Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock
Director: Patty Jenkins
Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
As a corrective to the grim self-seriousness of the DC film franchise up until this point as well as a concerted effort to invert the pin-up girl eroticism of the character's original design, Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a spirited success. As a fully satisfying superhero origin story willing to break free from genre constrictions and blaze a new path, however, the film is on less firm ground. This is to be expected, given that auteurship existing alongside a business model for selling more toys and expanding an already over-saturated formula is a losing battle. Even the most aesthetically bold superhero entries, such as Marvel's Doctor Strange, fall prey to overly complicated mythology, underdeveloped supporting characters, predictably cardboard villains, and a need to extend a certain visual house style. What makes Wonder Woman so exciting, beyond simply being a more coherent movie than anything DC studios has put out thus far, is the inherent thrill of witnessing the first superhero effort directed by a woman featuring a symbol of female-empowerment writ large on the big screen. This shouldn't be such a novelty, but sadly, Hollywood has so forcefully engineered the system to all but guarantee marginalization when it comes to these multi-million dollar franchises that when something like Wonder Woman comes along, it feels like a miracle. However, if the film proves to be a financial success, this trend will likely change. Nothing says diversity and gender equality like padding the pocket books of white male studio executives.
While this may sound reductive and cynical, the good news is that Jenkins and her team have reenvisioned Amazonian warrior Diana with a sense of liberated modernity while still retaining the old-fashioned pageantry of the character. Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot swaggers through every scene as the titular heroine with a mixture of intensity, emotional openness, and most surprisingly, wide-eyed innocence. In fact, Gadot is so good here that the shortcomings of Allan Heinberg's script (lack of character depth, uninspired side characters, more than one lame villain, a muddled smash and punch CGI finale) fail to derail what essentially is yet another superhero origin story.
The story kicks off with Xena Warrior Princess-esque visions of Themyscira; a mythical island inhabited only by female Amazonians who train (often on horseback) with flailing swords and zipping arrows. Diana grows up idealizing these fierce women, maturing into a rather formidable foe herself, with the help of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright in House of Cards mode wearing a metallic headdress). One day, a World War I American counter-intelligence spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) suddenly appears out of the clear blue sky and crashes into the ocean. Since Diana has never seen a man before, she's both puzzled and drawn to Steve, leading to some gently awkward scenes of banter between the two after she saves him from drowning. Eventually, Steve tells her about the horrific nature of war and the German's secret plans for using a deadly chemical weapon. From there, Wonder Woman transforms into a screwball fish-out-of-water comedy as Diana and Steve jot off to London in order to deliver intelligence information to Britain's top officials. Sequences where Diana tries out a variety of "proper" outfits or simply engages in extended arguments with Steve are unexpectedly light-hearted and funny, with Jenkins allowing these moments to play out casually. One shudders to think what a director like hack-a-scene Zach Snyder would have done with such material.
Once the plot introduces a plaster-faced scientist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and Danny Huston's cartoonishly evil German officer, Wonder Woman loses some of its early goodwill; devolving into a series of chaotic action sequences which ultimately ends in a lumbering final battle between Diana and a fiery floating bad guy. Still, some of the action beats here are given an intriguing tweak just through the sheer force of a woman's directorial perspective. For example, Wonder Woman walking stridently across a deadly German outpost while artillery fire ricochets and whirls around her is a towering feminist vision for the ages. Jenkins also favors scenes where the men (both enemies and comrades) gawk in awe at Diana's otherworldly abilities. This sense of emasculation; even when it comes to a fully qualified solider like Pine's sweet-natured Steve Trevor, is keenly felt throughout; imbuing even some of the more by-the-numbers fight scenes with an emotional weight simply because of this female slant.
If Diana had been a more fully developed character rather than simply a signifier of kick-ass empowerment, then Wonder Woman may have exceeded the limitations of the superhero genre it's trapped in. Gadot nearly convinces us that we are watching someone with an interior life, but there's only so much the talented actor can do to transcend the inherent artificiality of the character she's portraying. The original conception of Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, has always been caught between cheesy bondage iconography and feminine strength. Despite the film's flaws, Jenkins and Gadot have very smartly melded the older corny costuming with a more prescient emotional dimension wrought by a powerful woman overcome by both the evils of humanity as well as their ability for compassion. In that sense, Wonder Woman gives agency to the female superhero rather than subjugating her as the object, with her ultimate decision to not give up on "the world of men" radiating grace that "male-kind" truly does not deserve.