Wonder Woman (2017)
Written by Allan Heinberg
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Diana has spent her entire life on the hidden island of Themyscira. She has been raised and trained by the Amazons of myth, yet her mother, Queen Hippolyta fears for the day her daughter will desire to leave the safety of the island. That day finally comes when American pilot and spy Steve Trevor crashes off the shores. From him, Diana learns of “the war that will end all wars” and feel compelled to get involved. She believes that Ares, the Greek god of war is behind this and if she can defeat him humanity will be spared. Gathering her trademark armor and weapons, Diana heads off into Man’s World.
Wonder Woman is the fourth entry into the DC Cinematic Universe. Thus far we’ve had Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. I have hated every single one of those three films. However, with Wonder Woman we have a DC superhero movie that is as good as the best Marvel film. Now to contextualize this, I’ve never considered any superhero movie to be one of my favorites of the year. Not even this year’s Logan will end up on my favorites list. My main reason behind this thinking is that superhero movies tend to wield their themes like a sledgehammer. Wonder Woman is no different, though I really love its themes, there’s no subtlety here.
What Wonder Woman gets right has a lot to do with the direction of Patty Jenkins. From the start, an effort is made to establish a tone different from the dour grimdark-ness of the previous three films. There are still moments where there is aesthetically too much darkness (Thinking of Diana and Steve leaving on the boat at night, way too dark), but thematically there is much more hope in the narrative. The film is broken into three distinct pieces (Themyscira, London, and The Western Front). My least favorite portion was the opening on Themyscira. It felt pretty by the numbers for a superhero film, with all the expected plot beats. It does an excellent job of invoking The Hero’s Journey but isn’t surprising or presented interestingly. The film really takes off when Diana reaches London and gets even better when she begins to experience the war in person.
Another point of praise to Jenkins and her editor Martin Walsh is that the film is actually comprehensible. Scenes start, characters deliver information and are developed, and then scenes end. You know, like the way movies are supposed to work Zack Snyder. There are no excessive handheld shots. No cutting away before a scene is resolved. There are even scenes that go on for more than five minutes *audible gasp*. This way characters actually get developed which is pretty important if you want your audience to care about what happens to them.
Gal Gadot has definitely proven herself to be a movie star. I once heard a distinction made between a film star and an actor, is that an actor is someone who can disappear into a variety of different roles while a movie star is someone with strong charisma that gets your attention when they are onscreen. Cary Grant is a good example of a movie star, not necessarily an actor. Henry Cavill is neither a movie star nor an actor, but a piece of meat that gets posed in front of movie cameras on occasion. His presence in Man of Steel and Bats v Supes never commanded my attention, and he is an endlessly grating bore when on screen. Gadot expresses emotion and shows her character’s arc. She’s been provided a screenplay where her character starts in one place, is wrong and shows flaws, and emerges a hero by overcoming those shortcomings. I challenge you to explain a damn thing about Cavill as Superman in either of his films. He learns nothing and ends up a character we fail to care about. Gadot is a movie star, but it would be interesting to see if she is also a great actor. I think this will be difficult to do because once an actor is in such an iconic role, it’s hard to not be continually cast as a type.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Chris Pine does fine as Steve Trevor, it’s not until the final sequence of the film that I felt some genuine acting coming out. For most of the picture, he sort of reprises his Captain Kirk schtick. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen as the two most important influences in Diana’s childhood are okay, but like I said that whole sequence feels very stock superhero movie. There’s a lot of interesting and strange things about the Amazons that could have been incorporated from the comics but sadly weren’t. Danny Huston does an excellent job as the main antagonist, but I really enjoyed Elena Anaya’s (Talk to Her), performance as Dr. Maru. The villain is weird and interesting just from the concept and Anaya gives an equally subdued and strange performance.
There was one moment that revealed to me Patty Jenkins truly gets what a superhero is meant to do and that she went back and watched Superman the Movie as part of her preparation. Diana and Steve are pulled into an alleyway by German agents and held up at gunpoint. As soon as I saw a gun peek around the corner, it’s owner unseen I remembered this scene. It’s a testament to Jenkins understanding of significant moments in a superhero movie. These films will be forgotten if they hinge on finales where cities get destroyed. We remember them for these little moments.
While the theme of Wonder Woman is literally spelled out by Diana herself, it is still a very refreshing one, and an idea I expect to be lost on a lot of people who praise the film as well. She sums it up eloquently as “It’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe.” Diana spends the majority of the film thinking that if she can kill this one villain, all of humanity’s problems will be solved. As expected, she learns that the nature of mankind is much more complicated than that and that bloodshed cannot solve problems. My favorite moment of the film is when she is given the opportunity, and even spurred on to kill a character that is responsible for possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths, and she yields. Destroying a person or group of individuals cannot fix the world. Holding true to your beliefs, especially ones of love, are more important. Diana even outright states that she may never fix the ills of humanity, but to not hold faithful to her principles would be the greater failing. This is why I enjoyed the film that it presents an alternative type of hero to kids.