DC has had a far rockier road to bringing its universe of heroes and villains to the silver screen in this modern “Golden Age of Superhero/Comic-Book Movies”. Sure, they had The Dark Knight trilogy, which raked billions of dollars. But their Superman Returns reboot did not attract any new fans and, when they rebooted it again in Man of Steel, encountered a whole new set of issues. I’m on record as being a fan of Man of Steel, but not as much of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As for Suicide Squad, let’s just say that it’s a nice series of short films that don’t quite come into a cohesive and solid whole. Not a surprise for the new DC Extended Universe/DCEU.
One of the best parts of Batman v Superman, however, was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Though her turn could have been called a glorified cameo, she was one of the luminaries in that bloated mess, delivering a performance that was fun and exciting. It raised my interest in the Wonder Woman movie that was in the works even if the subsequent Suicide Squad left a sour taste. Though word of work under director Patty Jenkins (Monster) appeared to indicate a difficult production, I was still hopeful. Did it live up to my hopes?
Wonder Woman introduces us to all the elements that make up Diana’s back story before she is ever called by that title. Her life being raised as one of the Amazons under the guidance of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and training by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) is one of peace and quiet. But Diana is interested in a greater calling — one towards destiny and combat. Her desire for adventure is eventually answered when a plane carrying Cpt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American pilot seconded to British intelligence, crashes through the fog hiding the island of Themyscira from the larger world. For it is 1918 and the Great War has been ravaging humanity for four long years. Diana sees the hand of Ares, god of War, in this great conflict and chooses to leave her home in order to bring his work to an end. But the world beyond her shores is a strange one and not one ready for her as a warrior or as a woman.
As I said above, Gadot is a bright light in the DCEU. She continues to embody all the various sides of Diana, Princess of Themyscira. In here she goes from a young woman who believes in the stories her mother has shared and seeks to become the best warrior possible. She’s trying to make both Hippolyta and Antiope proud. That they could have different goals for her never occurs to Diana. This youthful naiveté shifts as she enters London and the world of men with Steve and Gadot is able to show both her wonderment and disagreement with it. That this is also leads to some comedic moments is to the movie’s benefit, even as it never forgets that the sexism Diana is encountering is wrong.
But it is when they finally reach the front lines of World War I that Diana becomes Wonder Woman and Gadot is able to bring the heroic side of her to the front. Gadot displays a Diana that is resourceful, courageous and capable. She welcomes all and accepts them as they are in her quest to find and overcome Ares’ effect on the world split by the war. If the first half is marked by Diana’s youthfulness, then the second half is all about her displaying her prowess as she heads into an inevitable battle against the god of war. Her birth as a hero.
At her side is Pine’s Steve Trevor — a spy looking to do the right thing to prevent more death. In shifting his story from World War II or even the Cold War to World War I, they put Steve right in the front lines of some of mankind’s worst atrocities. Gas attacks that would kill villages indiscriminately and weapons that would destroy men in many different ways. His personal mission — to find a way to keep the newest weapons being developed by Dr. Maru (Elena Araya) for Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) — races against the clock of the armistice. In the middle of his quest, he lands square into Diana’s lap and becomes as much her guide into the world of men as she forces him to become as heroic as she is. Pine is a great part of the movie and his rapport and chemistry with Gadot are both fun and heartwarming in a way that was different from Gadot’s with Ben Affleck’s in last year’s Batman vs Superman.
The rest of the cast performs rather admirably. This includes the various Amazons supporting Antiope and Hippolyta — Ann Ogbomo, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Florence Kasumba — who help in building a Themyscira that is both idyllic and astonishing. Nielsen and Wright are their normal great selves and it’s interesting to juxtapose their roles as mentors and parents of Diana — a mother who years to protect her daughter and an aunt who seeks to get her ready for the future.
It also includes David Thewlis’ Sir Patrick and Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy, who dispatch and support the mission Diana and Steve are involved. Davis provides a solid bit of comedy relief as she tries to help Steve shape Diana to fit in 1918 London while Thewlis forms the backbone of the mission. But the biggest supporters are Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremmer) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), the three warriors/spies/infiltrators who go along for Diana’s journey into Belgium. In each of them there is a piece of the same struggles and prejudices that Diana is encountering on her journey. Though men, they are looked down upon and thought of as incapable of doing more.
