Set the enormous task of delivering not only the first big screen adaptation of iconic superhero Wonder Woman, but the first truly successful female superhero film, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have exceeded all expectations. The film has taken the world by storm, breaking female-directed box office records left, right and centre, winning almost universal critical adulation and empowering females worldwide. This is far from the best superhero film I have seen, but its cultural importance can’t be undersold, and it hasn’t done the DC film universe any harm either.
We start in modern day Paris, where the Diana Prince established in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) receives a package from Bruce Wayne containing a photo of herself and a group of men from World War I. We move to the mysterious island of Themyscira, a place where it is quickly established Amazonian women rule and men play no part. Young Princess Diana is desperate to receive training from her formidable General Antiope (Robin Wright) but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), knowing her daughter is a demigod but unwilling to let her reach her destiny, is hesitant. Antiope and the determined princess persist anyway, and Diana is soon almost as capable a warrior as her aunt. Hippolyta finds out and eventually concedes Diana should be able to defend herself.
Themyscira, created by Zeus to protect humankind from his son Ares, is a paradise (presumably somewhere in the Atlantic?) hidden to man. Following an escape from German forces, American pilot and spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes off the coast of Themyscira and is rescued by Diana. The pursuing Germans find the island and the Amazonians must defend their home. This sets the wheels into motion for Diana’s entry into the human world, as she arms herself with her people’s famed sword, the “Godkiller” and follows Trevor back to England to fight the war. There, Diana aims to kill Ares, whom she believes has corrupted the Germans, which will end the fighting.
After this slow and steady introduction to Diana and her world, the film kicks into gear from this point on. We meet a number of characters first, including Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and Steve’s ragtag crew of “soldiers”. The action and the film really takes off when Steve leads the team through the Western Front in Belgium, where the Allied Forces have made little to no ground in over a year. Diana, unable to simply accept this fact and carry on, takes matters into her own hands. She single-handedly crosses the barren field, deflecting all gunfire and allowing Steve and co to break through, defeat the Germans and take the nearby village. It’s a powerful moment not even just because it is a woman performing the act- the combination of empathy, courage and ability is rarely seen from any hero- and establishes Diana is not only a formidable force, but a character you can get behind.
The final hour or so of the film is full of action set pieces and does feel a little same-same and overblown. Danny Huston’s evil Nazi General and Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison make little impact besides giving the audience faces and names to root against. But Diana is constantly finding out just how capable she is and subsequently setting the Justice League wheels into motion. ***Sir Patrick is revealed to be Ares***, something which caught me by surprise, and Thewlis makes for a highly unorthodox super-villain. His un-believability as a physical threat may have caused problems for some viewers, but personally, I enjoyed seeing a world-class actor using his skills to create menace, and did find him to be a credible opponent to Wonder Woman.
What doesn’t work in Wonder Woman is pretty much the same as any superhero film: ridiculous characters, far-fetched storylines, heavy exposition, drastic leaps in characterizations and motives to suit the story and too much action. But these negatives are probably less apparent here than in most, or perhaps more accurately, they detract from the positives less. Credit for much of what works here must go to Jenkins. Having taken time off film-making to raise her son following writing and directing 2003’s Monster, Jenkins was handed the reins to a floundering monster. DC needed Wonder Woman to work and her sure hand enabled it to do so.
Of course, I’m sure Jenkins herself would tell us that the film’s success ultimately comes down to its star, Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot. A strikingly beautiful and statuesque woman, Gadot was never going to struggle to look the part. But the character of Princess Diana demands someone who can be both believably formidable and vulnerable at the same time. She is a fish out of water among humans, but physically far beyond those around her. It’s a delicate balance and Gadot pulls it off with aplomb. She is doe-eyed and endearing when confronted with all the new experiences that come with venturing from a secluded island for the first time. Her complete nonacceptance of the damage war is doing to the innocent people is played to perfection. And despite perhaps being unnecessary, both her and Pine make the inevitable love story between Diana and Steve work simply by creating two characters who we can believe the other will be impressed by.
But it is the physicality where I was most impressed with Gadot’s performance. ***She has the appearance of a modern day princess, yet when she was wielding her sword or lashing her whip, I was convinced that she really was someone who could be the “Godkiller”***. The connection between her acting and the stuntwork is almost seamless, a credit to the film’s production but also hugely attributable to Gadot’s ability to inhabit the character both physically and emotionally. I’m not sure how far she can go as far as her acting career, but she’s certainly done herself no harm with her work here.
It’s not as good a film as some will have you believe, but Wonder Woman is an excellent example of a film capturing the zeitgeist and really thinking about what it is trying to portray. It is obviously very female-empowering, judging from my girlfriend, sister and mother’s reactions, and that can only be a huge positive. Even I was able to walk away from the film empowered by the fact a simple superhero movie had the power to make people feel that way. The Justice League could be horrible (and I still think it will be),and it still won’t take away from the individual achievement that is Wonder Woman.