I think it would be safe to say that I am not a fan of the DC Extended Universe. So far we’ve had three films in this series, trying desperately to throw together a slap-dash cinematic universe, and they’ve been three of the worst superhero movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve written about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad already here on the site, so I don’t need to get any deeper into it, but rest assured that they have been films that I’ve held in very low regard. They’ve been films that are ostensibly about some of the most famous and recognizable superheroes of all time, while harboring some fascinatingly strange views on said characters. The primary theme of these films seems to have been that heroism is an outdated and dangerous concept, and that it brings nothing but suffering. Which isn’t exactly what I’ve wanted from movies about Superman or Batman. And each time a new film from the DCEU has comes out there’s been a glimmer of hope that maybe this would be the one to right the ship. And each time that hope was dashed as the films proved to be just as bad or worse than the one that came before. But there was one film on the horizon that was giving people plenty of hope. They were going to make a Wonder Woman film. The first female-led superhero film of the modern era, and the first time that one of the most famous superheroes of all time would grace the screen in her own adventure. Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman, while incredibly brief, was one of the highlights of the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and that combined with the sheer historical significance of the film made people hopeful that this may be the film to finally work for the DCEU. Which is certainly a lot of pressure to put on a film. But, I’m delighted to say, this film succeeds in almost every way that the DCEU has heretofore failed, and is one of the most enjoyable superhero experiences I’ve had yet.
Wonder Woman opens up with a slight frame-story where Princess Diana receives a film plate from Bruce Wayne, the proof that she’s been alive for decades longer than one would imagine. This causes Diana to remember her story, and her first foray into the world of man. We learn that she grew up on a hidden island known as Themyscira. She’s a member of the Amazon’s, a group of powerful female warriors that the Greek gods tasked with defeating Ares, the god of war. Diana was the only child on Themyscira, being told her whole life that she was born from a wish of her mother, the Queen Hippolyta. Diana lives her quite life on Themyscira, learning about the task of the Amazon’s to defeat Ares and end war forever, when the unthinkable happens. An American spy named Steve Trevor crash lands in the waters outside Themyscira. Diana saves him, and brings him back to the island, the first man to step on the shores in hundreds of years. And Steve doesn’t bring good news. World War I is in full swing outside the hidden bubble of the island, and he’s been tasked with bringing the Allies information about a German general named Ludendorff and his chemist Dr. Isabel Maru, who are preparing a chemical weapon unlike anything seen before. A majority of the Amazons want to just ignore the outside world and the war of mankind, but Diana is convinced that this war is the work of Ares, and that it’s her duty to defeat him and save the world. So Diana steals several artifacts of the Amazons, including a powerful shield, the Lasso of Truth, and a sword she believes can kill a god, and runs off with Steve Trevor. The two sail back to London, getting to know each other along the way, and become very close.
Diana and Steve meet with a British politician named Sir Patrick Morgan who agrees with Trevor that Ludendorff poses a threat, and he agrees to let Trevor and a small band assault the Germans. Steve and Diana meet up with three of Steve’s friends, the charming conman Sameer, the alcoholic sniper Charlie, and the stoic tracker Chief, and they make their way into German occupied Belgium, where Ludendorff was last seen. At first Diana remains obsessed with her quest to defeat Ares, but as the group travels Eastward she begins to see the horrors of war, and decides that they need to do something. So, in a truly amazing scene, Diana almost single-handedly fights off a German battalion and saves a small town, letting the worn-torn citizens return home. And with that victory behind them the group head off to a meeting of German leaders where Ludendorff is expected to demonstrate his new weapon. Trevor attempts to seduce Maru to get her secrets, but Diana arrives at the gala and ruins everything, getting Ludendorff suspicious enough to fire the new chemical weapon at the town that she’d just saved, killing everyone inside. This is the last straw for Diana, who tracks Ludendorff and Maru down to a nearby chemical plant where they’re manufacturing the weapon. She then does battle with Ludendorff, convinced that he is Ares in disguise, and manages to kill him. However, this doesn’t save the day, much to her bafflement. Trevor then explains that people may just be evil, and goes off with the crew to stop the Germans from launching their attack. And while Diana is left to ponder what’s going on she finds something surprising. Sir Patrick is waiting for her, and he reveals himself as Ares. And, even worse, he explains that he isn’t responsible for humanities wars, he pushes them along certainly, but humanity is just a warlike people, and they’ll always be that way, with or without him. He attempts to convince Diana that she should join with him and wipe humanity off the planet, letting the gods reclaim the world, but when she sees Steve Trevor sacrifice himself to destroy Maru’s poison, she snaps. She does battle with Ares, and in the end manages to defeat him, proving herself to be a half-god. She then returns to London to see the world celebrate the end of the Great War, and then devotes her life to being a humanitarian and historian, hoping to teach the world the dangers of the past so that they will never repeat them.
