DC’s ‘Wonder Woman’ marks several significant milestones for contemporary Hollywood. It’s the first female-led superhero film of either Marvel’s or DC’s filmic ‘universes’ (which commenced in 2008 and 2013 respectively). It’s the first film of the same group to have been directed by a woman, and it was only the second film with a budget of over $100 million to be entrusted to a female director. Last weekend in the U.S., it recorded the biggest domestic opening of all-time for a female director. More interestingly though, for the purposes of a review, is that it’s the first DC film since ‘Man of Steel’ to be welcomed with acclaim from critics and audiences alike. While it does still bear some of DC’s undesirable hallmarks, ‘Wonder Woman’ is largely a rousing triumph, and a film worthy of all its landmark achievements.
After the character’s introduction in the dull and downbeat ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Wonder Woman’ takes Diana back to her origins. Sculpted from clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and breathed to life by Zeus, Diana reigns as Princess of Themyscira, a hidden island of Amazon warrior women. After Ares, the god of war, began to kill his fellow gods and corrupt mankind, Zeus entrusted the Amazons with a secret weapon, the ‘godkiller’ sword, and hid Themyscira from the outside world. There’s plenty of exposition required to get the audience up to speed with Greek mythology, but much of it is presented through the young Diana’s storybooks, which take the form of beautiful moving tableaus resembling Classical or Renaissance paintings.
Against her mother’s wishes, Diana learns combat skills from her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), and matures into a skilled and powerful woman, now played by a luminous Gal Gadot. These lessons prove useful when a plane stolen by American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the sea near Themyscira, and Diana drags him onto the beach. Hot on his heels are boatloads of angry German soldiers, who do battle with Hippolyta’s forces in a thrilling, balletic spectacle. Remarkably, given DC’s predilection for dark and indistinguishable action, there’s not a cloud in sight – the scene takes place in high noon sun, allowing every detail to shine through. After this point, it was always going to walk away with the mantle of best in show amongst its DC Extended Universe peers.
Steve is interrogated by the Amazons, where he tells them about the Great War raging in the outside world, the millions of casualties and the horrific weapons being created. In fact, the plane he crashed was stolen after he infiltrated an Ottoman weapons facility, where he witnessed leading Central Powers chemist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya) developing a new, deadlier strain of mustard gas for German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Convinced that Ares is behind this terrible war, Diana resolves to leave the island with Steve to find and destroy Ares, thus putting an end to the war and returning mankind to their natural state of peace and goodwill.
The early scenes between Steve and Diana are positively effervescent – Gadot lights up every frame she’s in, and Diana’s blend of naivete, hope and conviction make for a truly compelling hero. Whether the film is feminist at its core doesn’t seem relevant, because Diana is nothing short of a role model for younger viewers, particularly young women: well-read and charming, fierce and caring, optimistic and practical. We can absolutely see why Steve is drawn to her. Pine’s leading man looks mark Steve as a love interest, but his character is also a complex one, bewitched by the promise of happiness with Diana but ultimately devoted to his role in the war. The actors’ chemistry is terrific, and their burgeoning relationship culminates in some of the most powerfully emotive beats in comic book film history.
Diana and Steve travel to London, where Steve hopes to pass his intel to the Imperial War Cabinet, including Armistice advocate, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis, excellent). From there, Steve cobbles together a ragtag team to escort Diana and him to the Western Front. There’s Scottish marksman Charlie (Ewan Bremner), Native American smuggler Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), and North African spy Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) – all three actors are soulful and very watchable. Together, they venture into the heart of the conflict to be confronted with the brutality and inhumanity of war. The film has a difficult task in trying to both sympathetically portray the horrors of war and still make Diana’s lethal advances on German trenches heroic, and it stumbles perilously close to glorifying violence as long as the victims are nameless Central Powers soldiers, but the action scenes are immersive and thrilling nonetheless. Director Patty Jenkins, whose only other feature was 2003 serial killer drama ‘Monster’, steps up to the large canvas with great aplomb, maintaining character moments throughout the fighting.
Comparisons to early Marvel Cinematic Universe films are easily drawn: ‘Wonder Woman’ unites the retro charm and period setting of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ with the humorous, fish-out-of-water angle and fantastical mythology of ‘Thor’. For me, the first two acts of the movie surpass these films which it evokes. The final act begins well with some intriguing narrative developments, but it frustratingly subscribes to DC’s regular denouement, mounting a chaotic, visually murky melee riddled with oddly glossy CGI, leaving viewers with a slightly disappointing aftertaste. It’s fortunate that the rest of the film is bright and fresh enough to dominate the palate. ‘Wonder Woman’ truly is wonderful.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting