Comic book giant DC has finally taken a giant step towards silencing naysayers maintaining that the home of Superman and Batman now holds a permanent second place position behind the Disney-owned Marvel. DC is also the home of Wonder Woman, the first comic book superheroine, and an iconic character in her own right. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC, is an absolute triumph, by far the best entry to date in Warner Bros.’ DC Crossover Universe movies.
This should certainly prove that audiences are more than ready to accept a woman in a lead role in a comic book adaptation. And why shouldn’t they? Scarlett Johansson’s recurring role as the Black Widow in Marvel’s comic book adaptations has been very popular. But even more than that, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movies should be more than ample evidence that the glass ceiling in action movies has been effectively shattered. (It should have been accomplished by Geena Davis in 1996 with Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, a movie that now seems well ahead of its time.)
After a thankfully brief, overblown and portentous prologue which establishes the movie’s continuity in the rest of the franchise, the script gets down to business telling an origin story. (The character was introduced in Batman VS. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but as a woman of mystery, with no exposition as to where she’d come from.)
Disney Princess childhood
It turns out that Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen), played in childhood by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey, has a Disney princess upbringing on a craggy but lush Mediterranean island of Themyscira before growing up into Gal Gadot. The one difference of course is that a Disney princess’ mother would be long dead and she’d be getting raised by her father. Not here, where there are absolutely no men at all, which leads to an eventual Big Reveal as to Diana’s true origin. What we hear of the history of the Amazons reveals ambivalence towards man – both the human race in general and males in particular. Free-spirited and rebellious, like any good Disney princess worth her salt, Diana questions much of what she’s taught, and her loyalties split between two mother figures – her mother who forbids her to train in the Amazons’ warrior traditions, and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who strongly believes Diana, like the rest of the Amazons, needs to know how to defend herself.
The Amazons ride horses, shoot arrows, swing swords and throw spears. In short, they’re totally bad ass. Remember how Brad Pitt moved in the action scenes in Troy? They all do that here. They’re a horse cavalry SEAL team and men need not not apply. But inevitably, a man does appear, when American flyer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands, and has to be rescued from the surf by Diana. Steve is wearing a German uniform, right down to Iron Cross and Blue Max medals on his tunic. Why? He’s working for British Intelligence, and has acquired information that peace negotiations are about to be jeopardized by the development of a new poison gas.
World War I comes to the beaches of Paradise Island
The Germans are on on to him, and invade the beaches of Themyscira before you know it. Hippolyta’s Amazon’s are tough, but not, we soon see, invulnerable, and Diana resolves to help Steve with his mission. That gets our heroine to London, and some genuinely impressive period production values, and some amusing, if predictable, fish out of water story material.
And Gadot makes for both a glamorous and entertaining fish out of water, which to its credit the movie is able to exploit without invoking comparisons to similar story fodder in Marvel’s first Thor movie. The movie also provides a Howling Commandos-esque group of misfit sidekicks – a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner); a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock); a Middle Eastern fixer (Said Taghmaoui) – as well as a plucky British suffragette (Lucy Davis). Danny Huston, who previously played a younger version of perennial X-Men villain William Stryker in X-Men Origins: Wolverine crosses over to the DC universe as a stock, ruthless German commander. Elena Anaya is better served as a diabolical chemist. David Thewlis, as a pacifist Member of Parliament, retains his trademark skill at dominating scenes without raising his voice.
Alistair MacLean adventure story looks like Saving Private Ryan
Once on mission, Wonder Woman takes on the look of a war film, right down to the bleached color of Saving Private Ryan. The tone, though, is closer to the movies made in the sixties from Alistair MacLean novels like The Guns of Navarone. Jenkins handles the requisite action set pieces more than capably, frequently transitioning to ultra-slow motion mid-shot with a Guy Ritchie flair. Hans Zimmer’s exciting new theme, featuring soloist Tina Guo’s electric cello, is primal and electrifying, and certainly the most memorable character theme since Monty Norman’s James Bond leitmotif.
Wonder Woman’s creator an interesting guy
Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a very interesting guy, a psychologist who admired the suffragette movement, invented the lie detector, lived in a polyamorous relationship and modeled Wonder Woman’s costume on Vargas pin-up girls. There were always some kinky bondage overtones to the character, which the movie wisely eschews. The movie has no such issue with the pseudo-Greek mythology elements of Diana’s backstory, and the filmmakers make no attempt to introduce a faux science fiction rationalization for the references to classical Greek gods, as Marvel Studios has done with the Norse mythological characters in Thor.
Like Captain America, Wonder Woman was first introduced during World War II. The film is set in 1918, at the tail end of World War I, which juxtaposes a superhuman Amazon warrior against the suffragette movement – an interesting irony which the film does not fully, or over-exploit. It does place the character in the midst of the first modern war, in which technological advances like machine guns, flamethrowers and poison gas were used in combat for the first time, as well as the first meaningful combat use of airpower and submarines. And perhaps not incidentally, it helps distinguish Wonder Woman from Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the Marvel movie to which it would otherwise be most easily compared, other than Thor.
Breakout role for Gal Gadot
Ultimately though it is Gadot herself who makes the movie the singular triumph it is. This is a real breakout role. She plays Diana as a straight-up idealist – a rebel with a warrior’s spirit while maintaining the heart of a reformer. And she kicks ass in the action scenes. She also has good on-screen chemistry with Pine, whose casting as Steve Trevor was a damn good idea. Pine’s matinee idol looks belie a solid actor with old-fashioned Hollywood charisma. He plays the likable rogue well, not quite Gable-esque but you get the idea.
At 2 hours, 21 minutes, Wonder Woman runs a tad long, but audiences are likely to forgive that in favor of its charming combination of adventure, action, humor and romance. The CGI finale feels a bit de rigueur and also pales next to the practical action sequences, but that’s likely to be overlooked as well. DC is finally, solidly on the cinematic map, and it’s great to see Wonder Woman get the respect she deserves.