It’s precisely the lesson Hollywood needed to learn as it scratched its head, wondering how to keep the highly-lucrative superhero genre afloat in a sea of familiarity and waning patience from audiences and critics alike. They wanted something fresh. They got it.
Tinseltown has found a champion, and she wears a golden crown, wields a glowing Lasso of Truth and could give a care in the world about the threat ahead.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is more than a great superhero film. By all accounts, it’s certainly that – a rollicking, spry affair with a keen sense of purpose and a star-making turn for its leading heroine, Gal Gadot. It’s the best DC-led film to hit the screen since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and a game-changer for the genre.
Wonder Woman is a potent antidote to the culture of male-driven blockbusters – a film where the roles reverse, and it’s a woman who goes on the life-changing quest, falls in love, learns tough lessons and must wrestle with her own flaws and misconceptions to achieve her ultimate goal. It levels the playing field by giving audiences a fully-developed female super-protagonist, complete with the obvious and sneaky pitfalls of a true hero.
It’s not just enough to make a female-driven superhero movie – Electra and Catwoman tried and failed to accomplish this very goal. No, women deserve to be given roles in these types of films that are as layered, humorous, complicated and glowing as the ones that have made household names out of many men in the Marvel and DC machines.
Jenkins’ film makes its Wonder Woman – Princess Diana of Themyscira – the strong-willed, just warrior of the comics – who’s only perceived faults lie in her absolutist views, which come from being in an absolutist society. It’s a compelling arc for a character we haven’t really gotten yet – what would happen to a hero who knows of no grey areas if she is thrust into a world who knows of nothing but? How would she mesh with the “operate-between-the-lines” morality of the heroes of human battle? Would she be willing to meet this new world in the middle? Does she need to?
As it goes, it’s that middle ground which helps Diana reach her full potential, though when she leans on her own ideals, she doesn’t necessarily falter.
Her path as she tries to mesh her ideas of heroism – which are brazen and inspiring – with what will work to truly help the humans and save their day – is one of the film’s narrative strengths. It fuses so effectively with the times – this is a moment in history where we might need a little positive absolutism – a firm “yes we can” mindset to help us wade through the dour political mood in the air.
Diana’s arc more than helps mask the familiarity of the overall plot – there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the story as it unfolds (hero goes on heroes’ journey, fights bad guy, wins), but it’s the players who make it pop and the reversal of gender norms that makes it sing.
Chris Pine plays the supporting role in Diana’s quest as Steve Trevor, an American working with the British government as a spy. He’s tasked with investigating the work of the German army in World War I (don’t worry, historians, it’s referred to as The Great War throughout).
He figures out at the film’s start that malevolent Dr. Poison (Elena Ayana) is developing the next dangerous weapon technology for growling German general Erich Ludendorff, and he has to let the good guys know before the Germans let it loose on the figurative eve of the armistice. Trevor makes his way to Thermyscira accidentally, and meets Diana. The duo shares the common goal of helping others – Pine the weave-between-the-waves strategist, Diana the punch-‘em-straight-in-the-face bravado warrior. Diana decides to assist Trevor in stopping the Germans and saving the day. And, like any good superhero film, they begin to fall in love.
It’s a treat to watch Diana, time and time again, chiding her male counterparts for their use of strategy over force (one scene in a British war room where the costs of war are levied by high-brow officials as an excuse to allow collateral harm receives a downright cathartic chewing-out from Diana). Her delightful distaste for established social norms buffets the film’s spirit.
Gadot radiates throughout. She gives Diana grace or a firm fist when she needs it. She plays the fish-out-of-water comedy of an Amazonian in London with aplomb, and finds sterling chemistry with Pine, who allows his Trevor to be an empathetic, unguarded soldier – one who isn’t afraid to show fear and vulnerability.
As effective as Wonder Woman is at establishing a strong female lead, the film also delivers a male character that pleasantly allows masculinity to be a freer concept than is typically allowed in these settings.
Jenkins’ action takes a little getting used to – she loves the slow-motion, Matrix-y style of fighting, which feels a little dated until the film’s grand sequence – one where Diana valiantly steps out into a harrowed war zone against the recommendation of her male counterparts and charges the enemy. It’s a mesmerizing moment bound to become legend in the genre, and Jenkins’ choice of style finally fits the moment and eases itself into the later act.
More can be said about the wise decision for DC to allow this film to breathe, without the compulson to establish more of the struggling grand arc of the DC Cinematic Universe, and of the riveting score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Diana’s charged-up theme is just aces), or of the fine supporting turns (David Thewlis gets a meaty last third for his character, where his wily sense of mystery fits in nicely, Connie Nielson is regal as Diana’s mother, the Queen of Thermyscira). More can also be said for the film’s flaws – the general plot isn’t overtly ambitious, the main villains need more personality, the first act needed a pacing tweak, Robin Wright is sorely underused as combat-warrior Generan Antiope.
But, Wonder Woman represents more than its general quality will ever match. As a film, it’s a spirited superhero tale with strong leads and stirring action sequences. But, as a vessel for progress, Wonder Woman’s sails are unfettered by any opposing winds.
It’s a big moment for blockbuster filmmaking – the next step in diversifying Hollywood storytelling on the big stage. In that effort, dare we say, it does a wonderful job.