Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Attempts to mount a serious, big-budget 'Wonder Woman' movie have come and gone repeatedly over the last thirty years; all doomed to failure by a combination of evolving consumer appetites, and the burdensome weight of political necessity. You see, having a female superhero, in a club populated by a massive male majority, rendered the idea of a 'Wonder Woman' adaptation less of a movie concept, and more of a pseudo-feminist manifesto. Simply being a good story wasn’t enough: Wonder Woman needed to preach as well as punch, and show us all the error of our unenlightened ways. For the record, I have absolutely no problem with a commercial film celebrating its social value and leading by example, but the first and primary job of any mass market movie is to entertain its audience. Let such icons of celluloid, crayon and spandex inform, ponder, consider and explore as they see fit, but the entertainment aspect should always be non-negotiable. It is this truth that underpins everything Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) sets out to accomplish, and is the reason the film succeeds so handsomely.
Wonder Woman is an accessible story that blends a lick of mythology with a loose taste for the historical, and in the process crafts a convincing yarn. We are introduced to Diana, scion of Queen Hippolyta and daughter of the Amazons: an ancient female warrior race created by Zeus to defend humanity. They dwell in secret on the island of Themyscira, awaiting the inevitable return of Ares, son of Zeus and god of war, and sworn enemy of humanity. Through a series of short and sharp sequences, we witness Diana transitioning from precocious child to formidable warrior, under the stewardship of her aunt General Antiope. It is made clear that instead of waiting, Diana wishes to take a more proactive approach to the threat of Ares, and fate intervenes when a downed aircraft, containing an American spy, breaches the barrier of Themyscira, and the island is attacked by a pursuing force of German soldiers. We are in the midst of the Great War, and here, the juxtaposition of mythology and history becomes quite literal, as Diana is made all-too-painfully aware of the scale of humanity’s military endeavour, and believing Ares to be ultimately responsible, resolves to intervene.
Director Jenkins does a fabulous job of quickly establishing Amazonian culture and its enduring power, and in introducing us to the character of Diana (or ‘Diana Prince’). Much has been made of Gal Gadot’s turn as Diana, and rightly so, for she is magnificent. Not since the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark has a real world persona so suited a comic book character. She is beautiful to an almost otherworldly extent - as befits the character - yet is unequivocally convincing in the role of an immortal goddess of ass-kicking renown. She still wants for seasoning as an actor, but in Jenkins’ capable hands she is sufficiently empathetic, and portrays the character as unencumbered by the burden of human reality. Her initial concept of ‘evil’ is decidedly abstract, and her shock and distress at the sight of a proper war is haunting and genuinely moving. The aforementioned roles of Hippolyta and Antiope are relatively minor, but necessary in establishing both the fear and duty of the Amazons. To this end, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright bring their collective prowess and enthusiasm to their respective roles, and together they convey the pride and sadness of a family (and people) bound to an ancient and unhappy responsibility.
Despite both the superhuman and political qualities of the eponymous character, Wonder Woman is a pleasingly intimate film. Given its very specific period setting, the temptation was obviously there to retrospectively judge the roles and conduct of those involved. The film avoids such drudgery by focussing on the merits of character, rather than the folly of history. Ewen Bremner is affecting in the role of Charlie: a one-time sharpshooter, now addled by shell-shock and soothed by song. Alongside him stands Saïd Taghmaoui as the world-weary Sameer, and the ever-likeable Chris Pine as Captain Steve Trevor. It is the crashing of his plane that serves as catalyst for the story. Trevor is earnest and determined, making him an enjoyable contrast to Diana’s heroic naiveté, and the chemistry between them is superb. Pine is a brilliant foil; dashing yet modest, with a real flair for comedic interplay and with charisma to spare. In one scene, Jenkins provides a joyously ironic wink at the audience, as a naked and utterly abashed Trevor is ‘interrogated’ by a curious, blessedly oblivious Diana. When the subject of sex is eventually raised, Diana calmly asserts that she’s read all about it, and is doubtless highly skilled! Their romance by definition subverts expectations, yet it feels both sincere and authentic.
It is this warmth, and capacity for winning charm, that sees Wonder Woman stand in stark contrast to its brethren within the DCEU, and marks it out as a film in full control of itself. The plot is fundamentally familiar, being a love story amidst a time of war, with able supporting players, just the right mix of heroism and tragedy, and an antagonist hand-wrought from finest cardboard (Danny Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, who is ironically based on a very real person of highly contentious historical standing; however his depiction within this film is very much a work of fiction). The story rather capably pivots on the morally dubious character of Patrick Morgan, as played by a cool-as-a-cucumber David Thewlis. Though far from subtle, the nature of this character further complicates Diana’s binary sense of morality. It is a clever pretence, and though it is somewhat undermined by its ultimate predictability, the final parting of Diana and Steve Trevor represents perfectly gauged storytelling. It is a shame though, that after all the exquisite location work and practical guile featured throughout, the film’s finale defaults to a rather soulless exhibition of green screen, but then this is supposed to be a DC superhero film.
Some have contended that Wonder Woman represents the beginning of a new, more socially aware paradigm. The emergence of a female directed, female-centric superhero film was unquestionably important, and captured the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment. It also served to telegraph the progressive mood that would transform Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) into a billion dollar, pop culture phenomenon. In truth though, I like and appreciate this film because quite simply, it works. It is smart and endearing, with a finely honed streak of humanity, and is buffed to a high visual sheen. Channelled through Gal Gadot, the character of Diana Prince is strong, sexy and possessed of individual will, and the film bearing her name acknowledges the physical characteristics of its heroine without ever becoming gratuitous. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is proof of an old adage: It’s not what you say, but what you do that counts. Amidst the wreckage of Zack Snyder’s insatiable, ‘Martha’-shaped hubris, Wonder Woman came blasting onto our screens - accompanied by a thunderous, soon-to-be iconic leitmotif - and brought a momentary dash of colour to an otherwise mirthless cinematic backdrop. That initial momentum has been successfully channelled into an entertaining film, that gives us an action hero audiences can admire and root for - gender be damned - and it gave DC and Warner Bros. a successful film when they most dearly needed it. To this writer’s way of thinking, that is mission: accomplished.
| Reviewed by Lynz Smith |
For me, Patty Jenkins' take on the iconic and (arguably first) dominant female superhero is surprisingly good. It features impressive cinematography with a well-structured story and appropriate heroes and villains, whilst maintaining an air of escapism and legend. Although I personally never understood why a heroic woman had to wear blue pants, and what is effectively a red corset, in the comic book series, I have always had a soft spot for the heroine who doesn't need the aide of a strapping, muscular hero. From this perspective, I was overjoyed to see some semblance of decorum and practicality applied to the costume design and representation of Wonder Woman. Indeed, the representation of the Amazons in this movie appears to be well-thought-out by both the writers and the director. It was refreshing to see a more ‘armoured’ approach to Amazonian fashion, rather than the Hollywood heyday's obsessions with flowing chiffon robes that left barely anything to the imagination.
Here is where my love of mythology creeps back into my reviewers’ mind. Let's be frank here: DC took an already established mythological epic and added in a modernised heroine for embellishment. Let's not forget the mythological foundations of Wonder Woman and her heritage. First and foremost, the Amazons are by mythic definition, a formidable tribe of warrior women who exist entirely independent of male influence (the matter of procreation, and the presence of Amazonian young, is suggested to be the result of captive men and near-enforced coupling, after which the male is effectively banished, whether living or dead). They live within a secluded, matriarchal society which is led and governed by their monarch, Queen Hippolyta (who is beautifully represented by Connie Nielsen), and they are renowned for their skill in warfare; particularly their prowess with the bow, and the slightly discomforting idea that they removed their right breasts in order to strengthen this ability. It does seem rather fitting that one of the first female superheroes born of comic book lore, should hail from this mythic tribe.
This pre-established backstory allows for greater artistic licence - owing to the fact that it is mythology and not history - and in this case the backstory is (thankfully) not all sunshine and roses. For me, as an admirer of all things Amazonian (predominantly the more realistic abilities of women as equal to men), the Amazons and Wonder Woman are given an impressive introduction. The sweeping scenes of battle and combat training leave little to the imagination, and sets the stage for the coming battles. Themyscira is indulgently presented as a lush, tropical paradise, and I was relieved to see the Amazons are rightly shown as well-trained, dedicated warriors with an admirable cause, and a sense of duty stronger than granite. I must say the casting here, with the aforementioned Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, is notable. If I may be so bold as to suggest this, the casting of more established actresses, with an air of life experience, is extremely impressive. If the movie had perhaps had a different director, we'd have been looking at the likes of tween models; failing miserably to display the sense of agelessness and experience of almost-immortal warrior women.
