As a kid, I grew up on shows like Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: the Animated Series, and Justice League. Justice League was, by far, my favorite, featuring not one, but two heroines amongst the main cast. Wonder Woman–Diana Prince–was a character that spoke to me from the beginning: strong, but compassionate, with a no-nonsense attitude and no patience for bullshit. She was as invincible as Superman, as cunning as Batman, but loved so deeply that she acted as an ambassador, putting peace first. DC had large shoes to fill with their film adaptation of Wonder Woman, which released just last night. After a run up with spotty marketing, questions around casting choices, and generally low expectations after the Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman flops, many were unsure if the new Wonder Woman (the role filled by Gal Gadot) would live up to expectations.
Let me assure you: it lives up to expectations, and then some. This is not a film you want to miss. [WARNING. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.]
Of late, DC has struggled to provide cohesive, compelling stories in their films (see the mess that was Batman vs. Superman). Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, provides a clear, concise origin story, showing why Diana stepped back from mankind for a time, and also highlighting why she would return to the fight in the future. Framed as a flashback, the film opens with a picture of Diana and some friends taken during World War I, sent from Bruce Wayne. Diana goes on to tell her story, from how she grew up on Themyscira to how she fought on the side of the Allies during WWI. The story is about growth, about learning, about how there sometimes isn’t just one bad guy to defeat.
Gal Gadot brings life to Diana’s story, playing both the stern, older version of Diana just as well as the young Amazon who is seeing Man’s World for the first time. Her charisma shines through in her performance, from calling out generals to the awe of seeing her first snowfall. There is also an unbelievable satisfaction in watching her climb out of the trenches to take on the perils of ‘No Man’s Land’, machine guns and all. Gadot is true to Diana’s character, achieving what others call impossible, and doing it with such skill and compassion that it was near impossible not to cheer for her throughout the film. Chris Pine is also a brilliant support in the role of Steve Trevor, keeping pace with Gadot’s Diana as best an “above average” man can. Their chemistry is compelling on screen and it creates a genuine thread in the quiet romance between their characters. The supporting cast–Charlie, a shellshocked sniper; Sameer, “Sammy” to his friends; and Chief, the Native American Smuggler–also brings moments of levity, as well as emotional hits that keep the narrative grounded.
Most of the narrative revolves around Diana’s desire to find and defeat Ares, the God of War, and the various misadventures that happen along the way. One of my favorite things is that the film doesn’t lose sight of that. Even with all the little things that come up, the unexpected challenges, or even the romance between Diana and Trevor, the narrative stays firmly fixed on Diana’s goal: defeat Ares, stop the War. This gets a little muddled towards the end, but also fits within the goals, as new information is revealed that changes Diana’s perspective on her mission. The story is also built such that it convinces the viewer that one character is, most likely, Ares, creating and prolonging the mass warfare that Diana and her friends are trying to stop. There is a twist, however, that was so well played one doesn’t realize it until it’s been revealed. In the effort of keeping this review as spoiler free as possible, I shall go no further, but the twist is so satisfying, once revealed, and makes perfect sense with the narrative’s arc.
Where some comic media ends up a little over-entrenched in their original source material, Wonder Woman is true to her origin story, while also being more socially aware. Originally written in 1941, the expectations and social constructs of the time shaped her relationship with Steve Trevor, and bought in some of the racial clichés that were deemed ‘acceptable’ for the times. Wonder Woman turns these expectations and depictions on their head, instead using them to address more complex issues. Diana herself faces a great deal of sexism, from the way her appearance is policed to the outright dismissal of her opinion in matters of war and strategy. Yet she adapts, speaks out, and there is no question of her qualifications on or off the battlefield. There are other moments with Chief and with Sameer, where they each reveal the battles they are individually fighting–a reoccurring theme throughout the film. Each character has their own goals and motivations, their own ‘battles’ they each face. For Chief, it is easier to be free, making profit in a war he hasn’t chosen sides on, than to live with what little his Native American people have left. When Diana asks who took everything from his people, he looks at Trevor and says, “His people,” in answer: Trevor’s people, the American working for British Intelligence–and also Chief’s friend. Sameer also has a quiet moment with Diana when, after saving a small German town, she comments on Charlie’s inability to fire his gun. “We can’t always be who we want to be. I didn’t want to be a soldier–I wanted to be an actor…but I was the wrong color.” He goes on to discuss that they each have a fight of their own, like her fight with Ares–it just takes different shapes for each person. These moments, highlighting individuals with stories and battles all their own, provides a sincere depth both to the cast and to the narrative. Diana might be set to fight a god, but she’s not the only one dealing with personal battles.
At the end of the day, Wonder Woman is a film about empowerment. It’s a film about doing something when you see something wrong, even if it’s just as small as stopping to help someone everyone else overlooked.
My complaints with Wonder Woman are few and far between. There are some weird shot moments where the visual effects are a little distracting, or the slow motion was a little overdone, but the film, overall, was beautiful. My largest complaints were with the romantic overplay towards the end of the film, and also with some of the casting decisions.
Though the romance was mostly well done, present, but not overstated, it came to the front in the last half hour of the film. As Diana learns of her parentage and does battle with Aries, Trevor and his friends fight to take down a plane loaded with Dr. Poison’s gas bombs. Trevor ultimately gives his life to prevent the bombs from being used, and this loss drives Diana to unlock her full potential. Though a twist on the, ‘woman gives life, man gains power from it’, trope, I was still mildly unsatisfied that it took her losing a lover to unleash her full strength. I, personally, wanted Diana to come into her full power as a god on her own, without the influence of Trevor or their relationship. Her sudden heartbreak is an easy motivator to unlock her power, but ultimately felt a little cheap after everything she’d accomplished under her own power. Ultimately, it’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things, but one that I had all the same.
Overall, I was very pleased with the casting as they used a wide variety of people, especially in regards to the Amazons. Many of the women featured on Themyscira are older, and many of the warriors are professional athletes and/or fighters when not on screen. I loved these choices, though I did notice a distinct lack of POC in major roles–especially that of Phillipus (Captain of the Royal Guard) and Nubia, two of Diana’s close friends, and powerful warriors in their own right. Phillipus makes appearances in Justice League and in the comics, often at Hippolyta’s side. Her absence was felt, especially given the number of shots that included Hippolyta and her retinue. Nubia also makes an appearance in the comics, and is someone who gives Diana a run for her money in combat. Even just identifying one of the fighters amidst Diana’s training mates as her by name would have been an appreciated nod, and shown more inclusion amidst the warriors. Understandably, only so many characters could be featured, but the lack of POC was disappointing.
This is, in the end, not a film to miss. The first modern superhero movie to feature a woman in a leading role (with a female director as well!) is a huge success, from shot choice to a compelling narrative. Wonder Woman is a damn good film on its own, and has set the bar high for any upcoming DC films. It’s the first time I’ve been able to go into a superhero movie, and see someone who looks like me being the hero–doing the impossible. Someone who has a body like mine, who shows compassion and rage and glows with happiness. Someone who is just like me, who can do anything. I cannot put to words the impact that this film has had, being well done and true to the Wonder Woman I grew up adoring. It’s true to it’s source material, true to Diana’s spirit, and I can’t wait to see what its success will bring.