Director: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis
I’ll be honest; I’d written this one off months ago before I’d even seen a trailer. Given that Zack Snyder currently reigns over the DC universe and following last year’s abysmal Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and the equally poor Suicide Squad, there seemed to be precious little incentive to go back to the well until a drastic rethink occurred. It’s possible, however, that this is exactly what’s just happened. And not before time.
While over in the MCU Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has been doing recurring service sidekicking the series’ superheroes, you have to go quite far back to find a film that actually places a female hero at the forefront. I think as far as Rob Bowman’s Elektra in 2005. Considering the sheer number of these films we’ve had since, that’s unforgivable, and its a testament to Hollywood’s reticence for telling stories anchored in femininity. Is studio sexism to blame? Is it economics based on a succession of poorly made failures? Is it the small but vocal pockets of fanboy insecurity that bellow with surprising influence from the anonymity of the internet? Whatever the reason (likely a combination of the above plus other factors), Petty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman will hopefully change all that and open the floodgates for the movies we’ve been denied. I’m pretty sure some execs over at Marvel will be re-examining their release calendars already.
Because Wonder Woman is a hoot. Jenkins dispenses with the dour colour palette favoured by Snyder and his cronies, opting instead for levels of light and sheen that recall Marvel phase one (not the only instance where the competition become a touchstone) and the kind of bright visual language that the Wachowskis implemented in their audacious Cloud Atlas. In fact, this film shares a certain otherworldly sensibility with that one. It convinces in spite of its more fantastic tendencies thanks to a supreme amount of internal confidence. Jenkins’ film stares out at its audience, daring us to blink.
With so much failing in the DCEU, it’s hardly surprising that they’ve looked to Marvel’s success to regroup and draw new templates. The two films most strongly recalled by Wonder Woman are Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. The former can be held up as a mirror to Jenkins’ film, not only for its all-out-fantasy set-up (unapologetic levels of campiness – just fucking deal with it or go home early) and certainly in its mid-section as Jenkins enjoys casting her hero as a fish-out-of-water in First World War London. The latter is conjured in the overall tone. Wonder Woman is a caper movie, one that strives to evoke the gung-ho feeling of serialised escapades from another era. The kind of stories where the heroes are called “plucky”. Both examples are also, pointedly, origin stories; often necessary evils for establishing the rules before the fun really begins.
Wonder Woman does lurch a little ungainly out of the gates in this regard. The absurdity of the mythic back story (complete with an invisible island, children of the gods etc) threatens to bottleneck the film just as it’s starting. Jenkins powers through this with purpose, but it’s impossible to ignore that flat-out horrendous CG work in the opening half hour. It’s awful. Frames are cluttered with too many counter-intuitive elements. There’s a busy feeling to these jarring collages that reads as false, and each example sucks you out of the experience. Nevertheless, it’s ground worth covering and Jenkins has an ace up her sleeve.
Gal Gadot. Owns. This. Film.
From the moment she appears its clear she’s committed to making this work, and she gives Diana a strength and earnestness that matches Jenkins’ tone and propels the film forwards, taking us with her. As a statement of intent, her performance here is kind of perfect. Wonky as the early scenes look, they’re useful for realigning audience expectations, and not only in terms of swallowing the fantasy elements of Wonder Woman. It’s great to see so many scenes of women of agency debating their own destinies (knockout casting of Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen). There’s a photo floating around social media of a little girl looking up in awe at a Wonder Woman poster. These scenes connect with that image.
But the story must move forward, and so Chris Pine’s British spy Steve Trevor washes up on the shores of Themyscira, alerting the secluded Amazonians that the world of men is tearing itself apart. Duty bound to protect the Earth, and believing sincerely that the god of war Ares is the cause of humanity’s strife, Diana leaves her home and enters the world of men. Scenes in cold, smoggy London with Diana experiencing humanity for the first time teeter on the cusp of the Born Sexy Yesterday trope, but Wonder Woman wryly subverts the stereotype (while playfully acknowledging others). Steve Trevor might be the first man she’s ever known, but the infatuation normally associated with these films is reversed. He is the doe-eyed love-struck one, while Diana’s actions are defined by her intelligence and by her frustration with mankind’s contradictory morality and cowardice. Through her we are critiqued, and its a damning report.
With the aid of some least-likely suspects (a gaggle of quirky male characters shaded with just-enough information), Diana and Steve defy orders from moustache-lipped Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) and race for the front lines in order to stop Danny Huston’s bad German Ludendorff from releasing a deadly gas developed by the disfigured Dr Maru (Elena Anaya in a role that conjures Edith Scobb in Eyes Without A Face for the second time). Diana is convinced that Ludendorff is in fact Ares, and that by defeating him she can rid the world of war once and for all. Steve doesn’t believe in this, but his evident love for her drives him to follow and help as best he can. Pine has a spotty track record, but he and Gadot have abundant chemistry when on screen together. The film is often at its best when it is reduced down to the two of them.
Wonder Woman is so good at redressing the balance and making room in our cinemas for kick-ass women commanding films like this that it’s with genuine reluctance that I have to report that things come apart somewhat in the third act. A surprise revelation doesn’t quite work out, as a piece of bluff casting becomes perhaps too effective. While the final battle isn’t interesting at all, plodding through a remix of the usual motions (bad guy uses telekinesis to hurl debris in a sparsely populated arena of destruction is the order of the day, again. You know the drill). It isn’t bad. But after all the animated reinvention of the first two-thirds, it feels conspicuously stale. And – SPOILER ALERT- there’s something mildly distasteful in suggesting that the concept of war has been dispelled from the planet at the end of The Great War with so much evidence to the contrary in our history books. It’s a false win.
Nevertheless, the film is victorious. Memories of BvS and Suicide Squad are dispelled. DC have the benefit of the doubt once again. And Gal Gadot has raced to the top of the superhero stack. There should be a sequel. I’m definitely up for that. And Gadot’s utterly brilliant performance should inspire confidence from the money men to bankroll more female-fronted superhero movies. In a saturated market that’s desperate for freshness and reinvention, stabilising the gender imbalance is the best way forward and Wonder Woman is a convincing argument for that.