A few days before I saw this film, I had a conversation with my mom about the lead actress. She expressed her concern about Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman, which was going to be radically different from the Lynda Carter version she was familiar with. This would be the first time we’d see a more modern Wonder Woman on the screen, one not bound by campy Silver Age restrictions. That conversation got me thinking: why is it that Carter is the only other Wonder Woman we have to compare Gadot to? Even prior to watching this film’s predecessor in the DCEU, Batman v Superman (2016), one could compare the two title characters to dozens of previous incarnations. The debate over whether Batman was best embodied in the performance of West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney (though nobody backs Clooney, not even Clooney), Conroy, Bale, or any of the others who’ve taken up the cowl since the first serial in 1943 was one any superhero fan was more than familiar with. The same could be said of Superman’s various actors across ten films and any number of serials (but let’s be real, it’s Reeve). Despite the countless Supermen and Batmen, there’s only been one Wonder Woman. Odd, because in any adaptation of their story, Wonder Woman is just as important to DC’s holy trinity as either of her male counterparts. Seriously, Swamp Thing got two movies before Wonder Woman got one! So finally, with the creation of a new cinematic universe, she gets a well-earned chance to shine, and hopefully even outshine her male colleagues.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with Wonder Woman’s story at this point, but for those of you who have been living under
a rock the average person’s roof, I guess I’ll recap. Wonder Woman is actually named Diana, princess of the Amazons, a race of immortal warrior women given life by the Greek gods. The Amazons have been exiled from the world of men to a hidden island known as Themyscira, or Paradise Island if you don’t have spell-check. Diana, bearing the blessings of the gods in the form of various superpowers, was created to be their greatest champion. One day, after thousands of years of peace, an American pilot named Steve Trevor crash-lands on the island. Diana acts as an ambassador to the world of men, accompanying Steve home and hopefully tidying up whatever period-accurate armed conflict decided to be the inciting incident for a new version of the story. In this case, the period is the early 20th century, and the conflict is World War 1. Honestly I can’t believe we’ve gotta watch this one again but we gotta reestablish everything for every single reboot, don’t we? Uncle Ben and the Waynes dying, Krypton exploding, Steve Trevor crashing on Themyscira.
From there the plot is pretty doesn’t throw anything particularly groundbreaking at you. After about fifteen minutes you should be able to predict every major story-beat right up until the end. Where this movie shines isn’t in its story, but in its characters. Diana and Steve Trevor are legitimately likeable, and every second they’re on screen, especially when they’re together, is an absolute joy. The two have real chemistry, which is especially prevalent in scenes featuring them alone together, such as the scene after they leave Themyscira by boat and Steven explains why he didn’t sleep with Diana. It’s a simple scene, but the realism the actors bring to their characters, who trip over words and interrupt each other with the kind of momentum that can’t come from a script alone, transforms it into one of the more memorable parts of the movie. While I was hoping they’d end up as platonic friends (like in George Perez’s iconic run in the comics) their romance is entirely believable, and you come out of it feeling that there’s no way they wouldn’t end up falling in love. A well-done romance is a rarity in action movies, so to see it pulled off here without a hitch is wonderful (sorry, couldn’t resist).
The supporting cast also does a nice job of keeping up with the charismatic powerhouses in the lead roles. Antiope, Diana’s aunt and trainer, manages to stick out as a defined and interesting character, even though she gets fridged after about ten minutes. Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s secretary, has a bubbly energy that allows her to act as a foil to both Steve’s jaded cynicism and Diana’s naive yet brutal warrior mentality. Once they actually get to the war, Steve goes out and rounds up a team of misfits and mercenaries to help them out. The fantastic four he assembles build a good team dynamic with Steve and Diana, On the other hand, some of the Amazons leave a bit to be desired, particularly Diana’s mother, Hippolyte, who comes across as the kind of overbearing mother you’ve seen dozens of times before, without much depth to make her stand out. She has several lines that are so obviously foreshadowing you’d be forgiven for not realizing that they’re foreshadowing at all, because they seem like the actual reveal of the twist. When the real reveal rears its head (at the end of the movie) the revelation is undermined by the much more shocking notion that we weren’t supposed to know two hours ago. As a character, this results in her coming across as annoying, because not only does she consider herself smarter than Diana, but she ends up a mouthpiece for writers who think they’re smarter than me. And no one am smarter than me.
