Wonder Woman is the best movie to released so far as part of Warner Brothers’ DC Comics Extended Universe film franchise. Granted the bar there is rather low, but director Patty Jenkins’ big screen adaptation of the iconic superheroine manages to clear it in, to steal a turn of phrase from one of her Justice League colleagues, a single bound. While the movie does have a few problems, it is a worthy first big screen solo story for a character who has been a pop culture mainstay for over seven and a half decades.
At its core, the film is a standard origin story, and if you are familiar with the character you probably know the basic beats. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The nearly immortal Amazons have been living on the magically hidden island of Themyscira since the time of the Greek gods. Diana is the only child born on the island, and to hear her mother tell the story, was created out of clay and imbued with life by Zeus himself. But after centuries of isolation, the island’s magical veil is pierced by a crashing plane piloted by American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Although the Amazons imprison Steve, Diana is intrigued by his story of a world at war beyond their shores. Believing that the last of the gods, Ares, could be the one behind this globe-spanning conflict, Diana frees Steve and the two head back to London to see what they can do about ending what Steve called “the War to end all wars.”
It is hard to believe that in the 14 years since Patty Jenkins made her first film – 2003’s Monster – and now, the director has not shot a feature film. The jump from a small indie drama like her debut to a big budget tentpole like Wonder Woman can be daunting even without such a sabbatical, but Jenkins handles it with ease. No sophomore slump here. While she does use some of the visual tricks that Zack Snyder used in previous franchise entries Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman – slow motion and speed ramping – here the action sequences come across much more coherent. Jenkins defines the space in which the heroics will occur and then lets the heroes and villains clash to great effect. At one point a few years back, Jenkins was set to direct Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World but ultimately didn’t sign on. Marvel’s loss was this film’s gain.
At no point does the film loose sight of its lead character. Sure this is pretty much a standard origin story film with its lead character going on the prescribed hero’s journey, but it is a tale told well. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg, who, in addition to several years of writing television, wrote a well regarded run on the Wonder Woman comic. There is a solid handle on the character and there is no attempt to layer unneeded angst or grittiness on her.
The film does kick off with a lot of exposition, with various characters discussing Diana’s background or telling the story of how the Amazons came to be hidden away from the rest of the world. While to a degree it can’t be helped as this information becomes important to the plot later, it definitely feels as if there better ways to convey it all. Perhaps if we spent a little more time on Themyscira, there could have been a way for Steve, as an audience surrogate, to learn some of this lore at the same time we do.
But it is hard to fault the movie for wanting to lay its groundwork as quickly as possible before getting Steve and Diana out into the real world to do their stuff. Pine and Godot share a fun chemistry with Pine’s breezy charm playing well against Godot’s fish-out-of-water earnestness. And the film does a good job at using that chemistry for comedic moments that come from the characters and not just someone making wiseass remarks.
The film’s World War One setting may seem a bit off for some fans, considering that the character was first published in the months leading up to World War Two. Some have seen shifting the film’s time period a few decades earlier as a way to avoid direct comparisons with another World War Two spawned hero – Marvel’s Captain America. But the change actually serves the film fairly well. Diana is driven by the ancient charge from the gods that the Amazons were to be peacemakers in the world. And when she hears Steve’s stories of a “war to end all wars,” she sees this as a call to return to that divinely ordered destiny. And believing that Ares, whose slaughter of the other gods is partially what drove the Amazons into hiding, is secretly motivating this conflict only hardens her resolve to bring it to an end.
It should be noted that Wonder Woman‘s treatment of war is a bit more frank than how we saw Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger deal with it. Captain America kept the horrors of war at a good arm’s distance away, instead choosing to be a rousing adventure. Wonder Woman is a bit more upfront with showing the inhumane toll war can have on people, at least as much as a PG-13 rating will allow. Diana starts her journey seeking a rousing adventure but instead discovers the true cost of war and with that knowledge comes a wavering in her belief in the goodness of man. This is set up for the film’s finale in which Diana and Ares come to blows as much over the purity of corruptibility of man’s nature as they do anything else.
This philosophical slant to the fight alone makes the climax of the film more interesting than the usual slugfests where the hero is trying to stop the villains’ plan of poorly motivated mass destruction. In the end, Wonder Woman represents hope for the best in mankind, and given this superhero universe’s offerings up until now, it is something that the franchise is in desperate need of.