It would probably be easier to compare and contrast Marvel Studios and Warner Bros./ DC, in regards to where Wonder Woman stands among the superhero movie pantheon. But that wouldn’t be fair to Wonder Woman, which deserves to be judged on its own merits and not as a piece of a larger story puzzle. Simply put, Wonder Woman is magnificent, epic storytelling on a grand scale, but turns intimate in a heartbeat, swelling with emotion and vigor, and graced with a performance by Gal Gadot that has no comparison, except perhaps to the iconic work of Christopher Reeve in the original Superman: The Movie. It can get a little slow at times, and there are moments that feel like a bit too much when simplicity would have been better served, but those are minor complaints. I admire a superhero movie that knows the gears and screws of this genre and tries to subvert them whenever possible. Patty Jenkins has made a movie about the cost of heroism, and why, for some, there is no other choice. In these trying times, I can think of no better figure to lead the way than Wonder Woman.
No one is phoning this in, either. Gadot is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast, and Matthew Jensen’s cinematography is gorgeous, full of color when it needs to be, and during the darker sequences with World War I as a backdrop, Jensen also captures the desperation and the horror of those times perfectly. When we see Wonder Woman unleashed for the first time, it is as iconic a moment as the helicopter sequence in Superman: The Movie, and Jenkins and Gadot play it for all its worth. It’s exciting, uproariously funny, and ultimately triumphant and worth waiting for.
On Themyscira, otherwise known as Paradise Island, Diana (Gadot) grows up in the shadows of great warriors. Warriors like her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). An aside – I’d love to see a prequel with Wright and Nielsen kicking all sorts of ass in battle. Both of these women are strong influences on Diana – Antiope pushes her to excel in combat, while Hippolyta tries to steer Diana in moral rightness and justice. The Amazons were once great warriors who fought the evil Ares, son of Zeus, and were hidden away until the time that Ares rose again. Into this comes Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who crashes on the shores of Themyscira, bringing news of a Great War and a dangerous weapon that could kill millions. Against her mother’s wishes, Diana leaves Themyscira to accompany Steve, sure that Ares has returned and that it is Diana’s duty to fight him. The truth, of course, is more troubling, and Diana must come to terms with her past, as well as her place in this world she knows little about, as she fights against the nefarious schemes of General Lukendorff (Danny Huston) and his rogue chemist, Doctor Maru, otherwise known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).
Wonder Woman is surprisingly full of humor, but it’s at no one’s expense. It is fun to watch Diana navigate this modern world, and Gal Gadot plays her with a charisma and a naïveté that is charming. She also has very good chemistry with Chris Pine, who is just as heroic as her, but in his own way. Pine also give the film a lot of humor and heart. While Diana is ready to take the fight to the Germans, Steve is not equipped to understand just what Diana is capable of. When he figures that out, of course, is when the movie truly soars. It also helps that he has a team around him that treats Diana with genuine respect for her skills and capabilities, and Said Tagmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock make for a great support team.
Patty Jenkins gives everyone their dignity, and she also directs action with a fine eye and emotional catharsis. We’ve seen enough of these movies by now to know that many times, these battles have little weight because the consequences are shrunk down to nothing. That isn’t true of the action scenes in Wonder Woman. Even if we know Diana’s fate, every action sequence matters – it matters to the participants, the innocent bystanders, and it matters to the audience. The violence of the piece may be a little strong for younger viewers — this is a war movie, after all — but I admire Wonder Woman in how it finds that fine line between being honest about the nature of war, and being true to its comic book roots.
When all is revealed in the third act, we get a little bit of the bluster of the other DCEU movies, but what makes this different is that Gal Gadot is able to carry the audience through these scenes with real passion and character. She and director Patty Jenkins turn the action into an almost existential fight, one that gives this special effects show a lot more thematic and emotional weight. Wonder Woman’s struggle isn’t with a physical enemy, but the idea of war itself – as long as there is strife, Diana will show these combatants what real love and sacrifice means. This isn’t the kind of performance that wins awards, but I guarantee you, years from now, children will be running and jumping in their backyards the way they did when Superman, and Batman came out, imagining themselves to be a hero for the ages.
While this isn't the best super hero film I've seen this year (that honor still goes to Logan) I couldn’t leave this review without a little comparison, so here goes – DC, you done good. Wonder Woman is spectacular.