I adored this movie. Which honestly wasn’t what I was expecting. I’ve said it before, but while I’m certainly a bigger fan of Marvel comics in general, I would still love to live in a world where we got good Marvel movies and good DC movies. I’m not rooting against the DCEU, despite the antipathy I’ve held for the films so far, but it’s been hard to remain optimistic about future additions. And yet, this movie managed to succeed in spite of the rest of the franchise and create one of the most enjoyable superhero stories I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s a beautifully shot film, and despite some shockingly weak CGI effects in places director Patty Jenkins handles the huge budget and blockbuster spectacle wonderfully. It’s a thrilling and exciting film, full of fun and followable action that’s bolstered by some truly terrific performances. Gal Gadot is obviously the stand out performance of the film, bringing life to Diana of Themyscira in a way that was instantly delightful. She’s filled with a sense of wonder and optimism that can’t be beat, and she manages to nail the emotional beats, the action, and the goofy fish-out-of-water comedy beats. And the supporting cast is delightful as well. Chris Pine is kind of still doing his James Kirk performance, but it works well for Steve Trevor, the charming spy who is constantly being amazed by everything Diana is capable of. The crew of Sameer, Charlie, and Chief are all also a lot of fun, while it maybe would have been even more beneficial to give them more character development. Really the only place that the film really struggled with was the villains. Ludendorff and Maru really turn out to be red herrings in this film, and their performances are incredibly hammy, and reminiscent of cackling serial villains, which may have been the point. And then there’s Ares. There’s just really not a lot going on there. David Thewlis is a great actor, but Ares is just such a boring character, just a blur of CGI yelling about how he wants to destroy humanity. I was really hoping that the twist of this film was that there really wasn’t a villain, and that Ares wasn’t alive anymore, and that humanity is just a warlike people. That last sentiment did come true, but giving Wonder Woman a big bad to fight just didn’t fit with the tone the rest of the movie was crafting.
And yet, despite any minor quibbles I have about the film, it’s still immensely enjoyable. And I think, for me, it boils down to one major aspect of the film. The heroism. Yeah, the chemistry is terrific, the action is great, and the film succeeds on most technical fronts, but the real draw that hooked me was how optimistic and heroic the film was. I know I talk about this too often here on the site, but I’ve been of the belief for quite some time that heroes should work to protect the innocent, while vigilantes work to punish the guilty. And the DCEU has not had a lot of patience for protecting innocents. Those are films about angry people inflicting vengeance on people, and focusing on defeating villains instead of helping innocent civilians. But not this film. Diana enters the world of man wanting to kill Ares. That’s her whole goal. But when she sees what war has done to people, and sees that they need someone to help defend them, she changes. She realizes that she has power, and the responsibility to use it to help people. Diana becomes a true hero. And not to get accolades, not to be recognized, she does it because it’s the right thing, and because she can help. There’s a line early on in the film that really intrigued me. When a young Diana is asking her Aunt to help her train to fight so that she can become a hero she is told that “fighting does not make you a hero.” And that’s the lesson that Diana continues to learn through the course of the film. She’s convinced that her great duty in life is to drive a magic sword through Ares and punish him for his crimes. But by the film she’s lost her sword, learned that the greatest thing she can do is save people, and devotes her life to making the world a better place as Diana Prince, not a warrior. And that’s exactly what I was hoping to see from this film. Wonder Woman is a true hero in this film, and finally gives the DCEU some heroics, optimism, and strength. This wasn’t a film about a bunch of petulant men yelling at each other and killing each other. This was a film about a powerful woman learning that it’s better to help someone than kill them. The only thing that made me disappointing about this film was the knowledge that we’ll next see Wonder Woman in Justice League, which will probably ignore her and make Diana silent and angry all the time. Which is such a shame, because this film is a real triumph, a delightful film that shows the viability of Wonder Woman as a character, and female heroes as a concept, and I fear that it won’t get the respect it deserves by the rest of the franchise. I don’t think that this film signifies the righting of the ship, and I still fear the quality of the rest of the DCEU, but this film worked, and I would love to see more Wonder Woman films in a heartbeat. Because we need this kind of heroism in the world.
Wonder Woman was written by Allan Heinberg, directed by Patty Jenkins, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk