We’re all agreed Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the best thing about DC’s dour and dispiriting man-spat Dawn of Justice. Amid all the grim soul searching, moody visuals and bludgeoning SFX work, Gadot’s Amazonian goddess strode into view like an ass-kicking, lasso-whipping electric cello riff in human form to brighten up the darkest of hours for DC’s faltering superhero universe. It’s little wonder there’s been so much excitement and goodwill surrounding Diana Prince’s first solo outing. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that it’s the first female-led (and, with Monster’s Patty Jenkins behind the camera, female-directed) superhero movie.
Feminist triumphs aside, though, Wonder Woman feels like a missed opportunity. While it’s undoubtedly the best movie of the DCEU thus far, brightening the tone and demonstrating a stronger handle on its core characters, it’s still plagued by many of the issues that have held previous DC movies back: over earnestness, mind-numbing action, and a slogging origin story that’s framed around a messy, wildly preposterous plot.
Having already been introduced as an experienced, battle hardened warrior in the present day, Wonder winds the clock back to Diana’s picturesque childhood on Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons. This tribe of athletic, gold-plated female warriors live in a bubble, protected from the corruption of man, as they prepare for the prophesised return of Ares, the Greek god who plans to wage an endless war to destroy humanity. And then Chris Pine’s charismatic American spy washes up on shore, bringing with him a flotilla of German soldiers, and tells of a horrifying war raging in the outside world. After one of the most bizarre action sequences of modern times – a slow-mo beachfront battle between pirouetting women and gun-totting men – Diana decides to defy her mother’s wishes, stealing her trademark sword, shield and lasso before setting sail for the world of men to stop the war once and for all.
As Diana, Gadot is extraordinary. Dawn of Justice proved she has the youthful athleticism to stand toe-to-toe with Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s pumped-up Caped Crusader, but Wonder gives her a chance to explore the nuances of an impulsive, idealistic young warrior who has a disarming belief in doing the right thing. Gadot infuses Diana’s sweet innocence with a ferocious defiance that helps to keep the more hokey moments in the script from sounding too goofy. She’s funny, too, especially during the fish-out-of-water scenes in a civilised London where she attempts to tackle a revolving door armed with a shield and sword.
Using World War I as the backdrop for a highly-stylised action movie might make some people uncomfortable. Yet it allows Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg to explore themes of feminism, oppression and the evil that men inflict upon each other. It also neatly sidesteps the issue of needing to find a villain capable of facing-off against a near-indestructible warrior created by Zeus, by making Diana’s unshakable belief in the power of good the thing that’s tested rather than her physical prowess. Jenkins sensitively captures the devastation of the conflict, bringing a grim tangibility to scenes of wounded soldiers and bloodied refugees trudging though the mud and charred remains of their former lives.
With so many positives here, it’s a shame the movie is hobbled by a clunking, sloppy script. Like Thor, this is supposed to be a story about a naive demigod coming to terms with the harsh realities of the world. Instead, much of the focus is on a clumsy love story between Diana and Pine’s Steve Trevor. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but its use here only serves to sideline Diana for much of her own movie. With no experience of the modern world, she’s largely useless once we’ve left Themyscira, which means Steve steps into the valiant hero role, leading the mission to stop the war and making the noble sacrifice that saves the world. Diana is essentially his MPDG, using her optimistic innocence to undercut his early cynicism so that he can find his inner hero. It’s hardly a fair dynamic, especially when you consider she has the power to break him like a twig.
It’s also poorly structured, spending far too much time milling around Themyscira and period-era London despite events there having very little to do with the actual plot – which involves stopping Elena Anaya’s intriguing but underused German scientist and Danny Houston’s military chief using a deadly gas to prevent the armistice agreement. That leaves no time to explore Diana’s world view, which goes unchallenged for much of the movie, as we rush towards yet another weightless, overblown finale where two CGI beings levitate at each other. Wonder Woman might be a Diana Prince-sized leap in the right direction for the DCEU, but it still has a lot to ground to make up if it wants to match the sparkling triumphs of its Marvel peers.
Runtime: 141 mins
Director: Patty Jenkins
Scriptwriter: Allan Heinberg
Stars: Gail Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Danny Houston