Few movies have as much pressure on them to be successful as Wonder Woman did. In addition to being the first standalone cinematic adaptation of the world’s most famous female comic book superhero, it is also the latest film in the struggling DC Extended Universe, the previous films of which have been at best, divisive (Man of Steel) and at worst, critically ostracized (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Fortunately, Patty Jenkins’ film answers the prayers of both feminists and DC Comics fans, telling a story that is inspiring, fun, and charmingly heart-felt.
Although bookended with scenes set somewhere around the present day and after the events of Batman v Superman, the actual story of Wonder Woman takes place a hundred years previous, towards the end of World War I. Wonder Woman herself, or just Diana (Gal Gadot) as she is refered to throughout the film, is the princess of the Amazons, a race of mystical warrior women created by Greek god Zeus to aid mankind, particularly against other-worldly threats. After discovering that she is more powerful even than the average Amazon, Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the first man she has ever seen, from drowning in the waters off the island on which she lives. Following a spectacularly staged bows and swords vs guns battle between the Amazons and the Germans hunting Steve, the latter describes to his isolated saviors the horrors of the “War to End All Wars”. Against the wishes of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana frees Steve and the two set out on a thoroughly entertaining cinematic journey.
There are two factors that, above all others really make Wonder Woman the spectacular film that it is. One is the depiction of its lead character, which really is simply, well, wonderful. Gadot is perfect for the role, moving back and forth between Diana’s fierce, independent warrior moments and scenes of infectious compassion seamlessly. Alan Heinberg’s screenplay is equally strong, showing a thoroughly complete understanding of who Diana is and why she is such a compelling hero. Unlike past DC Extended Universe films, which have wasted strong leading performances from actors like Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill because of their cynical, depressing scripts, Gadot’s version of Wonder Woman shines because she is shown as being genuinely heroic. A scene in which Diana breaks a No Man’s Land stalemate before freeing a Belgian town from German occupation is instantly iconic. Doing so doesn’t really benefit Diana in any practical way (there’s no real advantage gained for her specific mission), she simply does so because she can and because it’s the right thing to do. Aside from being visually stunning with some awesome, kinetic displays of Diana’s combat prowess and super strength, its a great sequence because of the way it encapsulates what a hero is and how they act in a short, simple package.
All this talk of the No Man’s Land scene brings me to the other great strength of Wonder Woman, that being its World War I setting. Period settings have a history of helping tell great cinematic superhero stories. Captain America: The First Avenger benefitted from introducing Steve Rogers to movie-going audiences in a World War II adventure that echoed the adventures of Indiana Jones. X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past were able to revitalize their franchise by inserting the titular mutant heroes into significant 20th Century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War. And Zach Snyder’s vision of the altered version of 1985 in which Watchmen takes place is still one of the most intriguing and disturbing dystopias in recent cinematic history. Wonder Woman is no exception to this rule, enjoying benefits to its storytelling similar to those the aforementioned Captain America film received. While the wartime setting allows for a narrative mobility city-based heroes such as Batman and Spider-Man don’t get to enjoy, the most important contributions World War I adds to Diana’s story are thematic. In the uncertain, frightening times we live in, Diana’s mission to bring peace and love feels especially poignant. Wonder Woman‘s devotion to being an anti-war film is one of the best things about it and these themes are only further strengthened when the film’s true villain (who I won’t reveal here) proves themself to be little more than a super-powered nihilist, who doesn’t share Diana’s compassion and hope for mankind.
While Gadot is rightfully the main attraction, Wonder Woman‘s cast is strong throughout. Pine’s role is by far the largest and most important and he brings high amounts of both charm and heart while also ably handling comedic material as Steve must adjust to Diana’s fish-out-of-water idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the relationship between the two is a master class in how to bring a complex, touching romance to a massive blockbuster story and is brought to life perfectly by both the impressive chemistry between Gadot and Pine as well as the complex writing. Steve and Diana are equals and they can disagree, both welcome changes to the shallow depictions of romantic relationships that sometimes plague similar movies, but it is the strong basis for their mutual admiration that makes the relationship work so well. Their personalities mesh well but, perhaps more importantly, they inspire each other. Steve gives Diana faith that there is good in mankind and her strength and desire to do good make him want to be an even better man. Other roles are all considerably smaller, but pretty strong. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are the most entertaining supporting players as a band of Steve’s war buddies who help him and Diana, showing an emotional depth not usually given to sidekick-type characters. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright make the most out of too-brief roles as Hippolyta and her militant sister Antiope respectively. Lucy Davis, playing Steve’s secretary, gets a few good laughs out of the audience. Elena Anaya’s Dr. Poison is the only one of the villains I can discuss without giving anything away, and while she plays the part in an appropriately demented way, the character is little more than a smart henchwoman and doesn’t make much of an impression outside of her important thematic beat in the finale.
All in all Wonder Woman is a delight. The important themes and spectacular depiction of the titular character prove that the most important things in a good superhero film are optimism and character. If this is the kind of movie we can expect from DC going forward their cinematic future might finally be looking bright.