Think of this as Wonder Woman: The First Avenger.
Once you’ve seen this movie and soaked in its pleasures, I don’t think you’ll disagree. Wonder Woman, for much of its running time ebbs so close to the form and spirit of the first Captain America movie that you’ll wonder if the events of that movie aren’t happening just over the next hill. It’s possible to ponder even though the two stories take place in different wars.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that as a criticism. The fact that the creative team had the wisdom to set Wonder Woman’s origin story in the midst of a historically tricky place in 20th century history reveals that the movie actually has something to say – that’s something that you don’t get from a lot of these comic book movies. And it’s not the only thing that is unique about this entry.
One of the reasons that Wonder Woman has always stood out amid her beefcake counterparts is not the gender role, but rather the tricky balancing act in that the best writers have always allowed her a well-spring of compassion that isn’t targeted as a weakness. It is present in every incarnation of this character that I’ve encountered and it is a defining and uniquely feminine quality that gives the character her core identity. Batman sees compassion in vengeance. Superman sees it in working toward the greater good. From Wonder Woman it just seems to come from her inner nature.
I only bring it up because this is an essential element to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. It would be enough to simply repeat slow motion shots of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) flying through the air with her sword about to cleave her enemy in twain (there are plenty, don’t worry). But it’s another thing for Jenkins to be generous enough to allow her character to return again and again to tight close-ups of Gadot’s beautiful face. Rather than focus on sexualizing her physique (which Jenkins generally avoids), the actress is allowed a volley of expressions whether they be a smile, a look of sorrow, a mask of pain, or a growling glare of vengeful fury. With those close-ups, Jenkins and Gadot are creating a complex and compassionate character, one who is thinking as well as running and jumping. This is a deeply flawed movie (the ending is terrible) but it has a core of goodness about it. It’s honest in its sincerity and – at least up to a point – it has a message that I found palatable.
Like all introduction stories, we have to go back to the beginning. The movie, for no real reason, opens in the present as Diana Prince gets a note from Bruce Wayne that vaguely alludes to the fact that he knows a bit of her history. The note comes attached to that WWI photo of Diana that popped up in the midst of the mangled morass of sequel foretelling in Batman v Superman. Then Diana tells us her story, about how she was forged in clay by Zeus and grew up shores of Themyscira, a testosterone-free Olympian paradise in which the inhabitants are all women who worship the gods. Actually, the movie fan in me giggled silently at this island which is furnished only with grass, rocks, ocean, columned structures and cauldron fires. It looks like a Sandahl Bergman movie minus the nude bathing.
Protected by the Amazon mothers of the island, none fiercer than her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), young Diana is forbidden to be trained as a warrior. But her aunt (Robin Wright) disagrees and Diana is not only trained but shows “chosen one” powers. They come in handy when American Army pilot Capt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into their private little world and brings news of a war that Diana is convinced was started by the god of war, Ares. She is determined to cross over into the human world, defeat Ares, and stop the war.
Yes, Wonder Woman is a fish-out-of-water story, and while I usually chalk up that tired old chestnut as unoriginal thinking, here it actually works. Diana is set about in Europe of the early 20th century, most specifically the tail end of World War I, a war that she is convinced Ares has wrought. She is a stranger in a strange land. Raised all her life on the island of Themyscira, she knows nothing of the human world or the world of men (which at this point in history is dead set on shunning her because she’s a woman). It’s kind of a brilliant transition from Diana’s lush and colorful ocean-side paradise in which the Amazon mothers have made their home while respecting the natural order, to the harsh and dirty and oppressive world of turn-of-the century London.
That transitional backdrop is accented by Gadot’s performance. She’s not relegated to a lot of sexual posing. Jenkins’ allows the actress a lot of expressiveness that is not all moody and sad (which has been a fatal flaw in the DC cinematic universe). She’s bright, funny and often cheery when the scene calls for it. She can also express outrage when Steven refuses to forego his spy mission to help a group of locals who are suffering the after effects of German bombing. Many of the notes she plays here are reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s performance in the first two Superman movies. She develops an electric chemistry with Trevor that is actually allowed to develop. They are permitted quiet moments together that are sweet and touching. The best is a conversation aboard a boat at night in which she casually extols the merits of female pleasure without a man involved – a reasoned argument that catches Trevor off guard and virtually undoes whatever machismo might have been residing within him. The scene reminded me of the date scene in Superman. It’s fun to watch and listen to the lovers playing together.
The love story makes up the film’s smaller details. The great, overriding story of Wonder Woman is the unraveling of Diana’s naïve straight-forward view of warfare. She comes from a world in which wars are fought on horseback with bows and arrows and has no understanding of the horror of war in the human world. She believes, based on the order of her world, that the human war was caused by Ares – rid the world of Ares and you rid the world of war. The movie’s great through-line is the deconstruction of that theory, Diana’s rude awakening that wars in the human world are not wrought by a singular element. It’s kind of a masterstroke that she’s dropped into the middle of the most catastrophic and chaotic war in human history, one that had no real winners, only an ambiguous victor. In that regard, Diana stands for all those who entered The Great War not knowning the terrible toll that war after The Industrial Revolution would bring both politically and on the battlefield. Steve sums it up best: “This war’s a mess.”
That through-line is the movie’s greatest asset, but a bad decision on the part of the filmmakers retracts that asset in the film’s fatal third act.
Just as the movie rises to its great dramatic climax, Diana’s rude awakening to the horrors of war in the human world is undone by a third-act that upends all that has been achieved in favor of a special effects show that undermines everything we’ve just seen. Not to give too much away but there’s a revelation at the end that feels like studio meddling, as if the ending of an earlier draft had been tacked onto this one. Why did they do this? The movie had such a grand trek and then threw it away on one stupid decision. Why? Why spoil what was working? Why would the folks at Warner Bros give us an ending that retracts all that had come before? With this ending, a movie that managed to wriggle its way out of the shackles of the conventional superhero formula suddenly becomes what it was trying not to be! Why dumb it down?
Still, even with that, I can’t throw the movie away. There’s so much good here that I can’t dismiss it because of a single bad decision. This DCU, up to this point, has wrought disappointment after disappointment from the embarrassing Green Lantern, to the convoluted Man of Steel to the 500 pound mess of Batman v Superman to the yawn-inducing Suicide Squad, it is nice to finally arrive at a movie that I can wrap my arms around. I just wish the ending had been given as much care as all that had preceded it. It broke my heart and makes me long for a DVD with an alternate ending. This much effort deserves better.