By Andrew Haas
DC Comics and Warner Bros. have not had the best luck in trying to compete with the ever popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. The DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, got off to a rocky start in 2013 with Man of Steel, but 2016 was where things got ugly: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ended up creating a big mess for both audiences and the company, and Suicide Squad didn’t exactly make things better. While the franchise still has its fans, the general public has lost a lot of faith in DC being able to at least be on par with Marvel. Needless to say, a lot has been riding on the long-overdue film based on their third most popular hero, Wonder Woman. Adding to the pressure is how low the bar currently is for female superhero films. But seeing how the character’s appearance in Batman v Superman was considered one of the film’s few highlights, things were starting to look up for her solo outing. Now that I’ve seen Wonder Woman, I honestly wish the DCEU had started here.
Gal Gadot reprises her role as Diana, the princess of the hidden Amazonian island of Themyscira. When a man named Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine, crashes onto the shores, he warns the women of the island of World War I and of the Germans’ developing a deadly gas weapon. Under the impression that war god Ares is behind this, Diana follows Steve to the war in hopes of putting an end to it all.
The plot seems like your standard safe origin story, but what saves it is the execution. Gal Gadot surprised me as the titular heroine. At first her delivery was a bit shaky for me, but it grew on me quickly. The way she emotes for certain moments sold me on her being this brave and compassionate hero. The character brings to light something that has been lacking in a lot of superhero films, especially recent DC films: the strong desire to protect people even when being held back. When in the trenches she sees the suffering of many innocents, she refuses to let the strategy of war stop her from going out to save a town from the German army. She just happens to have the power and allies to make her goal possible. Her hope and compassion are portrayed as her greatest strengths rather than weaknesses, as they are much needed in aggressive times. Speaking of which, I honestly didn’t mind changing the setting to WWI, as it not only brings up a historical period not often portrayed in film (certainly not as much as WWII), but also highlights the separation between Diana and the world since she’s a female in a very obviously male-run era.
With that in mind, you would think that this film would take the extreme approach of having the heroine depicted as superior to men in every way for the sake of “girl power.” Instead the film depicts both genders as capable. Diana may be a Amazonian powerhouse, but she can’t fight an army all on her own; she relies on the experience of the men who join her as much as they rely on her strength and power. When Diana is in our society, she’s just as misunderstanding of how things work as Steve was when he landed on Themyscira. I personally thought the fish out of water element was handled much better here than in films like Thor. This brings up another element that this film definitely needed to get right: the humor. I went in fearing that all the complaints of previous DC films would cause this film to have forced comedy to be more like Marvel. Thankfully, the humor feels very natural and is never overused to the point of stopping the film from being taken seriously. A lot of that is thanks to the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, who work off each other with so much charm. I could watch these two learning from one another for a long time and never get bored. Their discussions on how the world works and how to handle the war are engaging and bring up intriguing arguments.
One thing that DC usually has over Marvel is that their films tend to have a more cinematic look to them. Director Patty Jenkins of Monster (2003) fame really knows how to give the design and framing of each scene a grand Hollywood feel that tends to be lacking in most modern blockbusters. What places the look of Wonder Woman above the others is the use of colors. The scenes in Themyscira feature the most lively palette ever in the DCEU. Every detail from the beautiful landscape to the warrior armor of the Amazons just pops. When the film exits the island and into WWI-era London, the color palette is slightly muted like in other DC films. However, the look fits better here as it matches the smoky, dirty look of the era and helps Diana in her costume to stand out in the action. Speaking of which, I was highly impressed with how Jenkins handled some of the action scenes. Sometimes the effects are noticeable and the use of slow motion can get gratuitous, but never to the point where I got tired of it. In fact, some of the shots feel like comic panels come to life. I appreciated how much was done without dialogue, instead letting the emotions, imagery, and the impressive soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams speak for themselves. I’ve seen so many films that feel the need to verbally analyze everything to come off as smart, so it’s refreshing to see something that finds the right balance of dialogue and visual storytelling.
In terms of flaws, I have a hard time understanding why current comic book movies struggle with antagonists. Not only are some of the villains little more than pawns to create conflict, but they sometimes act in a hammy manner that doesn’t always gel with the rest of the film’s overall tone. That isn’t to say they don’t have their enjoyable moments, but they still didn’t leave too much of an impression on me. But the weaker elements of the film are most noticeable in the final act. Without giving away any twists, they do one of those main villain reveals that actually does seem interesting at first, but when the big climax kicks in, it goes into Batman v Superman territory with overblown, flashy CGI and some childish lines. Yet despite this section feeling cliche and melodramatic compared to the rest of the film, the fact that I have more built up investment in the characters makes it work better here than in the other DCEU outings. I still care about how the hopeful Diana overcomes the challenge, more so than I did with mopey Superman in either of his films in this series.
It’s refreshing not only to see Warner Bros/DC release a quality product after nearly a decade, but to see a female-led superhero film with actual effort put in. Wonder Woman may not be a great superhero flick, but it comes pretty close thanks to good direction, well-rounded protagonists, and overall heart. I’d say it’s on par with movies like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) or Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). There are plenty of other good stories about this character out there, including the similar 2009 animated film of the same name, but this works well enough on its own. I’m not going to act like this film restores my faith in the rest of the DC Extended Universe as it’s still built on a faulty foundation, but I am going to try to be more cautiously optimistic than doubtful. And even if the rest of the franchise doesn’t end up well, Wonder Woman will at least be able to stand on its own as a good cinematic representation of the most iconic superheroine of all time.