Gal Gadot prepares to save the world as Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (General Erich Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Elena Anaya (Isabel Maru), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaouri (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (Chief Napi)
The DC universe has largely been a feeble attempt to parrot the success of Marvel, but without the latter’s charm or sense of fun. Each film has been a crushingly, overwhelmingly, teenage-boy focused series of grim super-bashing. So it’s a refreshing change that for their fourth film we get something different: lighter, funnier, warmer and focused on women rather than men.
On a hidden island, the Amazons live in hiding, waiting for the day they will return to save humanity from the villainous fallen god Ares. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) queen of the Amazons, trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) into becoming their greatest warrior. Their timeless world is shattered in 1918, when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands his plane on the island – and explains the world is torn apart by war. Convinced this is Ares’ influence, Diana leaves the island with Steve – and finds herself thrown into a world she scarcely understands, with only her faith in the goodness of mankind to sustain her.
Wonder Woman is a change of pace from previous DC filmes – largely because it is pretty good. For the first time in this struggling universe, we have a bit of lightness and humour, and some engaging central characters. Which, considering the dark grimness of the previous entries is saying something. It’s bright, feels like a comic book (in a good way), has a decent story arc and, most importantly, you care. Is it the best comic book movie ever made? Of course not, but it’s a damn solid effort.
A lot of this is due to Gal Gadot being such an endearing lead. She gives Diana a perfect blend of serene, super-powered action goddess and naïve, charming lost-out-of-time sweetness. So one minute she can cooing over the first baby she’s ever seen, the next she can be laying out baddies in a scuffle. Her unquestioning faith in the fundamental goodness of people makes her innocence very winning. In fact, her secret weapon is empathy, a quality the film really embraces. Gadot’s skill is in keeping such unremitting goodness and positivity hugely loveable. She is terrific.
The film deals with her head-turning beauty with a witty affection (“You put specs on her and she's suddenly not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?” Etta comments on one particularly feeble disguise option Steve suggests). In fact, the romance between Diana and Steve (Chris Pine similarly engaging as an “above average” man head over heels in love) is really well drawn – he clearly adores her, while she has a shy, almost teenage crush which blossoms over time into a genuine affection. It’s a very innocent and heart-warming romance, that plays out extremely well.
Needless to say as well, the film makes a fine counter-balance to the leering cameras you see in other films. Diana’s unmatchable competence is immediately recognised by Steve: while Steve understands the world, Diana is very much the hero, for all her fish-out-of-water naïveté. The film holds off a reveal of the costume for a long time – but when it is, it’s not a sexualised moment, but one of awe. The opening section of the movie, with its Amazonian islanders, also allows plenty of ass-kicking to be given to the women (Robin Wright is especially terrific as an Amazonian general – she should get her own Taken style action series).
Wonder Woman is not perfect. Structurally it’s pretty similar to other origin stories. Much of the backstory makes little sense, while the powers (or not) of the Amazonians in comparison with Diana are poorly explained. Away from the charm of the lead characters, nothing feels particularly new – none of the action sequences feel unique, and are shot with competence rather than inspiration. The final battle briefly looks like it might do something different, before it becomes an all too familiar CGI bashing.
I’m also not sure about setting the film in the First World War. Seeing Diana lead a successful charge through the trenches where real people died in their thousands, somehow doesn’t sit quite right. It’s uncomfortable to watch a cartoon hero walking across no man’s land into gunfire, just as thousands of real people had to, but without super-powers to make it a moment of awesome cool. They just died; it wasn’t the setting for an action sequence, oh a moment of “wow she’s cool”.
I'm not sure about the film's use of the grim trenches of the First World War for kick-ass action
Unlike the Second World War (where at least we know the SS were completely despicable) its portrayal of German soldiers as mostly faceless villains feels unjust – these were largely just ordinary people in a horrendous situation. Making Luddendorf a psychotic, lunatic also feels uncomfortable – he was real. Would it have been so difficult to make up a General von Baddie? (It doesn’t help that Danny Huston gives a truly abysmal performance of over-the-top hamminess). This is an area where Captain America handled its setting much better – the film may have been set in a real war, but the villains are specifically Hydra soldiers, a made-up army of made-up people who had consciously sworn allegiance to Evil. The First World War was a complex tragedy in shades of grey – presenting it as a good vs evil, with the Germans eager to embrace a horrifying nerve gas, just doesn’t feel right.
The strengths of the film are away from the action, and I think that’s why it has formed a bond with people. You genuinely care and root for Diana and Steve. It’s got wit and humour and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When the action really kicks off the film isn’t anything special, but before then it has its moments: a charming sequence where Diana tries on (and breaks with various fighting moves) female costumes of the 1910s; a beautiful Renaissance-painting style flashback to the backstory of how the gods fell; the early fumbling scenes of romantic interest between Diana and Steve. It’s where the heart of the film is.
In fact that’s what the film is really about (and what really makes it work) – the heart at the centre. It gets a little bit lost in all the booms and bombast of the second half, but there is more than enough of it in the first half to carry it through. When the film is tightly focused you can really feel it coming to life. The more of that the better. It’s also a breath of fresh air for presenting such a strong female lead, whom the men are defined by their relationship to (rather than vice versa). It’s fun and it’s heart-warming. Its old ideas presented from a fresh perspective.