In sharp contrast to, say, Suicide Squad (2016), Wonder Woman’s cinematography and action are cool and stylized while also energetic and colorful. Though not directed by Zack Snyder, the slow-motion characteristic of his films (such as Man of Steel (2013) or 300 (2007)) shows up in small doses, but never ventures into the realm of overindulgence. Perhaps the highlight of the action scenes is when Diana crosses No Man’s Land, tanking machine gun fire and shell blasts with sheer determination (and of course, a little help from the magic of the Greek gods). Diana stands out in her red, blue, and gold against a grim gray backdrop of mustard gas and barbed wire. These scenes outrank any of their DCEU predecessors, and establish Diana as the kind of woman who can hold her own alongside Superman against the Gray Spiky Hulk who served as her first blockbuster villain.
The soundtrack contributes heavily to the energy of the action scenes, particularly when Is She With You?, Wonder Woman’s theme from Batman v Superman, is used as her primary leitmotif. It’s easily the most recognizable superhero theme in years, an absolute banger featuring a prominent electric cello (a criminally underrated instrument) which never fails to get the blood pumping, even if it is a bit anachronistic.
Before I get into the villains, this next paragraph is a big ol’ spoiler discussion, so if you still haven’t seen Wonder Woman, either go watch it right now and come back when you’re done, or just skip to the conclusion. Or read it and spoil the ending for yourself, I won’t stop you. I’m not a cop.
Alright so the villains kinda suck. It’s established early on that we’re gonna be fighting the war god Ares, and Diana spends the whole movie believing that killing him will end the war. (Side note: she thinks her sword is the godkiller. It’s not. It’s her. She’s the godkiller. That’s the really obvious twist I was harping about earlier.) This belief is treated as childish, with characters constantly trying to tell her that the world is a little more complicated than good guys and evil gods. Then there’s this general in the German army who just so happens to be built like a pile of bricks, has access to weird glowing superpower drugs, and has an odd affinity for Greek mythology (almost as if he experienced it firsthand). If you didn’t guess from that last sentence, he’s a red herring and Ares is someone else. However, once Diana kills him, the movie pretends to be profound and talk about how the evil is in the hearts of men and there’s no black and white evil force behind the war other than mankind’s arrogance. So after that revelation, Ares reveals himself as the black and white evil force behind the war who preys on mankind’s arrogance. Cue your generic superhero slamdown (which gets points for not having a blue laser pointed at the sky) and Ares dies and the war ends. The concept of Ares being just a muse of destruction, a god who only points men towards weapons rather than forcing them to fight, is great, and could have panned out into a radically different third act. The moral, that World War 1 was basically just a sociopolitical nightmare mess where good people died for no real reason, rings false because the ending means Ares was the only reason it kept going on. Ares, rather than feeding on the hate, was egging it on, framing him as the standard antagonist he really didn’t need to be. This weak supervillain ending is the movie’s biggest and most glaring flaw.
Aside from that, Diana’s arc between this movie and Batman v Superman doesn’t really make sense. She gives Ares a big “humans aren’t perfect but they make life worth it” shpiel before she kills him, but in BvS she’s been out of the superhero-ing game since 1918. The only reason she comes back at all is because she happens to be a few blocks away from the Doomsday fight. Did something happen in the intervening century that isn’t shown in the end of this film? Was Diana spending the whole century grieving over Steve? Was she just being cheeky with Ares? We don’t really get a solid answer, aside from the fact that she was clearly thrown into Batman v Superman close to the end of production, and wasn’t even considered in Man of Steel. Honestly, that’s not a strike against Wonder Woman itself, which is more or less written as a self-contained film, but in the context of a larger cinematic universe it’s a pretty big oversight considering half the reason this movie exists is to set up Wonder Woman for Justice League.
Despite that, Wonder Woman remains a solid superhero film with great characters and impressive action. Despite a lackluster ending and a pretty generic plot, the film is still more than watchable, and even worth the rewatch. It could certainly have taken a few more risks, potentially subverting genre cliches outright, but it’s probably for the best that the filmmakers played it safe. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but DC’s movies haven’t been all that hot recently. Or, rather, they have, but in the same way a dumpster fire is hot. Despite some high ambitions, the risks they took just weren’t executed well enough to redeem some baffling directorial decisions. A safe, solid superhero action movie is exactly the kind of movie DC needed to get them back on track for Justice League later this year, and Patty Jenkins has delivered for them in spectacular form. And hopefully this film’s success will mean filmmakers are more willing to adapt superheroines in the future. Seriously, DC made two Swamp Thing movies before a single Wonder Woman movie! Considering all the pressure on this film—to be both a good DC movie and a good female superhero movie, as well as to introduce Wonder Woman to a generation of moviegoers who just aren’t familiar with the source material—it’s amazing how well the final product turned out.