Warner Bros.’ DCEU hasn’t exactly had an easy run. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad have all been met with wildly varied opinions, some leaning decidedly into the negative spectrum. The films may have their fans, but there’s no denying just how polarising the pics have been thus far. So, it’s understandable that many have been placing their hopes on Wonder Woman, the first (!) big-screen feature focusing on the heroine who was introduced to the comic world in 1941, to correct the ship. Well, consider it corrected. Let’s get this out of the way now, shall we: Wonder Woman, the sophomore big-screen feature for Monster director Patty Jenkins, is the first great chapter in the DCEU.
This ambitious origin tale introduces us to a young Amazon Princess Diana, a spritely, inquisitive little girl clearly passionate about the art of combat and already exhibiting a strong will. As she comes of age, she is trained to fight by her auntie, General Antiope (Robin Wright). Her talents rise to the surface, much to the concern of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Their peaceful existence comes to an abrupt halt when the plane of US Army Air Service captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) breaks through the skies of Themyscira, crashing into the water before Diana’s eyes. Not only does he bring German soldiers on his tail, he holds news of the First World War raging on in the outside world. Diana decides she will leave with Trevor on a mission to take down what she believes to be the source of the violence and destruction taking so many lives.
Gal Gadot’s limited turn as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman provided Zack Snyder’s film with one of its highlights, although the question still remained as to whether or not the actress could hold a film of her own. It turns out that film was highly indicative: she’s very good. Gadot certainly looks the part, and her beauty is most definitely captilised on, but more than her fetching appearance and physical prowess, it’s the believable sense of idealism and innocence that Gadot brings to the role that make the heroine work. This isn’t the same Diana we met in BvS. She doesn’t believe that mankind is capable of evil without tangible influence, a naïve ideology that is slowly broken down the more time she spends witnessing some of the worst humanity has to offer. It’s a strong character arc, and Gadot hits the right notes almost all the way through.
Steve Trevor begins as the type of role that Pine could sleepwalk through, and finishes up there as one of the actor’s best performances. Pine brings that ‘charming hero’ thing to the table, something he’s proven he can deliver effortlessly many times before, but he’s given much more to work with here. Although Trevor is perhaps not as romantic as Diana (at least in the beginning), he’s nevertheless determined to change things for the better, even if only in a small way. Ultimately, it’s the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, between Diana and Trevor, that draws us in. It’s a romantic, sweet, amusing and most importantly believable relationship, and it’s arguably one of the best we’ve been given in a superhero film.
It’s this strong focus on narrative and character that makes Wonder Woman stand apart from its DCEU predecessors. Screenwriter Allan Heinberg – making quite the jump from TV outings such as Sex and the City, The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy – keeps the focus on these individuals, using believable motivation to connect the dots rather than set pieces and tropes. It’s certainly a big, sprawling story, and while there do seem to be a few more characters than needed – Lucy Davis, great as Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy, is almost forgotten entirely – Heinberg’s script ensures nothing is needlessly complicated and keeps the audience attached to the emotional through-line to the end.
Real-world issues such as racism and sexism are also nicely integrated into the story, and although a few moments may be a touch too obvious, they’re never detrimentally heavy-handed. For the most part the heartening messages are well handled, keeping in line with the hopeful, optimistic spirit of Wonder Woman herself. A number of the war elements are unfortunately timely (particularly with the recent gas attacks overseas), adding even more resonance than you’d expect.
Unfortunately, as can be said with the films in a certain other comic cinematic universe, the villains here simply aren’t fleshed out enough to provide much of a threat. War itself contains more than enough perils to put our heroes in risk, but we still need to have strong antagonists to drive a section of the narrative until it all comes together. Danny Huston is fine as General Erich Ludendorff, although he really doesn’t have enough to do apart from looking and sounding sinister. And Elena Anaya’s Maru, aka Doctor Poison, teeters on the edge of something more substantial but is ultimately wasted.
The film’s length also proves to be a small issue. It seems as though Jenkins and Heinberg want to include too much into the film, from themes, to characters, to story beats, and while most of it works, it does feel a tad too long. Jenkins has said that the film has no deleted scenes; perhaps just a few trims here and there would have helped craft a more taut picture. I have no doubt many viewers won’t have a problem with the length; I found it slightly elongated.
Back to the positive. There’s a ton to enjoy, and I would be remiss if I wrapped this up without applauding the action. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jenkins has a resume bursting with big action films. The set pieces are fantastic, sequence after sequence of slick combat that aren’t overly cut up or dragged out. The director brings to life some glorious visuals, bringing to mind some of the picturesque, CG-boosted imagery Snyder delivered in films such as 300 and Watchmen, and she balances it out with a confident hand on geography and motivation. Whether it be with combat, drama or humour, the latter of which is very enjoyable, Jenkins has complete control. And just quickly, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score – which, on occasion, uses Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s iconic Wonder Woman theme from BvS – is really great, giving the film the quality of a classic epic.
There are a number of reasons why Wonder Woman is an important film for our times, not the least of which is the fact that this is the first female-led film of the current superhero movie era and that Jenkins is one of the few female directors to helm a film with a budget over $US100 million (Wonder Woman is estimated to have cost $US120 million; Katheryn Bigelow, for comparison’s sake, reportedly had $US100 million for K-19: The Widowmaker – fifteen years ago). More than the social-political implications, Wonder Woman is a film that holds hope and even innocence, and touches on a number of issues that have plagued humanity. Ultimately, Wonder Woman is simply great entertainment. It’s a lively, emotional, exciting superhero film carrying a level of optimism that we all need right now.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10