It’s been almost four decades since the release of the first Superman film with Christopher Reeve, and nearly three since Tim Burton’s take on Batman. Now, DC’s third-biggest property hits the big screen with a bang in her long-awaited cinema debut.
And for most of the ride, Wonder Woman is wonderful indeed: a fish-out-of-water origin story spliced with WWI espionage, it takes some of the best elements from the Marvel films (and particularly the first Thor flick), including a deft sense of humor, and injects life into the flailing series of DC films following Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad.
And that might be the one drawback here: stuck with the previous films’ muddy color palate, heavy-handed soundtrack, and oppressively gloomy atmosphere, Wonder Woman only rarely leaps to colorful comic book life; at least given the setting of the film, in the trenches of WWI, that makes some sense.
Early scenes set on Themyscira buck the DC muted-color trend: bright and vivid sequences of Amazonian warriors training for battle on an island paradise are bolstered by fun turns from Connie Nielsen, as Hippolyta, Diana’s protective mother, and Robin Wright, as her aunt and trainer.
And then there’s Gal Gadot as Diana (unless I’m mistaken, the words ‘Wonder Woman’ are never spoken during the film): perfectly cast as an Amazonian warrior princess – and certainly a different take on the character than Lynda Carter in the campy ‘70s TV series – Gadot brings just the right touches to the character’s mythic origin story, and especially excels during the film’s lighter comic moments.
Gadot’s Diana gets her first taste of the outside world when WWI spy and pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down just off her island sanctuary; Diana saves his life, but inadvertently attracts the attention of gun-toting German soldiers.
This sets the plot into motion: connecting this Great War with the return of Ares, Diana sets out on fulfilling her Amazonian mission of protecting mankind; Trevor, meanwhile, hopes that his own findings – while a little less impressive than defeating the God of War – will be enough to put an end to the conflict.
The look of Wonder Woman gets gritty in London and even gritter on the WWI battlefronts. But the film’s pivotal sequence, where Diana marches across no man’s land and deflects every bullet that comes her way, is a real showstopper.
The war scenes are appropriately downbeat, but also contain the spirit of a 1940s adventure serial: Danny Huston and Elena Anaya (from Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In) are fun as the cackling German baddies developing a deadly nerve gas, and Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock offer solid support as members of Diana’s and Steve’s gung-ho team.
But Wonder Woman gets a little too bombastic during its final battle, which tones things down from DCEU’s previous three films but still feels like overkill: for nearly twenty minutes, we have two seemingly-immortal beings bashing each other with computer graphics, and there’s little for us to grab onto.
When Bane breaks Batman’s back, we know it’s bad news: Bruce Wayne, after all, is human. But how are we supposed to respond to Superman or Wonder Woman getting thrown through twenty walls and buried under mounds of concrete rubble, only to emerge unscathed?
At this level of filmmaking, it’s hard to say how much influence a director has on the finished product (all those Marvel movies seem the same regardless of who’s behind the helm), but I think it’s fair to credit Patty Jenkins (whose only previous feature film was 2003’s Monster) with a lot the success of Wonder Woman. Saddled with some less-than-perfect pieces to work with, she nevertheless hit all the right notes until what feels like a bombastic studio-mandated CGI climax.
Wonder Woman, even with its flaws, is a genuinely fun film that breathes some much-needed life into the DC Extended Universe. It’s also one of the few superhero films that manages to create that genuine sense of awe at superheroics, perhaps last glimpsed when Christopher Reeve graced the screen.