What a big relief it is to come out of a DC Comics movie and have a smile on your face. Yes, Man of Steel was enjoyable, if flawed in it’s final act, Batman v Superman was salvaged by fleeting moments of genius, and Suicide Squad was not without moments that were fun, but here it is, the big one.
Wonder Woman, the creation of American psychologist, inventor, and comic book writer William M. Marston, seemed to be a tough nut to crack for the big screen, baffling even the likes of Joss Whedon, a man who worked The Avengers into two great movie outings. But in the hands of Patty Jenkins — a woman who’s only previous directorial feature is the harrowing Monster — this might just be the best film with the DC logo on it.
In brief: the plot is set 100 years ago, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is raised on the idyllic woman only island paradise of Thymiscera, home of the Amazons. When American spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on her shore with a fleet of Germans on his tail, Diana departs her home and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), in order to stop the war, where she is certain the treacherous god Ares will be pulling the strings.
It’s impossible not to have such good will for Wonder Woman. After all, it’s a female directed blockbuster, with a woman from Israel using her natural accent in the lead role, with a fairly diverse cast, and a powerful message. It’s also not too hard to get involved in the story, which is both thrilling and fun to experience.
The film seems to be in parts the first Thor movie and in other parts the first Captain America movie, but better than them in so many ways. First off, the Island paradise Diana grows up on never feels fake; even the strange architecture has a grit and reality to it, everything feels like it’s coming from a place of nature and of actual construction. This is also true for the costumes; the armour is both sexy and protective, with the Amazons being a race of liberal open minded women who live in peace under their queen.
But it’s when the film leaves the island for the gray world of the First World War that director Jenkins really hits her stride. Jenkins’ previous work, Monster, about the true story of noted killer and utter head case Aileen Wournos was a harrowing tale that had at it’s core a loathsome person, played to Oscar glory by Charlize Theron. Here, Jenkins indulges a lighter side, while also offering some of that trade mark DC darkness we all know.
What sets this apart however, is that the film never feels grim, or depressing, it feels exciting, and filled with an optimism not seen in a DC film since Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978. While Captain America: The First Avenger tried to work World War II into it’s plot, it never felt like a war film, it felt like a propaganda movie — all surface with none of the dirt — while this is a true blooded war movie, one which happens to have this superhero element to it.
In Diana, we have Gal Gadot who imbues her with a sense of child-like wonder, and a confident arrogance that comes with royalty and a naive optimism that it’s hard not to be enchanted by. Building on the promise of her scene stealing turn in Batman v Superman, Gadot is the absolute star here, and carries comedy, action, drama and every other scene with ease. Her overly heroic “it’s our sacred duty to protect people” speech is not laughable, on the contrary, it’s a moment that makes you want to cheer.
Chris Pine as love interest and spy Steve Trevor channels the cocky-but-noble cad role he did with works like Star Trek and The Princess Diaries II. He manages to make the role an action hero in the mould of a Humphrey Bogart type, but one that is very much a foil to Diana. He’s a cynic, jaded by his time in the war, but through Diana he gets hope.
Around them are great performances: Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock and Said Taghmaoui play the band of misfits who Trevor and Diana bring with them to stop a biological weapon attack, and they all do great. How wonderful to see a heroic role for a Native American actor — Brave Rock is one of the film’s stand outs — while Bremner and Taghmaoui are both giving great comic foils with a little bit of depth to them that help raise the stakes.
While Nielson, David Thewlis and Robin Wright all get the mentor-type roles, and a cameo for the great James Cosmo, the villainous roles are taken by a snarling Danny Huston, and the sexy, sinister Elena Anaya who both play their parts like pantomime villains, but with their lack of silly subplots, and sob-story motivation make for enjoyable boo-hiss-boo types. Even in Lucy Davis as comic relief Etta Candy there is something a little deeper to her, you get the sense that she cares about Trevor, and wants to be friends with Diana, but knows she is a little too clumsy for the war front.
Of course, the most praise must go to Jenkins herself, who manages to craft a story that is enjoyable even without action moments, not to say there isn’t any of these, of course. When the proper war stuff does come it’s got all the intensity of Saving Private Ryan. Scenes of Diana and co walking through trenches, seeing crying mothers, wounded soldiers, horses stuck in mud, it’s hard not to be on Diana’s heartbroken, confused side as she asks childlike questions.
It’s a credit to Jenkins that she balances laughs, and a romantic subplot that pulls you right in, with the down and dirty war parts. It’s as if Jenkins knows she has gold in her hands, but wants to put a diamond on the top, and she does; in a moment when Trevor tells Diana to stand down, she refuses, throws off her cloak, and ignores his pleas, walking straight into No Man’s Land. It’s a stand out five minutes that then sets the tone for the rest of the film, running across the battle ground, red and blue with golds, Gadot looks like a woman having the time of her life, and as she deflects bullets with her wrists and swats grenades away with her shield, there is no moment in the sequence that you think “this was a long time coming”.
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Couple that with that intense theme that made it’s debut in Batman v Superman, and you’ll have such a stupid grin on your face that the few (and it’s like two) flaws won’t matter. At times the CGI work is a little ropey, and given how good the visuals are, the CGI seems overly cartoony against the dirt covered war zone, and there are moments when you think a bit more character development might (ie, secondary characters getting more time, and really explaining what General Luddendorf and Dr Poison were to one another… probably lovers).
When it comes to the end, and Diana discovers the potential of her powers, who she can be, and what she stands for, it’s not laughable, it’s not silly, it is stand up and clap great, with a campy third act that is exciting, loud, action packed but with a heart and soul at its core that sweeps you up.
Taking the best bit of Batman V Superman and turning it into a two hour film is no small task, but Jenkins and co have done so and have crafted a film that in years to come will be ranked up there with Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a benchmark of superhero cinema. Give us more women heroes. Give us more women directors making action films. Give us more Wonder Woman.
If Logan is the dark, gritty superhero film we all wanted, then this is the opposite, it’s hopeful, fun and definitely what we need. In terms of anticipation, Logan is the best superhero film this year thus far, but Wonder Woman slides up next to it, by being a sheer, unadulterated delight.