Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman is a blast. That people are falling over themselves trying to praise the film is understandable, although the love for this film following the hatred of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a bit curious. Certainly the film is satisfying the audience's appetite for a kickass female hero in a time when pathetic men rule the world (although, when has this not been true?). But the film is not radically different than the two Zack Snyder-directed outings of the DCEU. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is lighter in tone, sunnier in worldview (despite taking place in World War I), but it shares Snyder’s penchant for superhero storytelling as opera, a correct assumption as superheroes are the new gods and the dominant mythology of our modern world.

The set-up is straight out of myth. Diana (Gal Gadot) is raised among the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, far from the world of men and the machinations of the gods. However, when an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane in the waters off the island, he inadvertently brings a battalion of Germans along with him, forcing the Amazons to engage in battle and Diana to have her first contact with the outside world be a moment of violence. The shock of first contact causes Diana to leave with Steve and head to London with the hopes of stopping the war that ravages the outside world.

While its plot is vary par for the course, combining elements of Captain America: The First Avenger with Man of Steel, the way that Patty Jenkins and her cast handle the material is what makes Wonder Woman something special. Primarily, Jenkins understands the significance of the character and what she represents, both in the film and in the meta-context surrounding it. If the film had muddled the character of Diana, turning her into the sort of warrior who is little more than a gender-flipped standard action film protagonist, she’d have lost what made the character special. And if the film had been a dud from a storytelling perspective, the industry would’ve used it as an example of how audiences are not interested in superhero stories centring on women.

Luckily, Jenkins avoids both of these pitfalls and we can celebrate the sort of film Wonder Woman is instead of pondering what it could have been. While the coming years will show what Wonder Woman’s success will mean for the superhero industry, we don’t need the passing of years to clarify how Jenkins leans into the iconography of the character to make the film memorable. Much as Batman v Superman tapped into the godlike awe generated by a being like Superman, Wonder Woman aces the iconography of its central character. In particular, a couple images stand out and showcase how Jenkins successfully captures the totality of Diana’s character.

One image is early in the film, after Steve Trevor has crashed his plane into the Atlantic and sunk to the depths of the ocean stuck in his cockpit. He looks up at the surface and sees Diana standing on the tail of the plane, a shimmering figure towering above him. This image idealizes Diana (and by extension, Gadot’s) body and makes her something of an angel, but usually this sort of image is left as distant and idealized. Here, it’s instead followed by Diana saving Steve from the depths and promptly defending him against the invading Germans. By doing so, Jenkins takes an image that often idealizes a female character’s beauty, but limits her agency, and flips it on its head. It dismisses any notion of Diana’s beauty making her passive. She can be an angelic presence, but she’s not restricted to that view. She’s something more.

Jenkins composes the other image when Diana and Steve reach the battlefields of the Western Front. After hearing about the suffering of a local Belgian village, Diana ignores Steve’s pragmatic advice and enters No Man’s Land, keen to engage the Germans and liberate the villagers. As she reveals her battle armour and enters the fray, Jenkins slows the speed and focuses on Diana’s incredible abilities.

There’s a particular shot from this sequence that has featured prominently in the marketing: Diana crouching behind her shield, withstanding an onslaught of machine gun fire as she valiantly presses onward. It’s an iconic moment, showcasing Diana’s strength and just how impressive she is as a warrior. But it’s also important because it epitomizes her status as a warrior using an image of defence and not just attack. It celebrates not just her ability to defeat enemies and wreak damage, but also to withstand insurmountable force. This is another example of Jenkins taking what could be standard imagery of warrior prowess and making it specific to Diana. It’s an example of truly understanding your character and using your camera to convey that insight.

The fact that Wonder Woman has many such moments, where Jenkins seems keen to immortalize Diana (and Gadot) in the blockbuster film pantheon, speaks to how good this film is. And this is to say nothing of the central performers and how they impart the film with levity and genuine emotion. The chemistry between Gadot and Pine is as good as any in the superhero genre and the romance that sparks between them (a plot development that is usually perfunctory in this genre) ends up being one of the film’s standout aspects. In particular, the way that Jenkins depicts an emotional conversation late in the film takes a thoughtful approach that is rare in films that end in massive action sequences.

As Diana and Steve stand in the middle of an airfield, they’re bombarded by the sounds of airplanes and artillery fire. Instead of lulling the background noise and creating a sound bubble for Diana and Steve to talk in (as most directors would conventionally do at such a dramatic moment and a method Jenkins employs when she flashes back to the scene near the finale), Jenkins leaves the sound of their dialogue out completely, forcing us to rely on their gestures to parse out the emotion of the scene. Instead of robbing this moment of its emotion, it amplifies it, allowing a scene of genuine tenderness and surprise to occur in the midst of an action extravaganza. Moments like this point to how smart it was to hire Jenkins to direct the film, as this sort of staging suggests an emotional maturity that is hard to find in most superhero fare.

Of course, Wonder Woman is not without blemish. The final scenes of the film show some of the bloat and bluster common to all superhero films. The computer animation is not as good as in the other DCEU films, as if the producers didn’t trust Jenkins and company with the money needed to make it seamless. As well, although Jenkins admirably adopts Snyder’s action style (the battle on the beach of Themyscira is especially good), she’s not as adept at it as Snyder. Of course, this is her first action film so it stands to reason she’ll only get better here on out. As well, it’s impressive that she’s able to make a film that is visually of-a-piece with Snyder’s work, while still distinguishing the style in its own right.

But these sorts of nitpicks are easy to overlook with a film that leaves you feeling as invigorated as Wonder Woman. Just when superhero films were starting to grind me down, Logan and now Wonder Woman have arrived to reignite my faith in the currently ubiquitous genre. If superhero films are all this good, I have no qualms with having a few more years full of them.

8 out of 10

Wonder Woman (2017, USA)

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg based on the DC Comics character created by William Moulton Marston; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya.