Despite being one of the most celebrated superheroes of all time, to say nothing of her status as a cultural icon, Wonder Woman hasn’t received the respect and recognition she deserves from cinema. In the 20 years that it took her to make it to movie theaters, we’ve had five Batman films and three Spider-Man reboots, whether we wanted them or not. When she finally graced the screen in her extended cameo playing The Best Part of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it was nothing short of glorious. It’s only fitting then that her first solo film takes that same thrilling energy and leaps into battle with courage and heart.
WARNING: The Lasso of Truth compels me to tell you that there may be mild spoilers.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is the princess of the Amazons, a tribe of fierce warrior women who live on the idyllic island of Themyscira, hidden from the rest of the world. When World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane off the coast, he’s rescued by Diana but brings with him foreboding news from the world outside about the brutality of the war. Unwilling to sit by while innocent lives are lost, Diana leaves the safety of her island to help Trevor stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his mad scientist associate Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from unleashing a new chemical weapon that would extend the war indefinitely.
Wonder Woman has fought many enemies in her time, but none may be as daunting as the Legion of Doom that is cultural expectations. This is the first solo female superhero film in over 10 years, after the unqualified failures of Catwoman and Elektra. It’s also the first time a woman has directed a female superhero film, and only the second time a woman has directed such a film at all (the first being 2008’s mostly-forgotten Punisher: War Zone). There’s also the unenviable task of turning around the momentum of the DC Cinematic Universe, which risks being throttled to death by its own cynicism.
And not only does the film succeed with literal flying colors, it raises the bar for superhero films in general.
Director Patty Jenkins might not seem like the most obvious choice to handle a film of this caliber. Her only major film prior to this was the gritty, purposefully-unglamorous drama Monster. However, that seemed to be enough for Marvel to offer her the job of helming Thor: The Dark World, a job which eventually went to Alan Taylor when Jenkins left citing the old standard “creative differences.” But Jenkins handles this film like a veteran, easily able to balance the myriad elements necessary to make a film that’s equal parts adventure, romance, action, and drama.
Jenkins has a discerning eye for color and composition, easily shifting from epic to intimate and back. The opening scenes in Themyscira are a vista of sapphire oceans and white cliffs that end up getting broken up when Trevor’s more monochromatic plane crashes. Likewise, the movie’s first big action piece has Diana, in all her reds and blues and golds, bravely striding out onto a drab and gray battlefield like a beacon. That battle scene itself is a dizzying grand melee that never feels confusing, with Jenkins largely avoiding quick-cuts and focusing instead on fluid, graceful movements. Diana’s fighting style is a beautiful thing to behold, a whirling dance of blades and kicks, and Jenkins even makes a scene where Diana literally throws an armored tank over her head seem refined.
For sure, this is definitely the brightest and most vivid film yet in the DC Extended Universe, and not just because of its color palette. A great deal of that comes down to Gal Gadot in the title role, who is nothing short of radiant and magnetic. Like she showed in her brief scenes in BvS, Gadot is possessed of a distinct and unique form of charisma, a mix of strength and vulnerability that is essential to understanding Diana herself. In the course of the film, Gadot is called upon to express everything from innocent wonder to raging fury, and she fully inhabits every moment with dedication and grace. Not since Lynda Carter has an actress so fully embodied the humanity at Diana’s core.
Gadot’s chemistry with Pine is also a wonder to behold, effortless and organic in every way. It’s remarkable to think that the most believable romances in recent cinematic memory exist in films about immortal warriors and mouthy mercenaries. Pine is his usual charming self, but that charm is shaded by the grim nature of the war surrounding the narrative. Trevor’s world-weariness and Diana’s optimism play off of each other in beautiful ways, feeding and coloring the energies between the characters with each interaction.
Wonder Woman also presents us with one of the most diverse cast of heroes in recent memory, which might not be surprising for a film directed by a woman and scripted by an openly gay writer (Allan Heinberg). Trevor’s squad includes a Moroccan spy (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner), and a Native American guide (Eugene Brave Rock). Trevor and Diana are assisted by Trevor’s unassuming secretary Etta Candy, played by a delightfully plucky Lucy Davis, who “isn’t afraid of a bit of fisticuffs should the occasion arise.” The script does its best to steer away from the overwhelming, agressive, monolithic masculinity of the traditional superhero film, focusing instead on emotional resonance and self-discovery. The dialogue does occasionally feel a tad clunky and platitudinal, but the entire casts handles it with aplomb.
While the film does well in its depictions of its heroes, and it especially succeeds in making Diana herself a complex figure, it’s rather shallow when it comes to its villains. Danny Huston tends to nibble on the scenery every time he’s on screen, and it often seems like he’s desperately trying to find an extra dimension to Ludendorff that isn’t there. Conversely, Elena Anaya underplays Dr. Maru to the point of making her feel extraneous, although that often has more to do with the script than Anaya’s otherwise completely satisfactory performance. Maru seems to be little more than a plot device, but Anaya does the best she can with what she’s given.
The film has several thirlling battle scenes, but it takes quite a long time to get to the first one, and the road there is often bumpy. The opening scenes, while beautiful, move rather slowly compared to the rest of the film, and the Amazons themselves vary wildly in acting ability and pronunciation (Robin Wright’s Antiope seems to change accents with every sentence). Once the film’s first major setpiece arrives, that’s largely forgiven, and the path leading up to it is recognized for the slow, gradual climb it was. The climactic battle, on the other hand, seems to go on for much, much longer than it should, threatening to negate its own grandeur and spectacle and get swallowed up by the superhero film tropes it spent the previous two hours avoiding.
Those last criticisms, however, seem relatively unimportant in the bigger picture. The job of both Wonder Woman and her film is to provide hope and inspiration in a dark world, the kinds of things that heroes were expected to do at one point. While Wonder Woman never shies away from the dark parts of Diana’s story or the world around her, it also never succumbs to them. Diana does what she does because it’s the right thing to do, full stop. She’s an old-fashioned hero in a film that never itself feels old-fashioned, and she combats a cynical world while refusing to give in to that same cynicism.
Wonder Woman is not just the best film in the DC Cinematic Universe to date. It isn’t just one of the best origin stories to date. It’s simply one of the best superhero films made, period. Bright, witty, and epic while also feeling grounded and intimate, it succeeds where so many other films before it have faltered. Never send a man to do a woman’s job.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+