2017 has been a year of studios playing with my mental health. I was ready to write off the X-Men franchise after “X-Men Apocalypse” and then they come out with “Logan”. Instead of the Alien sequel that Neill Blomkamp was going to do, we got “Alien Covenant”, a movie that looked at “Prometheus”, the intellectual aspirations that movie had and the incredibly dumb characters that ruined it, and decided to take a little bit less of the first and a little bit more of the latter. “Wonder Woman” luckily falls into the first category and is a pleasant surprise. Now please, DC, let this be a genuine shift in the way you make movies and not an exception to the rule.
“Wonder Woman” is directed by Patty Jenkins and stars Gal Gadot as Diana, aka Wonder Woman, returning after being one of the highlights of the embarrassment that was “Batman V Superman”, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, dreamboat spy pilot. After Steve is stranded on Themiscyra, the home of the amazons, Diana is shocked to hear about the devastation that World War One is wreaking on the innocent and takes it upon herself to end the war by killing Ares, the god of war. It’s her first adventure, so it’s understandable that she’s starting small.
It’s kind of hard to pinpoint the best thing about “Wonder Woman”, but since I challenged myself to write as much as I could about this movie before touching on the whole Woman aspect, I’m going to go with this: “Wonder Woman” perfectly balances the wide-eyed idealism of Richard Donner’s Superman and the extreme cynicism of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Wonder Woman is the best version of Superman that has been put to screen so far. It’s clear that someone over at Warner Bros. recognized the need to reassess the atmosphere and general philosophy of the DC Expanded Universe. Superman moping around, Batman killing left and right, whatever interesting ideas were behind these characterizations, they weren’t articulated in any way that justified them as a legitimate interpretation of the characters.
Wonder Woman is characterized meticulously from the off. In the first few sentences she exchanges with Steve Trevor, he frames her perspective on the war as good versus bad, before she even knows what’s happening. The rest of the movie is then about her growing up and gaining a better understanding of the complexities of humankind and why they insist on fighting each other. An easy comparison would be “Thor”, which has a similar fish-out-of-water plot-line, but isn’t nearly as well executed (and for the record, “Thor” is still pretty good). Thor’s worthiness is ill-defined, whereas Patty Jenkins never loses focus on Diana’s character for even a moment. At all times, the audience can track exactly what Diana thinks or feels about the situation based on what particular lesson she learned last.
World War One is the perfect setting for this purpose. The soldiers that went to the front in 1914 had the exact same idealism that Diana brings, but machine guns, trenches, barbwire, and gas changed that forever. At the same time, it’s also very clearly not the good vs. evil war that Diana expects. It’s been suggested to me that WWII or the Vietnam war would have been better settings, but history, both actual and film makes it almost impossible to frame WWII as anything else than good vs. bad, and any Vietnam film ends up drawing on Apocalypse Now, which is incompatible with the optimism at the core of this film. WWI, however, is, as Steve Trevor describes it, a huge mess, which is also not as well-trodden cinematically as other recent conflicts. Also, none of these have No Man’s Land, which would rob us of one of the best scenes in recent superhero history.
Another strength this movie has is it’s cast. Gal Gadot was good in Batman V Superman, but she had a very small role and it was still very hard to say whether she had the chops to lead a movie as Wonder Woman. There are also some subtle differences between the character in the two movies. In the end, however, to me, Gal Gadot is up there with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine or Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man when it comes to absolutely perfect superhero casting. She attacks every aspect of the character with a unique energy and visible excitement. She perfectly conveys Diana’s sincerity and her lust for battle. Superheroes in general operate on our desire for simple solutions to complex problems and Diana is unique because she believes in that despite all the cynicism that surrounds her. It’s Gadot’s greatest achievement that by the mid-point, she has drawn the audience in so much that for that one amazing moment, the No Man’s Land scene I mentioned above, the audience can believe with her.
The supporting cast also shines, especially Chris Pine, who goes through a similar journey to Diana’s, only in the opposite direction. He is a man who has forgotten what life is like in peacetime and can’t seem to see anything good in the world anymore, so much so that while he is questioned on Themyscira, a literal paradise on earth, with exotic animals, shining water and superhuman amazon warriors, the only thing he seems to think of as unbelievable is the suffering he has seen in the war. His chemistry with Diana is off the charts and their relationship is so perfect, I could watch them bickering on a boat for hours.
Diana’s squad of soldiers, the ones whose photo she was tracking down in BvS, serve the movies favourite pastime, subverting expectations. While the script doesn’t exactly nail it’s big third act twist, there are numerous tiny ideas, a few choice statements about race, the avoidance of the old “but I’m not a man” cliché, and out-of-the-blue character moments that are sprinkled throughout the movie and come as welcome surprises.
More than anything else, the likeable characters and its good script help Wonder Woman over the one serious flaw it has, which is the action. There’s three major action set-pieces and each one has a few weird editing moments, but in the explosion filled climax, they become really glaring. The first two work despite these flaws, especially, for the third time, the No Man’s Land sequence, but by the third one it becomes very clear that Patty Jenkins doesn’t quite have the experience needed to make a Zack Snyder style action scene. She has said in interviews that very little footage has ended up on the cutting room floor, but at times it is glaringly obvious that they were missing certain shots they needed to make a coherent scene. There’s also shots that are framed weirdly and more than once Jenkins hints at something cool but then doesn’t have the footage to show it. This makes the final action scene very confusing at times. Luckily, a strong emotional connection to the characters (and that kickass electric cello riff) carries the scene, which means that these problems do not harm the movie too seriously.
And now, finally: How good is it to have a female-driven superhero movie that is this good and successful? Diana comes from an all-female island on which not only everyone is equal, they are also incredibly strong, honourable, and loving. When she enters the world of man, she finds it severely lacking in those departments. The movie keeps a tight focus on her perspective and even though she is technically visiting our world, it’s not her who seems to be doing things wrong, it’s us. Diana is so strong, physically and mentally, she makes a mark on everyone she meets, whether they want it or not. It’s also important to note that the film doesn’t empower her by depowering the men around her, she is just that exceptional. I was tempted to delete my remark about her being the best Superman, because she’s distinctly feminine. I left it in because on some level it is true, but it’s important to stress, that Wonder Woman’s success is her own. Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have ignited the imagination of so many people around the world in such a short time, it’s an absolute joy to watch.