This cinematic version adheres as closely as any movie can to the mythology of the Amazons, and neatly ties-in their relationships with the Greek Gods Zeus and Ares, with Zeus as their sire and protector, and Ares (magnificently portrayed by David Thewlis), as their mortal enemy. An enemy who is, in my opinion, intricately and despicably played, in the sense that the character has been moved away from the stereotypical ‘big and brawny’ bad guy. Thewlis' Ares has shifted to a point of evolution where to be god of war, there is no need to be physically intimidating, just clever enough to know the minds of men. Intelligent manipulation is much more terrifying in a modern world, where every superpower has a big red button they're always threatening to press. Here, Ares is almost a representation of the underhanded and unseen evil working behind the scenes of many conflicts, and quite aptly demonstrates the corruptibility of man. Nothing like throwing some life lessons into the midst of an epic saga! The backdrop of World War I is symbolic, for it was the first time any such conflict had taken place. The Great War was the first to actively utilise chemical warfare alongside the developments of the industrial age, creating destruction and terror the likes of which had never been seen before. Thus the connotation is this was not just a war made of men but of gods too, and would take a great power to overcome.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is well-cast, and owing to her seclusion, presents the audience with a sense of innocence. As a viewer, you feel like you are living through humanity’s wake-up calls as she experiences them. Something that is often missing from films of this ilk is at least here, as we witness her confusion and misunderstandings, and empathise with her learning as she weaves her way through life in the real world. With this embodiment of Diana Prince we see her grow and evolve and find her strength, as she simultaneously finds friendship and companionship, whilst witnessing the horrors of war and the suffering of humanity. These experiences all lead to the realisation that although Ares is at the centre of events (as Diana's beliefs hold her to focus on), he is but a drop in the ocean. Gadot carries herself well throughout the storyline, and the underlying will-they-or-won’t-they love story of Diana and Steve Trevor is just enough to lift the dark edges, and add a little jest and heartbreak to the screenplay. What would a heroine be without a little heartbreak, eh?
The culmination of Diana discovering that she does not wield the weapon to defeat Ares, but that she is the weapon herself, is almost a metaphor for the internal strength humanity has found time and time again, to rise up against oppression and to fight against injustice. For the times we find ourselves in now - with the battle of the sexes existing on more of an even keel - it could be argued that Wonder Woman herself represents the rise of women; especially when you look back to her introduction in 1942. This was an iconic time for women. They were encouraged to take part in the war effort by joining the work place, and entering into careers previously dominated by a male workforce; enjoying a level of social freedom that they had not previously encountered. Although this was not to last - especially in the USA during the 1950s, where even a college-educated woman was expected to leave her studies when she married - it could be argued that Wonder Woman was a sign of what was to come: the light at the end of the tunnel. This representation of our heroine definitely portrays the ability of a woman to be a stand-alone hero, as she leads and fights and takes on whatever challenges that may lie ahead. This could be a the reason for its popularity. That, or a lot of gentlemen liked the idea of Gal Gadot running around in a gold-adorned suit of armour; especially after her bikini-clad scene in the Fast and the Furious franchise.
Nevertheless, the film is well-paced and possesses a strong storyline in a familiar setting, that criss-crosses both the war and comic book movie genres, thus appealing to two sets of big screen fans simultaneously. The cast is well-considered, with enough big names to attract long-term fans: Danny Huston - always a villain, never a hero - alongside Chris Pine in a familiar, Star Trek-shaped skin, as well as the first lead role for Gadot. The representation of the Amazons is dutifully considered, and the mythological foundations are well-honoured in the career path chosen for Diana Prince. For this fan of mythology and of strong-willed, stubborn women, Wonder Woman is an enjoyable film that holds its own against the strength of the rival comic book universe (i.e Marvel). All in all an entertaining film, featuring a character that has continued to be strong in the follow up films of the DC Extended universe.