REVIEW - Wonder Woman
First, the elephant in the room. With the possible exception of Star Wars, the DC comics universe is my first and longest lasting fandom. I was a fan of Superman before I knew I was a fan of Superman, my first memory is of tying a Superman cape around my neck so that I could watch Superman: The Movie on TV. I actively enjoyed Man of Steel, warts and all, and Batman V. Superman was a visually stunning film that tried to graft three stories into one film; the Lex Luthor framing Superman for a massacre to turn the government against him story, the Batman and Superman circling each other's identities as they investigate the same case story, and the Superman vs. Doomsday story. I feel that if any one of those three stories had stood on its own as a solo film it would have been quite solid. I avoided Suicide Squad because frankly even the comics version of Task Force X is not my cup of tea.
All the questions about my DC bias out of the way?
Wonder Woman is hands down the best superhero movie I have ever seen. There. It's been said, and I can't take it back. Let me illustrate briefly a scale on which I view this kind of film. There are bad ways to tell a comic book story, for example: Green Lantern or Daredevil. There are perfectly serviceable but uninspired ways to tell a superhero story, for example: Ant-Man or The Amazing Spider-Man. There are good ways to tell a superhero story, for example: Thor or Iron Man. There are great ways to tell a superhero story, for example: Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Dark Knight. Finally there are perfect ways to tell a superhero story, for example: Superman: The Movie or Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman is the last one.
A great version may be a better film overall, as in the Winter Soldier example, but a perfect version brings the comic to life. The perfect version leans on the spirit of the source material so hard that if you know the source material you can barely see any daylight between the four color original and the adaptation, and if you're new to it you'll be able to join an old pro in a conversation about the character without missing a beat. Captain America leaned on the Steve Rogers origin story and gave movie audiences a version of it that introduced them to the most pure and comics accurate adaptation possible of Captain America. Superman: the Movie distilled Kal-El down to his core elements and gave the world a version so pure and iconic that later versions moved toward it and away from the comic interpretation.
Wonder Woman does the same. Is this definitively the Moulton Marston Wonder Woman directly as she appeared in Sensation 1? Of course not, she is a hybridization of that version of the character and George Perez’ version with a touch of Greg Rucka thrown in for good measure. The spirit and intent of those three versions is so thoroughly treated that you cannot help but see this character clearly.
The plot remains as straightforward as it was in the original Marston version: Diana is Princess of Themyscira the home of the Amazon’s – hidden away by Zeus for their protection. Her mother does not want her to become a warrior but she learns combat anyways and becomes the very best Amazon possible. Then a man named Steve Trevor crashes on the island, showing Diana a glimpse of the outside world and telling her of the war that is raging out there. Not content to sit in obscure safety while millions die Diana leaves the island with Steve, vowing to end the war she believes to be the work of Ares.
Gal Gadot continues to shine as Diana, here playing a younger and more naïve version of the character than the fully formed version we saw confidently leaping into battle in Batman V. Superman. There is a brilliant compassion to every action, every thought Diana takes. She imbues every moment with a spirit that makes you believe in her. When that belief is needed in the final act, it feels real and potent and very honest. Gal is a delight to watch.
Robin Wright is fiercely awesome as Diana’s aunt Antiope, the general of the Amazons and the first person who truly believes in Wonder Woman and that she can stop Ares. Connie Nielson’s Hippolyta is tinged with sadness and the fear of losing her daughter throughout the first act, but is a game interpretation of the character. In an odd design moment early in the film, Hippolyta wears an outfit that has a bird on her chest similar to the one worn by Wonder Woman, but also quite similar to the Nightwing logo.
Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is some of his finest work and he delivers a fully fleshed out man who ends up being the most honest, trusting and human character thus far in the DCEU; which this being the fourth movie in a series that began with a Superman movie casts some serious shade on previous entries. Lucy Davis plays a hilarious version of Etta Candy that is quite welcome, but the current run of comics have given Wonder Woman fans a tough as nails Etta who is just as much an empowerment icon as Diana herself.
Danny Huston and David Thewlis are their scenery chewing selves and deliver great performances as always.
The choice to set this film in World War I rather than World War II seemed odd at first, but in the context of the film it is a perfect choice. To begin with the previously discussed Marvel film Captain America: The First Avenger mined the territory of World War II so perfectly and comparisons between the two movies are already being made – they would be far worse had they used the same war as a backdrop. Tonally WWI works better for this film because World War I felt unwinnable, the sense of despair in the final days of the war was palpable. It was also this weird hybrid war that was waged the old way but with the new weapons; battalions still marched side by side into shooting conflicts under the lead of men on horseback even though a tank was nearby. It felt like the abominations of war machines had corrupted the world and they had surely killed so many. This is the kind of war that it feels perfect to blame on Ares, and have Diana attempt to put an end to.
When Diana arrives in London the film enjoys being playful with the notion of hiding the Wonder Woman costume from the audience and enjoys a few cute nods to Superman: the Movie. That scene in the alley from the trailer where Diana in glasses protects Steve from a gunman that feels like it’s a nod to Donner’s movie, is more than a nod: it’s a flat out bow to the classic film. The London section also serves as Diana’s introduction to a world of men that doesn’t honor the soldiers who fight, or the innocents in the way. It gives Diana a chance to codify her beliefs as the movie moves onward to the war.
Steve gathers together a small team to help Diana get to the front to find Ares, and what a team. A Scottish sniper named Charlie, played by Ewan Bremner; a Moroccan con man named Sameer, played by Said Taghmoui; and a Native American smuggler named The Chief, played by Eugene Brave Rock are charming but they are hardly a professional outfit like A.R.G.U.S. or Easy Company. The team moves closer and closer to the front, and the team keeps telling Diana not to do things: don’t help the wounded man, don’t help the civilians move their horses, and finally: don’t get involved in the fight at No Man’s Land. Standing in the muck of a trench in a cloak that covers her clothes entirely, Wonder Woman gets this determined set to her jaw and starts marking toward a ladder that leads up and into the place no one dares to go. I have seen this scene played out a thousand different ways in comics and cartoons, and always Diana powers through and does what she knows she must. It was powerful to witness it happen live action, and I’ll admit seeing Diana in full armor standing on the field of battle choked me up considerably.
To summarize the film any further will get us deep into spoiler territory, and you don’t want to have the third act of this movie ruined for you. There is an obvious twist and a less obvious twist that will come, if you know the comics you’ll likely see them both coming, but they are so very welcome.
The internet forum consensus was that Wonder Woman needed to be a huge win or the DCEU was forever sunk, and this could not have been a bigger win. The film takes the source material very seriously and works very hard to honor the character as well as her fans. Director Patty Jenkins nails this at every single turn, delivering a gorgeous and brightly lit Superhero movie that takes the time to linger on beautiful pieces of framing rather than overdoing the big action set pieces. I want more humongous superhero movies from her and I want them now. I saw this film with my girlfriend who immediately expressed a desire to see it again, and I can’t say I disagree. I intend to see this film multiple more times in theaters. The only negative feeling I have after my initial viewing is that this film that Man of Steel should have been.
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