It seems necessary to preface a review of Wonder Woman by quickly establishing a perspective on the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). But I’m so excited to talk about this movie I kind of don’t want to, but it may be helpful. I’m a bit softer than most on the DC films. I’ve really come to enjoy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, flaws and all, my problems with Man of Steel are mostly with the portrayal of Jonathan Kent and an over reliance on Christ imagery, and Suicide Squad would have been legitimately great if they had just kept it as a series of music videos like the trailers implied. So saying that Wonder Woman is the best of them is a bit of faint praise, and while not perfect, it is a better than solid entry in the genre.
One thing I took for granted when writing my Primer on Wonder Woman is her legacy as a character. Along with Batman and Superman, she is a cornerstone of superhero comics, continually published since her introduction despite the unpopularity of superheroes in between the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books. She is an icon, and the fact that Hollywood made six films starring Superman and nine for Batman before we even got Wonder Woman’s big screen debut is a bit sad. Of course, the fact that she was the only aspect of Batman v. Superman that was universally praised (despite her appearance not serving a plot function) was a good sign. And Wonder Woman delivers on that promise while functioning as a truly standalone film.
The film starts with an unnecessary bookend, with Diana (Gal Gadot) working at the Louve, receiving a photograph that will be familiar to anyone who saw Batman v. Superman. From there, we settle in to seeing Diana grow up on the all-female paradisiacal island of Themyscira with her people, the Amazons. Raised by her protective mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and secretly trained as a warrior by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), everything changes when an American pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes his plane near the island and Diana rescues him. Trevor tells the Amazons of the war and his search for General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his associate Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) who are developing new chemical weapons for the Germans. Diana is convinced that this must be the result of the war god Ares, corrupting the hearts of mankind, and she leaves to go to the war with Trevor.
The film borrows its structure heavily from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. By opening with Diana’s childhood, we understand what has shaped her unique perspective. The scenes set on Themyscira are just gorgeous. Despite not being a real place, it feels more grounded than say, Asgard, or some of the locations in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 without losing its sense of the fantastic. Rather, the island feels like a real place with its own society, and brings enough of the fantastic due to the small details and the overwhelming natural beauty, with its lush colors and bright blues. The film switches color palettes immediately when we enter into the “real” world dominated by grays and overall desaturation. Probably the most obvious use of color since The Matrix. It begs to be noticed, and in this genre, that is entirely appropriate.
Then we move into a romantic comedy for the middle section in London, which echoes when Clark Kent comes to Metropolis. Donner played that section as a screwball comedy, with Lois as a Girl Friday to no one, and director Patty Jenkins similarly draws on the modern romantic comedy for much of the gags in the film. They are either smartly used as playful reversals, or extremely on the nose trope critiques. For example, when Steve has Diana wear glasses (itself an homage to the Lynda Carter TV series), Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), comments sarcastically about how they have not diminished Diana’s beauty. And like Clark, Diana also struggles with revolving doors, as she is even more out of place in 1910s London than Clark is as a farm boy in the big city.
The third section of the film is a war movie. The easiest comparison to make of Wonder Woman to another film in the genre is to Captain America: The First Avenger. With its relatively slower paced first act and wartime setting, the parallels between the two films are obvious. However, where the Marvel film draws on the Second World War as the backdrop for a pulpy science fiction adventure, Wonder Woman uses the First World War to convey the horrors of modern warfare. The hopelessness of a continent ripped apart by siege and the notion of “acceptable losses” are front and center. It does not glamorize warfare, which only enhances the courage of its heroes.
This also shows the most important aspect of Wonder Woman’s character. No matter what horrors she sees, she consistently acts with love and compassion, becoming an inspiration to those around her. The other characters in the film, including Steve Trevor’s diverse team of compatriots (played by Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremmer, and Eugene Brave Rock), are all inspired by her. She brings a sense of hope and reminds them that they fight for a greater, noble cause, a stark contrast from the generals we encounter in the film.
After Monster, no one should have doubted Patty Jenkins as a director, but this movie is often beautiful. And she directs great action sequences, blending Snyder-style with her own take. I like that so far, DC has their own version of what superhero action looks like, and I’ll take speed ramping and any other techniques that showcase intricate movement over quick cuts that attempt “realism” by hiding the action. It also helps that having a sword and shield, as well as the gauntlets and Lasso of Truth allows for some interesting visual combinations, which gives the action some more flair than just kicking and punching. It is right to call the final showdown between Diana and the big bad a bit rote, but we’ve gotten far worse showdowns in recent films, so I’m willing to let it slide.
Jenkins also uses the cast well, and Gal Gadot continues to impress with her charisma and charm. While Diana is often portrayed as stoic or aloof, Gadot brings a warmth and strength to the role that allows the film to rest on her. Not that it needs to, since Chris Pine (he’s the best Chris!) almost steals the movie. He excels at playing comedy as well as heroism, and his face each time he gets rescued by Diana is precious. Robin Wright and Connie Nielson are note-perfect as Amazons in both presence and performance. I also found myself captivated by Elena Anaya making Doctor Poison intensely strange but not in a way that was big or showy.
The combination of all of these things make Wonder Woman the kind of movie I’m already looking forward to watching over and over.
Wonder Woman opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.