After nearly eighty years, DC’s First Lady finally gets her cinematic debut. Oscar gives us the lowdown.
Wonder Woman is truly a film the world needed, for now we have our first critically-acclaimed and financially-successful female-led superhero movie. To say that it was a gratifying experience to be able to watch a DC Cinematic Universe movie where the general consensus was markedly positive would be understating it. It may, quite possibly, be among the very best of the genre, and it is certainly one of the most ambitious in scope while still being intimate in storytelling.
Diana was born and raised on the island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind against the corruption of Ares, the god of war. Diana desires to train as an Amazon warrior, but her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) refuses to allow it, insisting that Ares will never return. However, Diana and her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), disobey Hippolyta and begin training in secret. As a young woman, Diana (Gal Gadot) rescues pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) after his plane crashes off the coast. The island is soon attacked by the German soldiers pursuing Steve. After defeating them, Steve is interrogated with the Lasso of Truth, which reveals that he is an Allied Spy, and the Great War is well underway, millions already being dead. He stole a notebook from German scientist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), who is researching a deadlier form of mustard gas under General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Believing Ares is responsible for the war, Diana arms herself with the ceremonial sword, God-killer, and leaves Themyscira with Steve to find and destroy the god of war.
I will confess, I was not entirely sure Gadot would be able to do justice to Diana in her own movie beyond the physical nature of the character, which she already demonstrated in a limited capacity in Batman v Superman. Her natural expressiveness, body language and likability, coupled with the character’s optimism and naivety, resulted in an ideal mix for the character. Even though she doesn’t always have the best delivery, she fits the role of Wonder Woman without issue. Nevertheless, it’s the supporting cast that really help carry the film alongside our leading lady. Pine was a complete blast as Trevor, channelling some of his Captain Kirk charisma and is a dependable source of humour with great timing and delivery. He also handles the emotional beats with panache. Nielsen was well-chosen as Hippolyta, adopting Gal’s accent with grace and flair, lending herself well to the regal. Wright is a good fit for Niobe’s fearsome fighting and stern teachings, being as different from her iconic role as Princess Buttercup as you can get. Anaya as Doctor Maru leans a bit too much on the evil scientist clichè, but is a good co-villain to Ludendorff. Huston is intimidating as the General, and David Thewlis is dependable as Sir Patrick Morgan, the British Minister of War. Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, Steve’s secretary, is very amusing and has a great interplay with Gadot and Pine.
Despite a lack of prior experience, director Patty Jenkins acquits herself with the action very well; it’s all well-shot and flows together clearly. While not as fast paced as the Snyder movies, there is still a respectable heft and suspense to it. It does feature a lot of slow-motion, and at first it’s played to great effect as it showcases the Amazons in battle like a classical painting of Greek mythology come to life, but over time, it does lose its initial impact and seems a bit too gimmicky for its own good. The build up to Wonder Woman’s now-famous battle across No Man’s Land earns the use of slow-mo and also serves as an excellent reveal of the iconic outfit, being over an hour into the film similar to the reveal of Christopher Reeve in the Superman costume.
The cinematography by newcomer Matthew Jensen is sublime, bringing out the incredible beauty of Themyscira with the vibrant blues of the ocean and the lush greens of the island. This is in contrast to the desaturated and foggy atmosphere of London and the barren battlefields in Belgium, enhancing the character of the early 20th century cities and villages. The island paradise looked ancient, sophisticated and yet lived-in, reminiscent of Ancient Greece (obviously) but with some fantastical flourishes to it.
The visual effects are something of a mixed bag; the long distance shots of Themiscyra are the better-looking effects shots in the film, along with the practical pyrotechnics and stunt work in the earlier action scenes. The Renaissance painting effects depicting the history of the Greek gods is another brilliant twist, establishing the background and origin of Themyscira and its mythic society. The climax is also very VFX-heavy, and not all of it is all that convincing to the CG-savvy eye. For a comparatively smaller budget than other superhero movies, they try to match the scale of their competitors, but it doesn’t have the same “realness” to it. Nevertheless, they earned that climax with the rest of the preceding film being of such high calibre.
The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is good though not great; the score fits for each of the locations and gives a lot of character to them, such as the mythical quality of Themyscira, the soft melodies between Diana and Steve, or the lively piano bits in London. The way it builds to and ultimately employs the now-familiar Wonder Woman electric guitar theme from Batman v Superman is commendable, starting out on her island home and up to her first fight on the fields of Belgium.
Jenkins directed the HELL out of this, with a clear emphasis on the characters and their actions to drive the story forward. As well as being a movie with World War I as the backdrop and all the tragedy that comes with it, this is also an earnest classical Greek epic in the vein of The Odyssey and The Aeneid, with the main character voyaging beyond the comforts of her homeland and coming face-to-face with armies of men and the machinations of gods. Diana walks the fine line between being a role model and being relatable despite being a demigoddess. There are two bookends set in modern-day Paris that establish the existence of a wider DC world, but nothing that requires you to have watched them. They aren’t bad, just not very necessary.
The script uses a lot of familiar storytelling elements like the fish-out-of-water humour and the idealised, naive hero to good effect because they fit the progression of Diana’s journey. Even Steve’s skepticism and doubtfulness is played for laughs and seriousness at the right moments, whether they be deadpan reactions to Diana’s earnest accounts of her history and upbringing, or him flat out refuting the idea of Ares even existing. The comedy feels native to the time period rather than the modern inflections that most Marvel characters (especially the cosmic ones) have on display. Even though the villains are underdeveloped, the idea of Ares is interesting as a foil for Wonder Woman, keeping true to the thematic dynamics of the Greek myths, and the focus being on the hero is what keeps the film on its two feet. The equal partnership between men and women as expressed by Diana and Steve’s friendship is another major strength – they don’t browbeat men to prop Diana up, since she exhibits great strength and courage amongst other brave men and women.
In the midst of the fish-out-of-water scenarios, you get to see Diana’s moral compass established and explored in an emotionally honest way. As Diana and Steve explore the war-torn fields and villages of Belgium, we see their contrasting philosophies on the war and the lives affected, and neither come off as wrong or out of character. In the morally-grey context of World War I, they manage to integrate the idea of there being a single unifying evil driving it without feeling disingenuous to history. No man or woman is an island in this film; we see Diana affect the people around her, who in turn influence her actions and emotions. She goes through the world exercising Hippolyta’s compassion, honour and wisdom, and being firm, assertive and absolutely fierce in battle as Niobe taught her. She is a symbol of love and compassion despite being a warrior and a slayer of soldiers. But the film doesn’t commit to this idea in a superficial way; it isn’t really that “love conquers all”, but to quote Samwise Gamgee, “There’s some good in this world… and it’s worth fighting for.” No matter how ugly this world gets, there is always hope.
Logan is still my personal favourite superhero movie of the year, and a more well-rounded film overall, but this is still a home run and a fantastic addition to the comic book genre. I believe this is a movie that a great many people will likely enjoy even on a basic level regardless of whether or not they liked any of the previous DCEU movies. It is a real game-changer for both Marvel and DC.