors haven’t. Once Diana is on the front line of World War I, she doesn't simply find herself stumbling into battle with no other choice. She bears witness to how the conflict is affecting the people present - by choice or otherwise - whether they’re pinned down and injured soldiers in trenches or villagers simply caught in the middle with nowhere to run, and chooses to act in spite of having the option to keep moving, not because she has the power to but because she has the obligation to, a fact that culminates in a standout scene where she chooses to cross No Man's Land alone to stop the German forces raining hell down on her side.
As with the rest of the film, the action is strengthened simply due to Jenkins' decision to put character first. We spend time with Diana and her friends outside of battle. We get to know them and the world through her eyes. We get to see them talk about their dreams and share drinks and dance. We come to like Diana and Steve and the rest and root for them before the action even really ramps up, which only improves the film when the time comes for whips to crack and fists to fly. It never feels soulless in the way that, say, Batman v Superman did, because we're given the chance to feel like insiders to the party, with quieter, more thoughtful scenes allowed to play out naturally instead of being plowed through that only serve to give what action sequences there are power, meaning, and actual purpose.
That said, Wonder Woman isn't entirely without fault. As with most comic book movie origin stories, the villains of the film are pretty underdeveloped, particularly one who is revealed too late in the game to get to know. And the third act, while still being entertaining, ultimately boils down to a final one-on-one battle that's a tad too long and undermined by the fact that said revelation occurs only moments beforehand. It looks cool, but feels almost perfunctory, the battle oddly enough not carrying the stakes or sense of purpose that, for example, the No Man's Land scene has or Steve Trevor's own parallel endgame conflict has, despite being the entire crux of the narrative.
Ultimately, though, unlike its predecessors, the positives in Wonder Woman more than outweigh its faults. Jenkins, Gadot, and everyone involved behind and in front of the camera have delivered a film that has both finally allowed the DCEU to live up to its potential and done justice to a character who deserved nothing less than greatness for her first time going solo on the big screen. Fans and critics of the DCEU up to this point have finally been given common ground with a solid film loaded with strong, likeable characters and an abundance of charm that will undoubtedly keep people coming back to it for years to come. After a disappointing 2016 for DC, it's time to breathe easy: Wonder Woman is a triumph in comparison, and now November's Justice League film has a lot to live up to.
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