Working on a story by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, director Patty Jenkins breathes a sense of life into Wonder Woman that has been sorely lacking in the DCEU. She directs the story with a deft touch in what is, in essence, another superhero origin movie. The story glides from Themyscira to London to Belgium that sometimes it is easy to forget that it takes only a matter of days once we see grown-up Diana. She also does amazing work in the action sequences — taking the slow-mo approach set by Zack Snyder in key moments only but letting them move and breathe so that we can appreciate the action. Unlike some other superhero movies, she keeps her camera always on the point of action: Diana. Some other directors should take note or two from her.
She’s helped in this by cinematographer Matthew Jensen who assists her in turning Themyscira into a paradise of eternal sunshine and colors. Notice how, the moment after Diana leaves it, the rest of the world is muted and gray. Editor Martin Walsh assists in crafting those action pieces and giving Diana both the hero moments of action and the pensive moments of reflection. And composer Rupert Gregson-Williams does a terrific job of taking Hans Zimmer’s & Junkie XL’s epic theme for Wonder Woman and crafting a greater score around it. Jenkins does a great job of holding that epic electric cello beat from us until Diana is ready to become Wonder Woman — and when she does, it’s awesome.
Here’s where I get to rave about what Jenkins did with Diana and her tale. Like I said above, it would be easy to dismiss it as an origin story because it is. And usually with origin stories, the question at the heart of the story is whether or not the protagonist will rise to the role of hero. This has been doubly-enforced in the DCEU thanks to the work of Snyder, Goyer and Nolan. After all, they crafted a Superman full of doubt and insecurities about his powers and his place in the world. Meanwhile their Batman is a man who cannot trust and who is full of fear and anger. The easy juxtaposition is that Diana is none of these things. Diana is certain of who she is and what she is called to do. Diana does not doubt herself or the presence of evil that must be met in battle to be vanquished.
Intriguingly, the movie puts the doubts into everyone around her. Her mother doubts out of love — she knows that to train Diana is to eventually lose her. Steve doubts her because, despite all he’s seen, he cannot bring himself to believe it’s all down to an one-on-one fight between good and evil. The men in command of the Allied forces doubt because of her gender. Her friends doubt because they have been told time and again that it is not the way of the world. These are the obstacles that Diana must overcome — external rather than internal.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Diana does not grow during her journey. On the contrary, going from the beauty and peace of Themyscira to the trenches of World War I forces her to come face to face with the worst elements of mankind. Encountering the gas attacks, the desperation of people displaced by war and the resigned demeanor of everyone fighting to the suffering and pain around them challenge her beliefs deeply. Because ultimately Diana’s quest is one of embracing her role as a hero of people who may not be worthy of her sacrifice. Diana is not doubting her place in the world but rather that of the world around her.
Let me go and quote Patty Jenkins herself from an interview she did with Screen Rant. Because this take on heroism was crafted by design. She said:
“I’m such a believer in the genre because I’m a believer in mankind turning stories into about what it means to be a hero and what would I do if I was a hero and how would that feel. And so, you know, there is always that opportunity in any movie with a metaphor to use to make something beautiful that really touches people. And this is such an important time in the world for people to think about what kind of hero they would want to be and what we’re going to do to save this world that I was honored to get to join in the dialogue.”
You can read the interview here. It’s not long.
I think this idea, of heroes being heroic because it is the right thing to do, has gotten away from DC. Granted, this is as much a reflection of how attitudes and eras have shifted — away from heroic do-gooders to troubled warriors. However, unlike Marvel, DC has the gold standard of true blue superheroes with Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s nice that they hired someone who got that right out of the gate in Patty Jenkins for Diana’s story.
Wonder Woman is a great time. On that alone, it deserves all the plaudits it is getting. That it’s also the welcomed reprieve from the avalanche of mediocrity that DC had been pushing out should not go unrecognized. It is fun and exciting and acts as a much better launching off point for Justice League than anyone realizes. Jenkins and Gadot have crafted one of the better superhero movies of the last decade. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. Diana has risen to the role of hero. But when does she take on the title of Wonder Woman? Guess we will find out soon enough.