by Michael Henley
The very best thing about Wonder Woman, the long-awaited superhero film based on the iconic female comic book character, is its skillful deployment of weaponry. I don’t mean Wonder Woman’s trademark golden lasso, or any of the swords, gauntlets, machine guns, poisons or fisticuffs that litter its story. I mean it uses the most controversial weapon there can be: utmost sincerity.
Patty Jenkins’ new movie is a comic book epic that plays itself straight, that remembers why we want to believe in superheroes, and that doesn’t mire its heroics in sourness and grim. It stands apart from the previous films in the recent “D.C. Comics” strand of universe-building: Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, which were all joyless and dreary. Bucking a bit of current faux-wisdom, Jenkins (Monster) assembles Wonder Woman as a movie that has no interest in apologizing for what it is, or being something it’s not. When it has grit, it uses it as a technique, not a philosophy. When it uses irony, it does so sparingly, and to make a point. Like many of these pictures, it takes joy in juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane, but this one grants dignity and conviction to both.
In that respect, Wonder Woman takes a cue from the first superhero epic, Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), which drew power from its ability to boost its main character by kidding him, just a little, without resorting to mockery. That approach seems even wiser when applied to Wonder Woman, who is not an alien (somehow we can understand that) but is an Amazonian named Diana, living on an island hidden by some sort of mystical force field, and her backstory is laden with myth. She is even directly descended from Zeus, it is said, which is as good a pedigree as one might expect. In the wrong hands, the simple telling of this alone could seem silly. Not here, because Jenkins, like Donner before her, seems keenly aware of the fragile, potent power of mythmaking. One wrong step and the whole enterprise could shatter, but she moves with great confidence. She makes us believe.
And in Gal Gadot, Jenkins has someone who not just plays the role of Wonder Woman but embodies it: her grace, her drive, her fierceness and her tremendous heart. Gadot can be tremendously physical; we knew that when we saw her in last year’s Batman v. Superman. But seeing her portrayal of Wonder Woman here shows how improbably correct the casting was, and how naturally she hits tricky and urgent notes. She’s just but not self-righteous, warm but not gooey, and innocent without ever being stupid. In a performance full of perfect little touches, my favorite was when, during a stopover in a London department store, Diana has a good-natured smile at her companions’ reaction to an innocent faux pas, quickly sizing up the situation correctly and then allowing herself the gift of being amused.
There probably haven’t been many superhero casting that get it so right as this one does. I can think of Downey as Iron Man, Jackman as Wolverine, Evans as Captain America and, yes, Reeve as the original Superman. But the stakes were so high here and they got it so right. Is this also a good time to mention the added tension of a woman helming or headlining a female superhero tentpole at a time when both of those things are the opposite of common? With all the pressure in the world brought to bear on them, Jenkins and Gadot both know that if the character doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. She does. It does.
The plot, of course, is your usual checklist of superhero origin tropes: the discovery of powers, the recruiting of sidekicks, the bestowing of weapons and iconography. We don’t just expect these things for a movie like this; we cherish them. Because although the names change the consistent structure provide comfort and regularity from story to story, they have an inevitability of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or a Shakespearean sonnet. The Greek myths were the same, come to think of it. Here, Diana (soon to be dubbed “Diana Prince”) begins on her home island of Themyscira, where she is watched over by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and trained in combat by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). But their idyllic, Maxfield Parrish-esque existence is punctured by an invasion from the Great War outside their bubble, which leads to the inevitable tragedy.
But this incursion also introduces Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a British agent with a gift for both spycraft and understated bewilderment. And also good humor, all things considered: Steve is the kind of guy who can take a few blows to his own male ego, as more than once he’s on the receiving end of an unintentionally withering line from Diana, all of which are too good to spoil here. He and Diana form a bit of a bond—it helps that when she interrogates him she has a golden lasso that literally persuades him to be honest—and in helping him Diana becomes convinced that Ares, the god of war, is behind the world’s descent into chaos. In assisting Steve she decides to leave with him to track down Ares, first arriving in 1910s London, where after indulging a little fish-out-of-water comedy (blessedly funny and on point for a change) and enlisting the help of both a gallery of misfit commandos and Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (a delightful Lucy Davis), they’re off to the warfront.
The wartime scenes, as Diana doggedly cuts through mortal concerns by way of a straight line, are terrific, and the movie balances Diana’s horror at observing pitiless battles with sensational action. In one wonderful sequence, Diana, in full WW regalia, steps out of the Belgian trenches and into No Man’s Land, where she deflects gunfire with impunity, then delivers close-quarters punishment via some delightful action choreography (the film is spectacularly well-made). A lavish party in a castle turns into one of those wonderful James Bond-esque sequences where the villains feel decidedly certain somehow there are hero spies in their midst. And there’s one wonderful quiet scene where, after freeing an occupied town, Diana, Steve and their compatriots (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) dance to tavern music in the middle of a romantic snowfall. Pine and Gadot, it must be said, have great chemistry together, both when bantering and smoldering, and the movie takes the time to invest in their relationship.
And yet one of the smartest things about the story is that it makes Diana not at all perfect. Despite her godlike status she is not infallible, and although her powers do sometimes counteract her impulsiveness, that doesn’t always happen. This becomes especially clear when her attempts to pin down Ares take a more philosophical and messy turn than one might expect. I like the complexity there, without sacrificing any of her autonomy or smarts, and I enjoyed the way the movie gently suggests that sometimes her spirit just gets ever so slightly in the way of her own best interests. It solves a fundamental problem with how sometimes these superheroes can be depicted: that somehow they’re so perfect that they’re boring. Not so here. The superhero genre often gets a ton of flack for its treatment of female characters, and Wonder Woman neatly sidesteps any compunction to reduce Diana to an object, or a pill, or a punchline. She’s simply considered as a heroine, period.
Amidst everything that Wonder Woman does right, there are some flaws. There’s a pair of weak villains: Danny Huston as a Hun general with a bulldog face, Elena Anaya as a masked scientist developing improved mustard gas (I’m not an expert on Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery but I still hesitate to call these two top-tier). Granted, there’s still Ares to consider but I’ll leave that bit for you to discover. And the third act does lean into CGI overkill more akin to that found in Batman v. Superman, even if it does involve the hunting down of a god and maybe justifies the endless fire and explosions. I guess I just miss a dash of restraint in my superhero saga conclusions. And Diana’s electric-cello theme song, heard before in Batman v. Supes, is played here twice–which will be either two times too many or far too little, depending upon your personal taste.
But Wonder Woman works so well, with such brio and assurance, that these feel like tiny nitpicks. Back in ’78, the tagline for Superman was “You will believe a man can fly.” By contrast, “You will believe in an Amazon warrior who wants to protect humankind,” seems a little ungainly to use as a descriptor for Wonder Woman. So how about we just call it a triumph.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Patty Jenkins. Screenplay by Allan Heinberg. Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs. Based on the D.C. Comics character created by William Moulton Marston. Produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Richard Suckle. Music by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Edited by Martin Walsh. Production designed by Aline Bonnetto. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewan Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya.