It’s hard to remember a movie making its debut under such pressure as “Wonder Woman”. Not just the pressure of expectations for a new superhero movie debut but also the white hot crucible of gender politics, unfair financial expectations and the absolute last-chance saloon necessity to salvage the DCEU from its own self-inflicted tailspin. With all that bearing down on it, it shouldn’t really come as such a surprise that director Patty Jenkins has forged such a gem of a movie.
When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes onto the island of Themyscira, he brings news of the outside world and a war to end all wars raging in the world of men. Convinced that it signals the return of Ares, the God of War, Diana (Gal Gadot) returns to the world with him, determined to hunt Ares down and bring the war to an end.
Certainly, “Wonder Woman” is the best DCEU movie so far but that’s such a low bar that it such a claim simply doesn’t do the film justice. There’s a purity to this interpretation of Wonder Woman which is gloriously, defiantly out of step with the toxic masculinity of the rest of the DCEU and although her naivety plays out through a delightfully light ‘fish out of water’ series of encounters, it’s balanced by a core of honour and integrity. Gadot manages to balance the wide-eyed ingénue part of Diana with a compassionate righteousness in a warm and captivating leading role which carries the entire film. Despite the many cute moments of Edwardian faux pas and cultural misunderstandings, it’s always apparent that Diana is much much more than just a pretty face. Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is a warmed-over remix of his Captain Kirk but there’s a sweetness to the chemistry between him and Gadot that helps things along and despite the script’s best efforts to push him front and centre, he never overshadows the star. The rest of the cast are paper thin thanks to a script which sees little value in developing characters beyond their superficial story requirements.
Jenkins does her very best to elevate the material, bringing a brightness to even the darkest days of World War I. Themyscira is every bit the Paradise Island you’d expect and even the devastation of the trenches is shown in daylight and not shrouded by darkness. There’s a lovely homage to Richard Donner’s “Superman” in a back alley bullet catching showdown (showing where this superheroine takes her tonal inspiration from) and everything with Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) is a hoot. Her real triumph is that the film is at its best in the quieter moments – a moonlit conversation in a boat, the gentle candle-lit celebrations of a village’s liberation or the pitch-perfect moment of praise for an ice cream salesman. It’s this juxtaposition of the best of humanity with its worst which gives Diana her character arc and the film its potency and the instantly iconic charge through No Man’s Land its power.
Gem though it is, “Wonder Woman” is far from flawless and every flaw only serves to remind you – during the elation of a genuinely enjoyable DC movie – that Snyder’s forthcoming “Justice League” is the spectre at the feast here. The script and story definitely could have used a woman’s touch and it’s profoundly disappointing that in the end, in the blandly generic super-powered night-time beatdown which closes the movie, it’s still down to the motivation and guidance of a man to help Wonder Woman actualise her full potential. Potentially interesting supporting characters are ill-served but maybe none more so than Ewan Bremner’s PTSD suffering Charlie who gets a partial character arc which goes absolutely nowhere. It’s one of a number of rough edges in the plot that undermine the success of the whole movie, none as egregious as the unexplained sudden breach of Themyscira’s’mystical shield protecting it. If it was that easy to just stumble across the island, wouldn’t it have happened countless times over the thousands of years the Amazons have lived there? The framing device, picking up on the photograph plot point from “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” feels unnecessary in that it adds nothing to the film nor provides any tantalising linkages to “Justice League” and feels like the studio didn’t trust the audience would understand this adventure took place in the past, prior to the last time we saw Wonder Woman battling Doomsday in Gotham. Still, lessons are being learned: when Steve drops a bomb on the munitions factory as he escapes with Dr Poision’s notebook, it’s conspicuously clear of the civilian workers and children who were there moments before.
The fight choreography is innovative and gives Wonder Woman a distinct fighting style which suits her ethos but it’s dragged out by an excessive use of slow-mo (which may be responsible for making the film’s running time a little oversized) but it retains an edge of brutality which still doesn’t sit comfortably in a superhero movie for me. Given Diana’s avowed commitment to peace and her deep-rooted belief that Ares has corrupted the hearts of men, she gets a bit stab-happy when dispatching soldiers and bad guys, in keeping with the established DCEU tone, and doesn’t seem too troubled by it. Some of the CGI and effects work is a bit ropey, especially in the slow-mo moments but if that’s the price for a letting in a bit of daylight, then so be it.
Since “Man Of Steel”, the DCEU has been something of a Pandora’s Box of superhero cinema, releasing all the darker, baser, more malevolent comic book instincts into the world. Now, finally, the box has given us that gentle, shimmering butterfly called hope. “Wonder Woman” may not be the perfect, immaculate knock-it-out-of-the-park demonstration that all is now well in the DCEU that we all hoped it might be but it’s a real success; a significant and welcome change of trajectory, the credit for which belongs firmly to Patty Jenkins. If nothing else it suggests that Diana, Princess of Themyscira and not The Dark Knight would be the best thematic lead of this shared universe given Superman abdicated any pretence to being a role model almost from the beginning.
When it’s being its own creation, “Wonder Woman” soars joyfully and optimistically above its recent forebears. Its occasional tonal lapse into DCEU grimness can’t diminish the shine of this, finally, a genuine jewel in DC’s tarnished superhero crown.