Film Review: Wonder Woman

by Carrie Kahn on June 2, 2017

Wonder no more: It’s really good  

Brave, fierce, and mighty, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is on a mission to rid the world of war and evil. 

After witnessing the total failure that was Zack Snyder’s bloated Batman v Superman last year, fans and critics alike have been understandably skeptical about the future of the DC comics’ film franchise. The one bright spot in Snyder’s otherwise paint-by-numbers action flick, was, of course, the brief introduction of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. DC Universe die-hards and the movie-going public at large can now breathe a sigh of relief, however. With Wonder Woman, the next installment in the DC cinematic series, director Patty Jenkins has created a thoroughly entertaining, thoughtful, and just plain fun film that should please both DC comics purists as well as those totally new to the Wonder Woman story.

Wonder Woman has been around for over 75 years; she was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist who was reportedly inspired by early feminists, including birth control champion Margaret Sanger. Marston gave Wonder Woman an origin story out of Greek mythology; called Diana, she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) of Themyscira, an island inhabited solely by Amazonian warrior women. In the 1970s, as Gen X gals no doubt remember, Diana/Wonder Woman was given her own television show, in which she was memorably played by Lynda Carter, and beautiful and rugged Themyscira was aptly called Paradise Island.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Wonder Woman is back, and on the big screen this time, finally getting her due with her first live action feature film. It’s been 12 years since the last attempts at female superhero helmed blockbusters; both 2004’s Catwoman and 2005’s Electra were critically and commercially unsuccessful. Jenkins, though, is the first woman to direct a major superhero film, and one starring a woman at that. Jenkins directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar in 2003’s critically acclaimed Monster, but has done mostly television work since then; her return to cinema now was worth the wait.

Although written by a male screenwriter, Jenkins’s film avoids the soulless, mind numbing action of so much recent big-budget glossy comic book fare. That may be in part because although Zack Snyder shares a story credit, the screenplay itself was penned by Allan Heinberg, a TV writer known for multiple Sex and the City episodes, a show that, at its best, was about the complex, three dimensional, inner lives of women. And of course that show also had its share of wicked double entendres; Heinberg’s script here, while not as brazen and explicit as many of the SATC episodes, has definite similarly funny, honest, and flirtatious banter between its two leads.

Diana’s Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) takes out some invading German soldiers.

Those leads are Israeli actress Gadot as Diana/Wonder Woman, and Chris Pine as American intelligence office Steve Trevor, who, in a terrific role reversal, is the one rescued by Diana when he washes ashore on Themyscira while posing undercover with the Germans towards the end of World War I. Pine is always great when playing a charming rogue, and this role may be his best yet in that regard. Diana has never seen a man before, so her interplay with Steve has instant comic possibilities. Pine and Gadot have palpable chemistry, and so their scenes at the start of the film are fresh, spirited, playfully funny, and reminiscent of classic romantic comedies from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Pine elicits the first genuine laugh of the film with a self-deprecating and deadpan line that any woman who has stared just a bit too long at one of his Armani cologne ads will appreciate. The movie is worth seeing for that line delivery alone.

But enough about Pine; this film is Gadot’s all the way, and she absolutely nails it. She’s in almost every scene, and, as she moves from confident warrior princess to undercover secretary in bustling London – confused and troubled both by subservient women’s roles and the War itself – Gadot registers Diana’s conflicting emotions with a subtle and earnest naturalness. The most well done scenes in the film are those that play up Diana as a fish-out-of-water, as she tries to fit into a foreign land whose customs and ways are at best baffling to her, and, at worst, outright repellant.

The plot combines the Greek mythology elements of Diana’s origins (including a sort of Arthurian Sword-in-the-Stone backstory) with a good guys vs. bad guys war movie, with the Steve/Diana romance storyline tossed in for good measure. Heinberg’s script juggles all these narrative components well; Diana’s quest to rid the world of Ares, the God of War (much to the chagrin of a skeptical Steve Trevor) fits into Steve’s mission to destroy a new, lethal chemical weapon being created by the devilishly mad German scientist Dr. Maru, AKA Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya).

Such a tale naturally lends itself to a lot of kick-ass battle scenes, where Steve and his rag tag band of allies finally step back and let Wonder Woman do her thing. These scenes are enormous fun, with some cool slow-motion shots that are still thrilling even if they borrow a little too heavily from The Matrix. And if you thought Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss single-handedly saved a lot of lives in Hacksaw Ridge, let’s just say on the lone savior scale, Diana out performs him times a million.

American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) soon learns it’s futile to try and talk Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) out of anything once she’s made up her mind.

Jenkins’s film is fundamentally about compassion; Diana and her people have been put on Earth by the Gods to restore the world to peace and love. A scene in which Diana saves a village of refugees underscores this point, and serves as a not-so-subtle comment on what’s going on in the world today. “It’s never just one bad guy with a plan; we’re all to blame,” Steve says at one point. Cooperation, teamwork, understanding, and empathy are what the world desperately needs, Jenkins’s film tells us, and Wonder Woman is the clearest and most passionate voice for this viewpoint.

Religious subtext aside, though, the film actually doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is what differentiates it from some of its more heavy-handed DC/Marvel cousins. Jenkins’s lightness of touch can be felt here, especially in the performances of Steve’s colleagues, who include sharpshooter Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), debonair, multi-talented Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), and Native-American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), who is the first to unfailingly believe in Diana’s origin and abilities.

The final sequence of the film, though, does begin to wear a little thin, especially in contrast to the earlier, more human-interest story that’s preceded it. A protracted CGI-battle between Wonder Woman and a surprise villain who, when he’s finally revealed, sounds and talks a whole lot like a certain Dark Lord from another film franchise, tonally shifts the mood away from the less weighty, earlier parts of the picture (this latter part of the film feels suspiciously like Snyder’s doing).

But this too-long ending doesn’t detract from the film as a whole, which succeeds in resurrecting an established, favorite character and giving her new life in a unique story filled with warmth, heart, and humor. In Wonder Woman, girls have a big screen hero to emulate for her courage, strength, intelligence, and compassion (there’s a reason Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of the first Ms. magazine back in 1972, and Gal Gadot’s performance here makes us see exactly why). Gadot’s Wonder Woman belongs in the company of other brave, take-charge heroines like Katniss from The Hunger Games and Rey from Star Wars. Let’s hope this trend of female-centered action pictures continues, thanks in part to Jenkins’s achievement here. And, in the meantime, here’s an idea for theater owners: how about a double bill pairing Wonder Woman and Hidden Figures? Because women can be strong, brave, and brilliant outside of comic books, too.

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Wonder Woman opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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