Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman had a lot of baggage to carry when it arrived in theatres. The previous DC Extended Universe movies (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad) had performed well (though not as well as hoped) at the box office, but were the subjects of vast swathes of critical scorn. Besides this was the more serious battle against Hollywood sexism, where the common perception among those with the power to greenlight productions has long been that women could neither helm nor feature as main stars of big, action franchise movies.
While I’m somewhat late to the game with this review (unusually, Wonder Woman has opened later here in Norway than in many other territories), it has given me the chance to see both of these issues blown out of the water by both the film’s success and critical reaction. The film set records for the biggest domestic opening for a female director ($103.3 million) and the biggest opening for a female-led comic book film, and has, to date, grossed over $500 million worldwide.
And I’m very happy to reiterate the good news. Taken on its own terms Wonder Woman is bright, funny, charming, exciting and a genuine feel-good movie. Taken against the issues weighted against it stepping into the ring you might also call it an outright triumph.
The origin story, well known to comic book fans since American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter brought her to the pages of All-Star Comics # 8 in 1941, is weaved into a World War I adventure which also brings in several of Princess Diana of Themyscira’s supporting characters (including Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons, Steve Trevor and Etta Candy) and in itself is a thoroughly entertaining romp.
Where the film really scores however is in several key ways that contrast sharply with the previous DC movies. Gone is the relentless grimdark misery of Batman vs Superman, the distancing ‘god above us’ approach to Superman and, praise the gods of film craft, the incoherent characterisation, storytelling and editing of Suicide Squad.
Jenkins’ film is generally full of clear storytelling and fun action sequences, even utilising Zack Snyder’s trademark speed ramping to actually help with both clarity and story (its use in an important moment where the Amazons face off against bullets for the first time not only looks cool but packs quite an emotional wallop). There are some genuinely exciting moments of action (Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land on the Belgian Front and her subsequent attack on a German stronghold are… sorry… wonders served more by character than empty cool visuals).
Wonder Woman moves at a breezy clip, from Paradise Island to London and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and, while it does ultimately succumb to the usual climax of two super-powered folk hurling big, heavy things at each other, it at least does so in an almost low-key way that provides a little emotional weight. However it doesn’t quite succeed in making the villainous character involved (I won’t name the actor either so as to avoid spoilers) seem massively threatening, which is a shame and sees some points knocked off.
Jenkins does have two extra special weapons: leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine share terrific chemistry and carry more than their share of the film’s appeal. Pine has slowly become one of our more interesting screen presences, leading one particularly perceptive critic (and he/she will have to forgive my failing memory as to who exactly) to accurately describe him as “a character actor in a leading man’s body.” He’s a pretty face who’s pulled off a number of whip-smart performances and Wonder Woman is no exception, basting Steve Trevor in easy going, old time, movie star charm.
As for Gadot, the camera loves her and she’s well served by Jenkins and her writers (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs) who together make Diana a warm, relatable character. There are plenty of small moments gifted to her which show why the world falls in love with Diana, and Gadot radiates atomic levels of charm while giving us a genuinely heroic hero, and make no doubt about it, one both men and women can root for!
At one point in the film, Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor tells Diana he’s taking her to London to meet with “the men who can” end the war. “I’m the man who can!” Diana replies, completely on point.
Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman? They’re the women who can.