The weight of expectation on the release of this month’s Wonder Woman film was enough to buckle the shoulders of even the sturdiest Amazon warrior.
The overlords of the DC Extended Universe would have been holding their breath for this release. After the lukewarm reception to 2012’s Man of Steel, the critical and fan backlash to the abysmal (and dull) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and that same year’s hot mess of reshoots, rewrites and re-cuts, Suicide Squad, they needed a genuine win.
It wasn’t just a case of turning a juicy profit for the studio fat cats, either. Like the eponymous heroine, Wonder Woman had to be nimble and agile, walking a number of tightrope acts. The film couldn’t be too dark, or it risked being lumped in the BvS basket of boredom; too light and fluffy, and fans looking for gritty superhero realism wouldn’t want to see it.
Even Wonder Woman’s costume reflects that tension: though much darker, armour-like and practical than Lynda Carter’s 1970s spandex, her gear is still significantly brighter and reflective of hope than her appearance in BvS.
There were also aggro Twitter politics to be danced around: Wonder Woman had to somehow placate both feminist and anti-feminist audiences. Feminsts were already concerned about issues ranging from female agency through to the more trivial matter of the protagonist’s underarm hair (or lack thereof). In the red corner, anti-feminists were waiting in the wings to deride any female-led film that played into cloying social-justice sensibilities, as with the notorious kerfuffles around the critically-panned 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.
Somehow, perhaps as only a princess of Themyscira could, Wonder Woman ducks and weaves the hail of bullets from awaiting critics, impresses them all, and emerges stronger than ever.
Wonder Woman is a superb film.
More importantly, this film is actually really fun – and that isn’t true for any DCEU film thus far.
The movie opens in modern-day Paris, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), now working at the Louvre, receives an aging photograph from Bruce Wayne. Diana recalls her past: specifically, the events that led to the photograph in question. Born on the mystical Greek island of Themyscira, an island populated solely by females – and female warriors, at that – Diana is trained to become the strongest warrior of them all.
Trained by her aunt, Antiope (an impressive Robin Wright), and guided by a protective mother (Connie Nielsen), Diana masters the ways of the Amazon. She learns the mythology of her people, too: that the wars of the past were caused by the Greek god of war, Ares, and that his return may be inevitable.
Cue the unexpected arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a captain from the United States Army Air Service, who crash-lands a plane near the protected island, opening Diana’s eyes to the world beyond. Learning that the entire world is in the throes of the fourth year of World War I, and believing Ares to be at the core of it, Diana enters wartime Europe to help end the war; Steve, needing her help, allows her to join him.
What follows is one of the more memorable superhero tales in recent memory. Transposing the story to the 1918 setting is a stroke of genius by the film’s writer Allan Heinberg: the curious mix of power and innocence that radiates from Diana is juxtaposed perfectly with the era’s suffragette politics. Gal Gadot is not just radiant, but convincing: she deftly runs the gamut of charming, likeable protagonist and unyielding Amazon warrior powerhouse.
In fact, her heroic qualities reverberate in the sky-shattering guitar riff that has become rapidly well-known as Wonder Woman’s new theme music. Several powerful scenes in this film – both the high-octane and the poignant – gave me shivers, and this leads to the film’s biggest power.
Wonder Woman is an earnest film that actually gives the audience hope; the heroine inspires the viewers. The film doesn’t deflate its meaningful moments with poorly-timed comic relief; nor does it pretend, as BvS did, that it’s too cool and aloof to deal with genuine emotion. Certain moments hit you squarely in the feels: this superhero talks about her belief in love, and in an era of rapid-fire quips and dark broodiness, this resonates.
Gadot isn’t the only stellar actor in the cast. Pine is brilliant as her love interest, Steve, making the most of his playful, perfectly-pitched comic moments. He also enjoyed a fairly drawn-out “nude” scene in which he which boosted his credentials as bona fide beefcake and delivered some top-shelf innuendo (“I’m above average …” he tells Diana – with just enough boyish charm to avoid being crass).
Supporting actor David Thewlis (AKA Professor Remus Lupin) does an impressive job as Sir Patrick Morgan, while Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) is a delight for audiences. Sameer (Saïd Tachmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) round out the good guys as a trio of likeable rogues – though all three characters feel like they could’ve been explored more had the story not been as tight.
Only the villains seem to be reading from a different script: Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his mad-scientist sidekick Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) come off a little cartoonish. The dilapidated lab with beakers everywhere is a little cliché, and given the two are cooking up mustard gas to wipe out civilians, those scenes surely could have been taken a little more seriously? It clashes with how soberly we are invited to view the scene of the village actually being bombed with the gas.
And as good as this film was, I can’t have been the only one who walked out of the cinema wondering why the evil Germans didn’t speak bloody German among themselves? Given that director Patty Jenkins wasn’t afraid to expose subtitle-averse audiences to a multilingual exchange between Diana and Sameer, why avoid the subtitles with Ludendorff and his cronies? Please explain.
That said, Jenkins’ direction is exquisite. I wouldn’t be surprised to see fan campaigns to oust Zack Snyder as director of any further DC films and replace him with Jenkins. Hell, I might join them. Jenkins is talented, and her interviews show that she isn’t just pandering to the fandom; rather, she has her own vision and it is aligned with the audience – something Snyder has failed to master.
The only thing missing from this movie? Nobody actually called Diana “Wonder Woman”. A deliberate decision, perhaps, but at least a wink to the name would’ve felt appropriate.
Wonder Woman is a triumph, and it may be the turning point DC desperately needed. Roll on, Justice League.