Wonder Woman Finds Empathy Amidst Superhero Punchups
Director: Patty Jenkins Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Robin Wright, Connie Nielson, Elena Anaya Running Time: 141 minutes
It seems bizarre that a character with the history and popularity of Wonder Woman would have to wait some 75 years before getting her own feature film. One of the arguments that would come up a lot as to why that is, in some comics circles at least, is that Wonder Woman is a “difficult” character to get right, with her unusual origin, grab-bag elements, lack of memorable villains etc, etc. But the Wonder Woman movie shows that in the right hands, the hands of a woman director with freedom and a vision for what she wants the character to represent, it doesn’t have to be difficult at all. In fact, it finds the DC approach of its characters as mythic icons much easier than previous entries to the stuttering ‘expanded universe’ so far. As it turns out, calling your superheroes gods is much less eyeroll-worthy when they’re literally gods, and what helps Wonder Woman stand out among the legions and legions of superhero properties is that it taps into what makes its character iconic and inspirational.
It becomes clear from the early stages of the film, which shows a child Diana growing up on the women-only island of Thymmmspellcheck, that Wonder Woman is a film that is ready to accept the responsibility of what it symbolises and to whom. She watches Amazonian women training for combat, admiring their strength and skill, desperately wanting to be just like them, mimicking their movements exactly, the first of many important things the film wants to say that it communicates through memorable imagery.
The Amazonians here are a society created by the gods to protect mankind, kept secret from the world and the destructive eye of Ares, the god of war. Diana is one step more mystical than even that and as such her mother Queen Hippolyta wants to keep her hidden at all costs, but their isolation from the world of men is cut short by the sudden arrival of World War One in the form of Steve Trevor, a spy Diana rescues from drowning, as well as the Germans in pursuit of him. A staunch Amazonian isolationist, Hippolyta forbids her daughter to leave with Steve, but witnessing the actual consequences of the fighting she’s trained for since childhood firsthand brings out Diana’s sense of justice. Soon she and Steve are off to the front, trying to prevent the sinister general Erich Ludendorff and his cracked assistant Doctor Poison. Diana, somewhat naive as she leaves her island home for the first time, has a wider goal in mind; if she just finds and kills Ares, then surely all will be peaceful once again in the world of man. It’s a straightforward story but the consistent themes underneath help to set it apart. Keeping the same single-minded thinking of her male hero counterparts (beat X, stop Y) is what sets Wonder Woman up for a fall, her strength is always where she sees things differently.
Which is not to say Wonder Woman is reinventing the wheel of how superhero movies work. Structurally its very much following a formula, building to a big and busy CGI climax. The Super Cool slow motion that comes up in most of the action scenes won’t be for everybody, neither will the jarring rock theme that keeps butting into the more appropriate score. They’re reminders that director Patty Jenkins has been given a lot of freedom inside what is still other people’s toybox and though the film does have problems when it bumps up against genre restraints, Jenkins personal stamp shines through within them. It shows just how ridiculous it is that the director hasn’t been able to get a film made since Monster won Charlize Theron an Oscar in 2003.
Earnestness and empathy are the key elements of the story that Jenkins tells, a successful tightrope walk of an action movie that believes that fighting is dumb and wrong, pitting its heroine literally against war itself, rather than the other side. Its a bold statement from a film that exists in the same world that pitted its two biggest names V each other. As the first man she meets, Steve Trevor is not just Wonder Woman’s love interest but a proxy for her relationship with the man’s world that she’s entered and the film’s investment in the pairing and what they want pays off repeatedly. So when a man says that something is just the way it is and it can’t be helped and Wonder Woman says that she doesn’t care and will take action anyway, it means something. Gal Gadot, credited as one of of the highpoints of Batman V Superman, has a firm grasp on her character that helps moments like this shine. She’s strong-willed but in no way hardened or cynical, there’s a sense of wonder to this Wonder Woman that keeps her aspirational even if the world she lives in will never be as bright and shiny as the one that the Marvel characters are quipping through. She’s not the most nuanced performer in the world, but she has presence and charisma, and she pairs well with Chris Pine, who has a more difficult job than it might seem on first glance in playing Steve, balancing his character’s dual roles in the story, and manages to function as an obstacle to Diana and her developing world view while still remaining understandable and charming.
Though it shares faults with many modern blockbusters in being overly long and not investing much of its efforts in giving depth to its villains, Wonder Woman is an example of a film with a definite point of view and it succeeds in getting communicating it, while still functioning as an entertaining action movie. The stand out of this year’s superhero movies so far, it’s also the first unquestionable success from this era of DC adaptations and an example of what can be achieved when female filmmakers are trusted with big budgets and big properties. Though it’s taken many more decades than it should have, it’s no small wonder that Wonder Woman should succeed when her story is told as strongly as this.(4 / 5)