(dir. Patty Jenkins)
"I will fight, for those who can not fight for themselves."
Set within a framing device that sees the Amazon princess, Diana (Gal Gadot) rediscover her purpose in the world, Wonder Woman tells the origin story of a woman blessed with incredible abilities and her fight to free the world from the influence of Ares, the God War, during the final days of World War I.
We’ve waited a long time for a Wonder Woman movie to happen. In fact, we’ve waited a long time for any solo superhero film starring a woman to be seen as a success, both critically and financially. It isn’t news that superheroes are Hollywood’s hottest property. Yet, amongst all the men clad in spandex and body armor, the examples female-led superhero films are few and far between. And the ones that do exist are rarely worth discussing. And the example of female directed blockbusters is nearly nonexistent when compared to the male domination of studio properties. To say that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was worth the wait wouldn’t be just. The truth is that we should have had a plethora of women-led blockbusters by female filmmakers to hold up a long time ago. There never should have been a wait. But since we did have to wait, we should be mighty glad that it was Patty Jenkins who got to deliver Wonder Woman our big-screens. If Wonder Woman proves anything, outside of being resounding success and achievement, it’s that the presence of women within a traditionally male dominated genre makes all the difference.
When we open on Themyscira, a paradise island populated only by women, we’re treated to lush open spaces, waterfalls and curved stone work that are a step away from the Greco-Roman designs often used in the comics. The point being that Themyscira is clearly a place developed by women, and lacking the harsh, impenetrable masculine design we typically associate with secluded fortresses (a design we see contrasted against Themyscira later in Germany). But the architecture isn’t the only thing that’s noteworthy. Paradise Island is filled with women of color, something the early Wonder Woman comics, and most fantasy movies have struggled with. But here, these women of color are given speaking roles and positions of power. While it may seem like a small thing within the grand narrative of it all, it’s key in establishing the impact that Patty Jenkins is aiming for. This is a film for everyone, that celebrates all women and that creates an immensely important notion of power, strength, and beauty for younger audiences who see this film. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman with the intent of her, and her world, being teaching tools for children, and Wonder Woman follows that lineage perfectly, while also teaching, or at least reminding adults of a few forgotten values as well.
The first half hour of the film firmly establishes Diana’s independence and fierce resolve from a child into young adulthood. The only child on Paradise Island, Diana struggles against the insular life her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) would have her lead. Aided by her Aunt, and the Amazonian general, Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana hones her inherent warrior’s skill for a purpose she’s forbidden to know, a purpose her mother believes she can never know. But Diana’s life of paradise is upended when a pilot crashes through the barrier that keeps Themyscira hidden from the rest of the world. That pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes with evidence of the Great War, a war the Amazons believed has been started by the fallen god, Ares. Unable to do nothing, Diana disobeys her mother’s wishes, arms herself a sword, shield, and Lasso of Truth, and appoints Trevor to take her to the front lines of the war so that she can defeat Ares and put an end to his madness.
Gal Gadot convincingly portrays Diana with equal parts brilliance and naivety. She’s already flirted with star power in the Fast & Furious franchise and Batman v Superman, but here it’s clear that Gadot's capable of so much more than we knew. Gadot portrays Diana with a worldliness from her hours of study, despite never having been anywhere. Yet there’s also a childlike quality to her, found in her excitement over learning about man’s world and her unfaltering optimism. As Trevor helps her navigate man’s world, the two develop a bond that feels both natural and engaging. Wonder Woman is a war film, but it’s also a sweeping romance and Jenkins successfully finds the space for the larger scope of the story she’s telling and the intimate human connection. While Wonder Woman is a major leap from her previous film Monster (2003), Jenkins employs the same level of care and context when it comes to humanizing larger than life figures. It’s nigh impossible not to fall in love with both Diana and Steve and their chemistry is compelling in the way of classic Hollywood movies. Steve, a U.S spy and pilot has an unfaltering charm that never comes off as machismo. There’s a swoon worthy Paul Newman quality to him that’s endearing. While he’s a key part of the story, he never takes anything away from the fact that Wonder Woman is Diana’s journey of self-discovery. She likes men, and finds herself allied with them, but she is not dependent on them. Much of the early part of the film revolves around Diana’s relationship with Steve Trevor and their camaraderie with his small band of thieves, liars and smugglers, along with his secretary Etta Candy (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis) who aid them in getting to the front lines in Germany. The film employs a light, approachable humor that doesn’t talk down to the audience, and takes a back seat as the plot thickens and losses are faced. Wonder Woman never loses sight of its tone or aim, and even the humor carries a certain poignancy that’s centered around these character’s inner lives. What’s more is that the film actually spends time with the people affected by the war and we see the costly outcome of every fight. The characters aren’t simply destroying bases filled with faceless foot-soldiers, but placed in real town’s with civilians and forced to fight enemies whose eyes can be clearly seen on the battlefield. There’s a deeply human quality to the struggles in this film, and as Taghmaoui’s character, Sameer tells Diana, they’re all fighting their own battles while she’s fighting hers.
