Warner Brothers has been struggling to leverage its DC Comics brand to build a cinematic universe to rival that of Marvel Comics and Disney. Not that any of their films have been financial flops (despite what many would claim) but they haven’t exactly been crowdpleasers with their relentlessly dark tone and cavalier attitude toward the source materials. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad have divided audiences and not made many optimistic about the upcoming films, including Justice League. But now we have a glimmer of hope.
Wonder Woman finally brings the classic female superhero to the big screen, something that’s been a long time coming after getting just a corny but beloved 1970s TV series to tell her stories. Introduced in BvS but really kept a mystery, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) spent the movie trying to steal a photo from Bruce Wayne that depicted her and a band of men from an era long ago, before being forced to team up with Batman and Superman to take on Doomsday.
As Wonder Woman opens, she is in the present, receiving a package from Wayne Industries. Inside is the original glass plate photograph she had been seeking. The film then becomes her origin story as we go back to her childhood on the island of Themyscira, the land of the Amazons, created by Zeus to protect the world. Young Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tells the story of Zeus and the gods and how there was a battle that left Zeus weak and Ares, the god of war, the last god standing. As Diana grows, she begins to train in the Amazonian ways, much against her mother’s wishes, with her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), but Diana is unaware of her true identity, believing she was created from clay and given life by Zeus.
When a plane breaches the barrier that has kept the island out of view of human and crashes into the sea, the modern world comes to the Amazons. The pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), explains to them the war that rages in the outside world, and Diana decides that it is her duty to return with Steve and kill Ares to bring peace to the world, bringing with her a lasso of truth, a shield and a sword known as the God Killer. In an interesting twist on the source material, Diana enters the modern world at the height of World War I. Trevor, an American spy working for the Brits, has information about a new weapon about to be deployed at the front, a poison so strong and corrosive that not even gas masks can stop it. But an armistice is in the works and the government forbids him from trying to stop the attack because soldiers die, that’s what they do. Undeterred, he enlists some of his friends and the band make their way to the Germans to try to stop Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) with the blessing of Sir Patrick (David Thewlis). But Diana is still certain that if she can kill Ares, this war will end. But who exactly is Ares?
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is Warner Bros’ most successful DC Comic film to date. Jenkins’ style gives the film a painterly look, almost as if we’re watching an animated work of art rather than live actors. It’s beautiful to look at and lends the film a heightened sense of reality. The film also benefits greatly from its setting, making comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger inevitable (and perhaps a reason why they changed the source material setting from WWII to WWI). But those comparisons are absolutely fine and valid because that Marvel film is undoubtedly one of their best as well. Neither film has to adhere to any overarching mythology tying the cinematic universes together so both are almost stand-alone films. The only reference to BvS are the bookends.
But what makes Wonder Woman (and Captain America) stand apart from the rest of the pack is the film’s heart. You look at a lot of these superhero films now and they seem to be cookie cutter productions (save for the first Guardians of the Galaxy), following the same basic template time and again. Wonder Woman doesn’t waste a lot of time with her origin on the island, just giving us enough information to get the story rolling, and then revealing more by the end of the film. In between, we get a really compelling story about a war and an era that not many moviegoers are going to be familiar with and meet a collection of truly unique characters, from Steve’s secretary Etta (a hoot of a performance from Lucy Davis) and his friends, through to Dr. Maru. These are all compelling characters brought to life by a collection of terrific actors.
Gal Gadot is perfection as Diana/Wonder Woman. She has some big shoes to fill considering the long shadow cast by Lynda Carter, but she is excellent. She is certainly a powerful woman, able to kick ass better than any of the men surrounding her, but she also has a sense of wonder when entering this new world (I got teary the first time she experienced a snowfall) and a sense of duty and compassion when she’s told they can’t save everyone in this war. She refuses to accept that and pours her heart into doing all she can to help these people caught in the middle of a war they didn’t create. She feels responsible as well because she knows a malevolent god is to blame for all the world’s ills. She takes her mission to heart, knowing she’s right even when the others try to convince her that war is just a fact of life. Diana believe mankind is inherently good and that’s certainly a message that we need in our present day world.
Usually I find myself sometimes becoming less enamored with a film the further I am removed from it, feeling that being in the moment influences how I feel. But a day away from seeing Wonder Woman, I feel even more appreciation and admiration for what Patty Jenkins, her cast and crew and the studio have accomplished. They have finally given women of all ages a superhero of their own, one that is a terrific role model with strength and compassion, and one that also won’t threaten the male members of the audience (and they manage not to objectify her as well, turning the tables and giving the women a little Chris Pine eye candy). I loved the first two Captain America movies, and Wonder Woman can proudly take its place alongside them as some of the finest superhero movies ever made. Now let’s hope Warner Bros. and DC Comics can learn from this success.
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Wonder Woman runs 2 hours 21 minutes, and is rated PG-13.