“Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
How do you save the universe? And not just any universe, but the DCEU — a world of films DC and WB have been cobbling together to cash-in on the wild success of the Marvel MCU. How do you rectify a series that’s loaded with bloat, bogged down with misery and lacking any real cinematic fiber? It turns out the answer is quite simple: you hire Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman. After the not-quite-there Man of Steel, the over-the-top misery of Batman v Superman and the frantic, annoying, Hot Topic-infused Suicide Squad, the DCEU finally grows the hell up, and not a moment too soon. All hail Wonder Woman, long may she reign.
Gal Gadot is Diana, Princess of the Amazons, inhabitant of the lush, other-worldly (and male-free) island of Themyscira. Diana’s mother is the stoic Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt is the triumphant warrior Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana grows up in the shadow of these women, longing to be just and wise as her mother but also fierce and ready for battle like her aunt. Hippolyta would rather shield Diana from any sort of conflict, but that proves difficult when handsome spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) accidentally crosses over the mystical barrier between our world and Diana’s, and crashes his plane into the sea. Diana saves him, and Steve tells her of a war raging beyond Themyscira’s shores — the war to end all wars. Diana believes the war has been caused by the fallen god Aries, and so she grabs a shield, sword and lasso and follows Steve back into our world, where she proceeds to learn about the world of mankind and all the problems, flaws, and potential goodness that comes with it.
Gadot is perfect in this role. It should be acknowledged that the actress seemed shaky and a tad unconvincing in Batman v Superman, where she was delegated to slinking around in the background before taking part in a big, stupid fight scene. That shakiness has vanished, and Gadot has completely grown into the part. She wears it like a fine suit of armor, and she’s both enchanting and ass-kicking in the process. Diana is slightly naive and even a little innocent when she enters our world, but Gadot never plays her as clueless. Instead, there’s a charming otherworldliness to her portrayal, which is in turn accented by her big action scenes. The key here, though, is that Jenkins effectively balances the battles and the quieter character moments. Wonder Woman isn’t a collection of cool-looking shots as Man of Steel was, nor is it it an all-out slugfest loaded with melodrama as Batman v Superman ended up being. Instead, Jenkins strikes a tone that feels lifted from films like The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark — a sort of whiz-bang work of wonderment; a film with a sense of adventure balanced with a sense of humanity.
And it’s funny, too. Gods be praised, these films finally found a sense of humor! There’s physical comedy galore, as well as quick one-liners that all land as intended. Lucy Davis is fun, if underused, as Steve’s chatty secretary, and a sequence where she helps Diana try on the restrictive female clothes of the era is a hoot. Much of the humor though is the result of the interplay between Gadot and Pine, who have fantastic chemistry together. Their rapport is almost instantaneous, and some of the most delightful moments in the film happen when Jenkins hangs back and lets Gadot and Pine riff on each other. There’s a scene between the two set on a boat that’s funny, and flirty and, yes, even sexy, and this scene alone is so much better than anything else the DCEU has done up until this point. It’s like a breath of fresh air — at last, here is some humanity! Here is something we can get behind.
There’s hope here, too. And that’s important. Other films in the DCEU — particularly Man of Steel — liked to talk about hope endlessly without seeming to have any idea of what the concept was. Wonder Woman gets it: Diana sees how ugly our world is (“It’s hideous!” she says when she first lays eyes on London), and how destructive we can be — but she also wants to believe in us. She wants to believe that we can rise above the ashes of the fires we’ve started and be born anew. And if we screw up, she’ll be there to help us out — or kick our asses, if need be.
This still is a comic book movie, first and foremost. Let’s not get carried away here — Wonder Woman does not transcend the genre. Instead, it embraces it, and has fun with its larger-than-life comic book trappings. Danny Huston pops up as a scenery-chewing bad guy; he snorts gas that makes him go crazy, reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. He also pals around with an evil scientist (Elena Anaya) who creates deadly chemical weapons; she sports an eerie half-plastic mask like The Phantom of the Opera or a character plucked from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy. “The boys in the trenches call her Dr. Poison!” Steve goofily proclaims at one point. Any movie that has a line like that is a-okay with me.
Wonder Woman stumbles ever-so-slightly as it nears its conclusion, descending into a bombastic smack-down where Wonder Woman and her main foe toss each other across the lengths of football fields into exploding buildings. It’s big, loud and dumb, and it triggers unwanted flashbacks to the conclusion to Batman v Superman. Up until this point, the film is on target to be one of the best examples of the genre. The final brawl sets it back a bit, but not much. Besides, there’s too much else to enjoy here to shrug off.
Is it too much to ask that we just pretend the other films in the DCEU never existed? Watching a trailer for Justice League after seeing this film is like a swift kick in the neck; it looks bleak, and crowded, and unpleasant, awash in gray hues. Contrast that with the look of Wonder Woman, courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen — it’s bright and vibrant; there’s actual color here! Jenkins, who directed the bleak serial killer character study Monster, may not have been the first choice to helm this film (Michelle MacLaren was originally attached at one point), but she knocks it completely out of the park. She understands just how to juggle the action and the romance; the humor and the humanity. Wonder Woman is alive and in command in ways the other DCEU films can only dream about. It is, in short, heroic.