The narrative around Wonder Woman has been and will continue to be that of the first female superhero film of the current boom, beating the MCU’s Captain Marvel to the punch and putting Patty Jenkins in the director’s chair. There’s a lot riding on the film to be a success, both for the DCEU and for anyone wishing to see more films like it in the future.
Because of this, and because the world is slightly unfair, it wouldn’t have been enough for Wonder Woman to have turned out average. If this film was to get a lukewarm reception, or only draw out female fans to cinemas rather than audiences across the four quadrants, then it’s likely this iteration of Diana Prince would be banished to only larger team-up movies a la Black Widow.
Too many screen versions of female heroes are a man’s ideal of what she should be, and history has taught us that this doesn’t result in good stories. With Supergirl flying the flag on television, then, Wonder Woman is here to show us how it’s done. And she’s fantastic – tough and emotional, conflicted and headstrong. She is achingly compassionate, but we should not mistake that compassion for weakness.
To begin with, the film’s structure is not unlike that of a modern Disney princess movie, and the live action remake of Mulan should probably take some notes. The daughter of the island’s queen, Diana (Gal Gadot) is protected from her own instincts to fight and protect the rest of the her people, and she eventually steals away in the night with American soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to find and defeat Ares, the God of War she believes is manipulating mankind into World War I.
Once there, the pair must navigate opposition in order to end the war and bring peace back to humanity.
The naivete of the film’s protagonist is its most endearing quality, with Diana exhibiting an innocent fascination with her own power, such as it has been repressed since childhood. Once she reaches London, she simply doesn’t understand the social constructs and norms of 1910 British society and, while this provides an easy route to fish out of water hilarity, it also serves to make a larger point.
Period pieces often fall into the trap of subjecting female characters to the pressures of the given era in the name of being true to historical facts, and that would never do for Wonder Woman. She’s childlike in her inexperience, but it’s precisely this distance from the more unhelpful assumptions about women, soldiers and human nature that allow her to be the hero the world needs.
The unnecessary barbarism of war is a topic increasingly discussed as 2017 becomes ever more frightening to live in, and so Wonder Woman may have accidently become the most emotionally resonant superhero story of the year. The idea that this war is a “war to end all wars” as Trevor says, is one we know is false, even as the horrors of the battleground are tastefully depicted.
Diana’s journey is about reconciling what she’s been told with what she knows to be true, and learning when to trust herself versus when to break away from her ideals. Aside from Trevor, her companions are all outsiders – Irish (Ewan Bremner), Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) and Moroccan (Said Taghmaoui) – and she soon begins to realise that the plight of humanity is frustratingly multifaceted and unjust.
‘Is there any point fighting, or is humanity just intent on destroying itself?’ is a broad question, but it’s also a big one for a summer blockbuster to tackle with this much depth.
Aside from a few wobbly special effects, the action sequences are universally excellent, with the titular heroine displaying not only strength but also speed and agility that fit perfectly with her slight frame. If there’s one thing that modern movie heroes have in common, it’s superhuman bulk, and Wonder Woman thankfully takes advantage of this simple visual distinction.
The first fight sequence between the Amazons and invading German troops is dazzling and ruthless, setting the audience up for more treats to come.
The chemistry between Godot and Pine is a lovely surprise, and their relationship is one imbued with a tenderness and mutual understanding that allows Diana to be a character entirely outside of the relationship. Pine gets plenty of screen time, but the film knows when to push him aside in order for Gadot to become the star we can only hope she’ll be after release day.
Sadly the film loses itself in the third act, with an over-long and bombastic showdown that jars against the more thoughtful 90-minutes that precede it. It feels cut and pasted on, perhaps in service of studio notes or conflicting visions, or from a different iteration of the film. It’s a shame, because had it stuck the landing Wonder Woman may have been worthy of an extra star.
We are inundated with these stories on our screens both large and small, but they are pointless if they are not made to mean something. Many don’t, and they will likely be forgotten as filler in a decade’s time, but there’s a care and an thematic ambition to Wonder Woman that elevates it above, and against the odds the fact that this is one of so few female-led examples of the genre becomes a mere side note.