While I don’t usually write on pop culture topics or movies, I am making one of my rare exceptions with this post. I saw the first available screening of Wonder Woman last night, and I was very impressed. Patty Jenkins has directed a wonderful adaptation of the heroine’s origin story, and she and her cast and crew deserve the very positive reviews they have been receiving. The movie lives up to the high expectations that have been created for it, and it makes its mark as one of the better movies in this genre. Wonder Woman is the fourth installment in the current DC Comics movie universe, and it serves as an important link between last year’s Batman v. Superman and this fall’s Justice League, but it stands by itself and doesn’t require viewers to have seen anything else before seeing it.
The movie is in many respects a straightforward origin and adventure story: it tells us where Diana came from, how she chose to enter the world, and what she did in her first attempt to save it. Because it is the first Wonder Woman movie, it doesn’t have to bother with reimagining an extremely familiar character, and it is freed of the burdens associated with the numerous “reboots” that accompany some other superhero characters. This movie assumes that the audience doesn’t necessarily know Diana’s backstory and can dwell on it at some length, and that allows both comic fans and casual viewers to get to know the character and enjoy the ride. The portrayal of Themyscira–Diana’s home island–is well-executed, and Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright do fine work in their respective roles as Diana’s mother and aunt/instructor. Setting the story in 1918 and taking Diana onto the battlefields of WWI are unusual choices, but they raise the stakes and pay off later in the film.
Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know them.
The movie begins with episodes from Diana’s childhood and adolescence, and we see how she acquires the military training that she will later use to such great effect later in the story. Then she encounters Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for British intelligence, who has crashed in the sea off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, but only just in time to watch as a German landing party pursues him onto the shores of her island. A pitched battle follows between the Germans and the native Amazons, which only makes Trevor’s arrival seem even more suspicious. Following Trevor’s interrogation and his description of the war raging in the outside world, Diana becomes convinced that she has to aid him in returning to Europe to find a way to bring an end to the war. The rest of the plot unfolds in a fairly straightforward way as Diana and Trevor assemble their team and carry out their mission.
During the film, Diana moves from being an extremely naive and idealistic outsider to the world of men to one who is quickly disillusioned by the corruption and horror she encounters in WWI-era Europe. As a complete stranger to the world she encounters, Diana serves as both critic of the folly and stupidity she witnesses in the military leadership of the time and as a stand-in for a modern audience. As viewers of Batman v. Superman will recall, her disillusionment is so great that she ends up withdrawing from the world for a century after the events shown in this film. While she triumphs over Ares in the final battle, she nonetheless recoils from what she called “the century of horrors.” Wonder Woman ends with a coda that emphasizes Diana’s renewed willingness to fight for a better world, but we happen to know that this a fairly recent development following the events in BvS.
David Thewlis’ Ares is outstanding, and the revelation in the final act that he has been the villain all along is well-done and manages to come as something of a surprise. Almost until the end the audience is made to think that Erich Ludendorff is the embodiment of Ares, and it is only after Diana kills him with relative ease that we realize that he can’t possibly be the real villain. The oddity of Ludendorff’s ahistorical, untimely demise (the real Ludendorff lived until the late 1930s) is a glitch in the script, but that’s a minor problem with a mostly satisfying story. Making Ares the “peace at any cost” British official rather than the very obvious German general was a smart choice, and one that takes seriously Ares’ capacity for duplicity.
The relationship between Gal Gadot’s Diana and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is handled very well, and the two have real chemistry on screen. Theirs is a love story that is ultimately fated not to end well, but because of that relationship Diana gains an important insight into the human condition that proves critical in her clash with Ares. Because Ares is committed to an unremittingly bleak and dark view of human nature, Diana’s appreciation for the nobler qualities of men helps her to reject his attempts to recruit her to his side and finally enables her to defeat him.
Wonder Woman has many similarities with recent DC movies that many critics will inevitably bash by way of praising it, so it is worth noting a few of them here. The structure of the story is almost identical with Man of Steel in recounting the origins and first trials of their respective characters, but more specifically there is a moment when Ares tries to recruit Diana to support him that is the same as Zod’s attempt to get Kal on board with his plans. The response from each one is exactly the same: “I can’t be part of that.” In both cases, they are asked to choose between siding with their own kind against humanity, and both refuse to do it. The final battle with Ares is more than a little reminiscent of the fight with Doomsday at the end of Batman v. Superman, and the scene of an anguished Diana in the gassed village is eerily similar to the scene of Superman in the destroyed Capitol hearing room.
Finally, Wonder Woman is distinguished by the fact that it is the only female superhero movie to date that is likely to be both a critical and financial success. That is a credit to Jenkins’ work as director and to the studio’s decision to commit to a standalone Wonder Woman movie very early in the new DC movie franchise. That paves the way for more movies like this one, and if they are half as good as this one was that will be a good result.