Diana’s womanhood is allowed to speak for itself. A lesser script would have constantly had the character remind us that she’s a woman and meet every suggestion of caution with some version of ‘because I’m a woman?’ Instead, screenwriter (and former Wonder Woman comics writer) Allan Heinberg taps into her innate empathy and connection with nature as a means to service her femininity. Her feminism isn’t a line to beat us over the head with, but a trait that encompasses her very being. But Diana has always been a character of two natures (a subject I discussed in a recent essay on Wonder Woman’s 75 year history) and as much a peace and love are components of her character, she is also a warrior. Wonder Woman may be a superhero, but Jenkins doesn’t hold back from the fact that she’s fighting a war. People die. Wonder Woman kills. And as controversial as the subject of superheroes killing within DC films has become, Wonder Woman, like Zack Snyder’s DC films before it, doesn’t shy away from the real world stakes. Diana feels like a real woman, a real and complex character because the world around her is painted with complex reality, one that, despite its fantasy leanings, can’t uphold archaic notions while also remaining topical. There is cost and consequence to Diana’s actions, the film smartly avoids the idea that because she is a woman who stands for love that she cannot also be possessed by rage, and hurt, and fear. Wonder Woman stands for love, but she fights for it as well, embodying the bold contradiction of ambassador for peace and soldier.
Wonder Woman crats a complex look at heroism, within a world where defeating the bad guy does not always mean winning or stopping evil. Turning Bruce’s sentiment of “men are still good” from the end of Batman v Superman, Trevor tells Diana “sometimes, people aren’t good.” This realization is as equally important as the words Bruce tells her. Diana enters man’s world with the belief that she can easily change them, while having to face the fact that some people don’t want to be changed, that some people aren’t being controlled by otherworldly forces, but by the darker side of human nature that we all have within us. The film’s villains General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Doctor Maru AKA Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) both represent the darker side of human nature, driven by their own choices rather than godly forces. While Ludendorff has fully given into the darker side of human nature, we’re allowed subtle glimpses into Doctor Maru’s secret pain and how her status as a woman has driven her to a darkness that is undoubtedly her choice but also a darkness that is perhaps not all-consuming. And when it comes to the presence of Ares, which I won’t delve too much into, Jenkins and Heinberg present a deconstruction of the character that speaks directly our modern crises of climate change and ignorant self-interest. War as a means of self-preservation isn’t entirely evil, but it denies the opportunity for change and snuffs out love before it can catch, and that is what Diana fights against.
On the technical side of things, Wonder Woman’s fight choreography is equally elegant and fierce. While Jenkins employs Snyder’s signature speed-ramping action scenes, the movements are unlike anything we’ve seen in an action film before. The action employs its own visual language, and while the CG isn’t fully polished in every scene, the final result is no less impressive. The action scenes, aided by Rupert Gregson-Williams richly texture score, and Jenkins and DP Matthew Jensen’s inventive camera angles, creates for an immensely satisfying blockbuster experience. Each action scene carries with it an emotional impact. While there have been complaints about the final battle, it’s backed by an emotional core. Plus, how often do we get to see a woman just absolutely go all out in final battle mode? Wonder Woman’s action isn’t only well done, but well deserved.
What’s most impressive about the film is how successfully it manages to include every characteristic of Diana’s vast characterization. Every major Wonder Woman writer from Marston, Perez, Rucka, Simone, and Azzarello are represented within the film, and made to flawlessly fit together in a remarkable celebration of the character’s history and enduring legacy. While origin stories have begun to fade out within the realm of comic book adaptations, Patty Jenkins makes a strong case for them by inviting both fans and newcomers to share in the pure joy of her grand vision. Without exaggeration, Wonder Woman is hands down, the very best superhero origin movie, and one of the best comic book adaptations. And that’s something that will hold up even under Diana’s lasso of truth. But neither superlative would be the case if it wasn't for the woman's touch the film confidently employs. Wonder Woman is a milestone achievement for Patty Jenkins, for Gal Gadot, and for women in film. Hollywood is about to find themselves in the midst of a whole generation of creative women and the future couldn’t look more wonderful.