Wonder Woman has a lot of pressure on it. Not only is it the first live-action portrayal of Diana Prince since Lynda Carter in the 1970s, and not only is it the first superhero movie in the current DC (or Marvel) cinematic universes to feature a female lead in the title role, it is also the first movie of the DC cinematic universe to balance both box office returns and critical response. Outperforming both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad in review scores and raking in ticket sales, Wonder Woman looks like the hit DC has been praying for.
Outdoing its DC cinematic universe predecessors is a low bar to get over, and Wonder Woman certainly makes the grade on that count, but it has its fair share of flaws. Fortunately, these are easy to look past as Diana Prince bravely goes over the top into No-Man’s Land, powered purely by her sense of morality.
The premise of Wonder Woman is a simple one: the Amazons live and train in the old styles of warfare on their secluded and hidden island, Themyscira. It is here that Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is trained by General Antiope (Robin Wright) to be the most skilled warrior of all the Amazons. When spy and World War I combatant Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) accidentally crashes into the waters of Themyscira, Diana rescues him; upon hearing of the horrors of World War I, she becomes convinced that Ares, the God of War, is behind the atrocities humanity is perpetuating against itself. Against the wishes of her mother, Diana leaves the island to defeat Ares and bring the war to end all wars to a close.
The film is framed as Diana recalling these events, having received the original photo of herself in World War I as a gift from Bruce Wayne (printed on glass, a nice touch from the props department). A persistent weakness in every cinematic universe film is a film taking time away from itself to remind you that it is related to a bunch of other movies, and Wonder Woman is no exception. At the end of the film, when attempting to unnecessarily wrap up the moral of the story in a neat little bow, the film apparently expects the audience to accept that we’re not really going to talk about what Diana has been up to for the last hundred years. She fought in the Great War, liberated a town and killed a real life German general, and now she’s in the present. Presumably she’s been doing something for the last century, but we’re just not going to talk about it. Hope you’re excited for the Justice League movie! This enormous gap in Diana’s history wouldn’t even prompt the question of what she’s been doing in the interim if the movie hadn’t framed itself as Diana reminiscing; it would just be an origin story that ends with Diana resolving to face the future, rather than a trip through her past.
This and some bizarre character beats – Diana’s character arc seems to bounce around at times, a product of the film’s not-always compelling pacing – are likely the film’s greatest weaknesses. One such character beat occurs at the end of the film, when Diana is finally going head to head with another godlike being. This character beat is the ultimate lesson that Diana must learn in order to complete her arc, and as such it is inextricable from the core theme of the movie: the capacity to do right or not is within each person, whether or not we do so is not always an easy choice. If you want a movie to establish how complicated human conflict and indeed war can be, World War I is the perfect setting. Chris Pine cries out that we are all collectively responsible for war, that he wishes it would boil down to just one person (Ares, as Diana insists), but it takes more than that to solve these problems. This seems to be driving towards the loss of Diana’s naivety and her understanding of humanity’s moral complexity, but then the film immediately thereafter insists on a battle between gods, where one represents good and the other evil, effectively undercutting the lesson and draining away its power.
It doesn’t help that the final action sequence in the film is a rarity. In a film about a war, there isn’t always a whole lot of war going on. Lots of traveling, and talking, and some questionable representations of different folks engaging in mercenary work, but not nearly as much fighting as one might expect from a film about the greatest warrior of the Amazons attempting to hunt down and slay the God of War. While these emotional moments are well-spent, too many of them packed together can make the film feel painfully slow, particularly as watching Diana in action with her sword and shield is a massive thrill.
Little to none of these issues can be attributed to Patty Jenkins, however, who directs the film with confidence and skill, such as one might expect from someone who directed her first film over a decade ago. Giving each emotional scene the delicate touches it needs, but not lingering on them longer than necessary, Jenkins attempts to rectify the pacing laid out in the screenplay to keep things moving along as needed. The romance between Diana and Steve, for example, does not feel remotely rushed, yet the gentle fade to black reminds us that we’re not going to spend time on any details not immediately relevant to our understanding of Diana’s story.
Moreover, Jenkins manages to adapt the brown and grey color palette and action style that Zack Snyder is so fond of in a fashion that allows Wonder Woman to feel fresh and original while also reminding us we are tied to the color choices of an extant cinematic universe. Themyscira, for example, exists in its own bubble away from the dirt and grime of human life, and as such it is a colorful, magical island full of relics and colors and sunlight, and we see the purity of this island in Diana as she attempts to navigate an often brutal world beset by war, politics, and gender roles.
Ultimately Wonder Woman infuses the DC universe with a much-needed burst of color and hope and heroism, bringing some emotional gravity to a series of films that have often bordered on nihilistic. It is telling that while the other films in the DC universe descend into sometimes bizarre violence, Diana is at her most powerful when she is defending rather than attacking, her godlike powers emanating from her arms in a defensive X. She represents justice motivated by kindness in a universe that seems lacking in both. Wonder Woman leaves one hoping that Diana and her moral compass will be leading the Justice League when the time comes, if only to see her courage in action again. As for Wonder Woman on its own: this movie had the capacity to be great, but as it stands, we’ll have to settle for merely “good and easily the best part of the DC universe thus far.”Liked This? Share It!