There was a great deal riding on this summer’s Wonder Woman. This is the female superhero, above all others; in and of itself that puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to make a good film about her, one that is not only entertaining but also respectful to the essence of her character. It doesn’t help that no prior solo cinematic female superhero outing has ever been particularly satisfying (think Supergirl, Elektra, or Catwoman). Furthermore, after two* back-to-back lackluster entries in Warner Bros.’s DC Extended Universe, this film has gotten elevated to something of a Franchise Savior, attempting to reignite interest in DCEU films for an audience that is beginning to doubt their quality, which only puts more pressure on it to be great. This picture needed to accomplish quite a bit, in other words; and many, myself included, were skeptical about the ability for the filmmakers to pull it off. Thankfully, to my great relief and satisfaction, they did deliver. While not perfect, Wonder Woman is the genuine article: a sincere, entertaining, and faithful adaptation of one of comics’ greatest icons.
Directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), and starring Gal Gadot, the film presents us the origin of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. We first see her growing up on the enchanted island of Themyscira, sheltered from the world of mortal men. There she is raised by the all-female Amazons, who are equal parts ferocious combatants and enlightened, nurturing caregivers. Things then change when soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) stumbles upon the island. After learning from him of the horrors of The Great War taking place in the outside world, Diana elects to leave Themyscira in order to help bring about an end to the fighting, becoming the heroine Wonder Woman.
First and foremost, Gal Gadot is absolutely terrific as Diana/Wonder Woman. She nails the part, playing someone who is intelligent, strong, brave, and capable; who can be both fierce and gentle; who is principled and wise, yet who also displays an almost childlike innocence to the world of man. There’s a purity to this portrayal that I really appreciate; this is the Wonder Woman I wanted to see on screen. Gadot, through Jenkins’s direction, is the primary reason this picture works. Aiding her is a surprisingly good turn from Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. He hits the right notes and has great chemistry with Gadot. Indeed, some of the finest moments in the picture are the two of them getting to know each other; and I really admire that the film takes time to develop its characters and build emotional connections.
Of course, there are also great moments that show Wonder Woman kicking ass, too. The film isn’t drowning in action, but when we get it, it’s well choreographed and visually stimulating. Particularly cool are the variety of Amazonian weapons — sword, shield, lasso, arrows, and armored bracelets — that Wonder Woman has at her disposal, which keeps the action from getting dull or repetitive. It’s also worth mentioning how much slow motion is used in the film’s fight scenes. Patty Jenkins is a very different filmmaker than Zack Snyder, but she seems to share his love for that particular technique; and it’s used to good effect in the film, helping to give it some very iconic, comic book-style shots.
When it’s showing off the amazing things that Wonder Woman can do, giving us insights into her personality, or depicting her developing relationship with Steve Trevor, this movie really shines. Unfortunately, it does stumble when it comes to flow. In places, there is clearly a misallocation of screen time. For example, the film spends far too little time on Themyscira with the Amazons. As part of its three act structure, only about a third of the picture, or maybe less (possibly only about a half hour) takes place there; which is a shame because it’s very interesting as shown in the film. The culture and mythology of the Amazons are fascinating, but it feels like we only scratched the surface of it. It’s rushed to say the least. Conversely, far too much time is spent on a stretch of the story set in London prior to Diana and Steve reaching the war front. While some of the moments of Diana adjusting to the outside world are amusing, it nevertheless drags at times during this section.
Another issue with the film is that there are a few too many supporting characters that the picture doesn’t do a great job of managing, they’re just sort of there, but don’t really add much. On a similar vein, the movie doesn’t exactly hit it out of the park with its villains. Again, there are too many of them, and none really get enough development. I think there was a way of condensing the story down so as to only have a single, better-constructed villain; it would definitely have been an instance of less-is-more.
Now, to discuss potential concerns over faithfulness to the source material, those of you who are long-time fans of Wonder Woman may be surprised that her origin is set in World War I in this film, rather than World War II, as it was originally in the comics. You may also be surprised that certain details about how Diana came to be are somewhat different than what was traditionally portrayed. Spoiler Alert: unlike the classic Wonder Woman mythology, she was not actually sculpted from clay by her mother and then brought to life in this movie, a point which, while a little strange, is in fact viewed by some as essential to her character in so much as it shows that Wonder Woman — a feminist figure — emanates from female will and imagination. Since these aspects of the story could potentially ruffle some feathers for purists, I’ll try to address them.
First, it’s worth mentioning that Wonder Woman’s origin — in terms of where she comes from, the time it takes place, and what causes her to join the world of men — has been repeatedly revamped over the years in the comics, to the point that, unlike Batman and Superman, she really has no one origin story that defines her.
Furthermore the differences from her classic origin actually do serve a definite purpose. World War II has been somewhat overdone in film as of late (audiences are quite used to it); so opting for World War I instead certainly helps this picture to stand out in the crowd. Moreover, the specific situation of World War I actually works to highlight one of the film’s themes. Without giving too much away, part of Diana’s journey in the picture involves coming to a poignant realization that conflict is not always black-and-white, good-vs-evil. Sometimes war really is a mess, which is an important point, one I’m glad the film makes. And World War I is arguably a better example of that idea than is World War II, which, for what I hope are obvious reasons, is much easier to summarize in black-and-white terms.
Regarding that not-made-of-clay-by-her-mother bit, well, that would, admittedly, probably be a bit too bizarre to take seriously in a film like this. I also don’t think it’s necessary that Wonder Woman needs to have been created entirely by a female in order for her to be a feminine symbol. I’d like to think that the most important thing about Wonder Woman is not where she comes from or when she appears in the world, but rather who she is as a person. She is not bound to her origins the way Batman and Superman are. She is an agent of her own free will; making good in the world, ultimately, not because she must, but because she truly wants to. That, to me, is the essence of the character, above all else, and I’d say the film understands that perfectly. And for what it’s worth, the origin she does have here is consistent with more recent comic continuity; and given certain aspects about it, I believe it actually helps inform her sense of concern for the world; so it’s alright.
To sum up, while there are some definite narrative issues and drawbacks with Wonder Woman, when it works, it really works. The performances from Gadot and Pine, coupled with a handful of stellar character moments, solid action, and a respectful understanding of the Wonder Woman mythos really do make this picture worthwhile. I’m glad the filmmakers got it right where it counted on this movie. I definitely recommend seeing this film, and I look forward to further adventures of Wonder Woman in the near future.
*I realize that quite a number of people are including Man of Steel with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad when talking about how bad the DCEU has been, but I feel that’s not being quite fair. That movie definitely received a mixed response when it came out, but many did like it and believed it to be a good film (myself included), and these recent attempts to portray it as an unquestionably awful picture, completely devoid of merit, constitute a spurious revisionist history that I don’t condone.