There is an idealized Wonder Woman. It’s vague and often inconsistent in description, but seemingly ethereal in public consciousness, in spite of any prior comic book knowledge, or lack thereof. I would compare the cultural assumption to Superman, and the balancing act the original Richard Donner film had to pull off. The benefit of finally making a Wonder Woman film is that it’s long overdue, and yet it could not have come at a more appropriate time. But, the disadvantage is that everyone’s definition of how this material “should” be handled is different. The point is, Wonder Woman, the 76 year old character, isn’t atop a pedestal. The idea of Wonder Woman is. The vague, impressionable, feminine projection of strength and iconography is precious to the public, I would argue, to a fault. Iconography overshadows nuance and potential innovation.
To that degree, there’s a lot of undue pressure on Wonder Woman, given the current political climate and wide response to the DC Extended Universe up until this point. It’s as if the problems with Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra were the idea of a female lead rather than the directionless messes the films would’ve been regardless of sex. But the question remains. How does Wonder Woman fare? Quite well, actually. From characterization to theme to aesthetic. It all works.
We begin in a lavish and well-realized Island of Themyscira, a landmark of the DC Universe I’ve waited to see on the big screen since I was 11-years old. We follow a young Diana (Emily Carey), rebellious, eager to train. As you’d expect, her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, “Nymphomaniac”) is protective and reluctant to let her training begin. With some coaxing, she allows Diana to be trained as the most powerful Amazonian to date, to defend against potential invasions to the island as well as Aries, The God of War’s inevitable return.
Pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, “Hell or High Water”) then accidentally crash lands by the shores of the island, and troops pursuing him follow, thus involving the Amazons, indirectly or not, into the machinations of World War I. Smart move, by-the-by, using World War I. Easier to paint morality in shades of gray when Nazis aren’t around. Plus, it has the added benefit of differentiating itself from “Captain America: The First Avenger,” as the comparisons are inevitable. Unlike that film, however, this isn’t bogged down by setting up the team-up film following. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had an amazing origin put to screen, but when it came to Cap’s actions in the actual war it was rushed forward in a montage in order to sprint to the final act and get him in the ice. Whereas you get exactly what you came for in Wonder Woman, lots of WWI, no shying away from the true devastation of war. There’s even a Howling Commandos-esque team of misfits that joins Diana (now played by Gal Gadot, “Keeping Up with the Joneses”) and Steve’s cause, except they have actual dimension and individual screentime dedicated to more than just gimmicks. The fact of the matter is, you can compare it to “Captain America: The First Avenger” and you can compare it to “Thor,” but this is better than the sum of either or both.
Patty Jenkins is not a director you’d associate with an action tentpole, since the only theatrical film she’s helmed before this was “Monster” in 2003. Given the irrefutable merit this and “Monster” demand, I’m surprised there hasn’t been much besides TV episodes in her filmography in the 14 years since as the choices made here are good ones. Sure, I could complain about the excessive use of slow-motion, but hey, I’ve spent years buried in filmmakers using shaky-cam and rapid fire cutting as a crutch for the better half of a decade now, so I welcome well-choreographed set-pieces even if a lot of slow-mo is the price for it. Gadot is also surprisingly endearing in the role, given her lack of experience up until this point. She balances naiveté with pluck on such a tightrope and she makes it look easy. She’s not to be underestimated as an actress from here on out.
I’m also going to nip this in the bud right now, because I’ve already had conversations about it. Wonder Woman is NOT bleak in saturation for the sake of artificial edge. Without spoiling the film, it is contrasted in three separate ways, the lush, sunny paradise of Themyscira, the foggy, dilapidated London at the height of industry and the accompanying warfront. Finally, the modern day London, once at noon and again at golden hour, while not as lush as “Paradise Island,” is a step in the right direction. There is a thematic purpose to the color palette. Diana herself even stands out heavily when in costume, a striking, shimmering red and blue and gold amidst monochromatic military uniforms. She’s a walking, talking metaphor.
Romance in films also tend to go hand-in-hand, unnatural or not. Not only do Gadot and Pine have great chemistry and banter, but the story also allows them to learn from each other and has the good sense to keep clear of melodrama. Nothing is unearned in their relationship, which is more than I can say for most obligatory romances in not only comic book films, but the action-adventure genre as a whole.
Wonder Woman revels in its simplicity, and understands that contrived complexity does not equate to engaging storytelling. Execution is everything, and what initially feels like the beaten path holds more emotional resonance than arguably most of this superhero Renaissance providing the foundation for this project in the first place. It’s colorful, it’s poised, it’s calculated. In a word, it’s wonderful.