You could almost sense the collective exhale from the heads of both DC Films and Warner Brothers – a profound release of sheer relief after seeing the first wave of rave reviews for the latest installment into their DC cinematic universe. It’s a monumental understatement to say, but they needed this. “Wonder Woman” was always rich with potential, but how many times has the same thing been said about other films in the DC fold (I’m looking at you “Suicide Squad”)? Well toss aside your concerns. “Wonder Woman” is not only a great movie, it unquestionably raises the bar for the entire genre.
DC has determinedly pushed forward with their Marvel-like vision despite the steady floggings from critics. Some of the rabid criticisms have been justified but certainly not all of them (Sorry folks, take out your stones, but despite its issues, “Batman vs Superman” wasn’t nearly as bad as the fashionable hate indicates). Still, only a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy would believe DC didn’t have significant ground to make up against its Disney-owned competitor.
That’s one reason you could call “Wonder Woman” a game-changer. I don’t want to lean too heavily on that description, but it is a film that’s makes a strong creative statement for DC. It could also be said that it’s better than the bulk of Marvel movies from the past few years. That’s because “Wonder Woman” carves out its own identity while still playing by some of the genre’s basic rules. Sure, it’s another superhero origin story, but it avoids the formulaic quicksand that many recent superhero pictures have fallen into.
“Wonder Woman” has many things that work, but I keep coming back to the word ‘balance’. Director Patty Jenkins (a curious choice at first but one proven to be perfect) skillfully manages her movie in a fashion that never allows it to lean too heavily in one direction or the other. There is just the right amount of humor, just the right amount of suspense, and just the right amount of action. More importantly all of these mechanics work in harmony to serve the characters. So much so that even the seemingly mandatory bombastic finale feels rightly dramatic and laced with more emotional heft than most of these movies give us.
An old photo triggers the story of Diana of Themyscira – a beautiful island paradise of high cliffs, lush greenery, and gorgeous waterfalls hidden from the world of man by none other than Zeus himself. As a young girl Diana is the golden child among her people, an all-female warrior race known as the Amazons. The daughter of Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen), Diana grows up desiring to be warrior against the wishes of her intensely protective mother. Hyppolita soon realizes there is no stopping her determined daughter’s will to train.
Everything changes when a plane crashes in the ocean near Themyscira’s shore. Diana (Gal Gadot) saves the lone pilot, an American named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who happens to be the first man Diana has ever laid eyes on. Trevor tells the Amazons of the violence and carnage just outside their protected home. It’s the waning years of World War I yet countless lives still hang in the balance. Against her mothers wishes, Diana offers to accompany Trevor off the island and to the war front where she believes she can end the war and the suffering.
Allan Heinberg handles the writing and, much like Jenkins, keeps everything in balance. A handful of devices will feel familiar but Heinberg keenly keeps them under control. For example we get the often used fish-out-of-water angle which provides some genuine laughs while also holding up a mirror to some society norms worth discussing. Yet it never goes overboard. The same could be said for the Etta Candy character (played by Lucy Davis), Trevor’s loyal and peppy secretary who offers a dash of comic relief. But where many movies would have ran her into the ground, Heinberg and Jenkins stick to the “all things in moderation” idea. Smart move.
Another key to the film’s success is its persistent human-scale vision. While it’s often hard the glean the human element in many of these movies, “Wonder Woman” makes it a focal point. Jenkins shows off a stunningly astute knack for depicting human suffering without reveling in it. As it should, human loss feels significant and is never exploited. At the same time the film asks thoughtful questions about good and evil, not from the upright superhero and devious super-villain perspective, but from the very core of humanity.
It’s those questions that eventually weigh on Diana. That’s because she is presented exactly as she should be – consistently moral and just. Thank goodness Jenkins and Heinberg steer clear of any modern day tinkering and portray Diana much closer to William Moulton Marston’s original comic book vision. Gal Gadot is an essential ingredient and the strength of her performance shouldn’t be understated. Combined with her amazing physicality, Gadot portrays innocence, confliction, determination, and strength as naturally as the most seasoned actress. From her indomitable warrior gaze to her visible deep-rooted affections, the expressive Gadot serves as a magnificent centerpiece.
Lots has been said about a woman finally being given the reins of a superhero movie. I usually don’t get into that yet I also recognize its significance. But for me it’s not just about a woman getting the job. That has happened before with less than stellar results. Instead it’s about a woman getting the job and making a film that is one of the very best of its genre. Patty Jenkins has done just that and if it doesn’t open eyes and open doors I don’t know what will.
“Wonder Woman” stands among the very best of its contemporaries. A visual splendor of precise period recreation and breathtaking superhero action. An emotional exploration of human proclivities towards good and evil and the ugliness of oppression and suffering. And at the center is a character who is a true untarnished hero – easy to care about, root for, and rally behind. “Wonder Woman” never loses that focus which is one of the many reasons it deserves every ounce of praise it has been getting.
VERDICT – 5 STARS