Well, that wasn’t so difficult – was it?
After a series of critical misfires, it seems Warner Bros. have finally figured out what was missing from their movie-making formula: fun.
Apart from her brief but winning appearance in Batman V Superman, this marks the long-overdue cinematic debut of perhaps the most iconic female superhero (who’s not somebody’s cousin that is). Wonder Woman, the film that bears her name, is a classic wartime adventure movie with an enlivening blend of Greek mythology and gender politics.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is a supernaturally-gifted Amazonian Princess, living and training with her “sisters” – including her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and fierce aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) – on the paradisiacal Mediterranean island of Themyscira. When an American soldier, Steve Rogers – sorry, make that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – crash-lands just offshore with a German vessel close on his tail. Once the interlopers have been dispatched by way of spear, arrow, and lots of slow-mo leaping, the Amazons learn of the state of the world. The First World War rages on with no signs of abating. When Steve calls it “the war to end all wars”, Diana senses the influence of their arch-nemesis, Ares, God of War and, armed with a “god-killer” sword, her bullet-deflecting bracelets, and the Lasso of Truth, sets out to destroy him once and for all.
Director Patty Jenkins has a definite feel for the material – the need to balance lightness with sincerity; entertainment with definite stakes. More than anything, Wonder Woman is a triumph of tone: sincerely heroic without being over-earnest, funny without being goofy; the humour more than token; the emotion earned genuinely.
Gadot’s Diana is the closest we’ve had to a straightforward hero in years. Idealistic and pure of heart, guileless and forthright, she’ll stride into battle without hesitation and grin while kicking a Nazi through a window1 In the film’s most memorable scene, she leads the charge into No Man’s Land; taking cover behind her shield and planting her feet under the onslaught of a mounted machine-gun. It would could almost be offensive were it not handled with such reverence. No wonder the starchy-collared generals and politicians don’t know what to make of her. After all, how are you supposed to high-kick in crinoline?
Pine, meanwhile, brings an understatedly offbeat quality to Trevor; a man who’s unsure what to make of the beautiful, poly-lingual warrior in whose company he finds himself, but is perfectly willing to take her lead. Charming and progressive, he’s an ally without being a doormat.
The villains are suitably wicked – Danny Huston’s diabolically bullish General Ludendorff; the spidery, porcelain-cheeked Doctor Poison (Elena Anya); chuckling between themselves as they gas a chamber full of their former comrades with chemical weapons. The supporting cast – the suave, slick Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Ewan Bremner’s gurning Scots sharpshooter, and sad-eyed, opportunistic trader Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – are a slight but entertaining bunch. All get their moment while venturing into enemy territory for the sake of all mankind.
Matthew Jensen’s bright, pale cinematography brings a gloss and a gleam to proceedings that makes for a pleasant respite from the hyper-textualized mugginess of recent DC instalments. While the scores for those films also tended towards the overbearing – or, in the case of Suicide Squad, the soundtrack equivalent of an unimaginative iPod selection put on shuffle – Rupert Gregson-Williams’ is sweeping; while also finding a place for that one great “Immigrant Song”-style sting.
Wonder Woman isn’t a perfect film: the third act collapses into an escalating one-one smack-down, though at least one without the increasingly tedious portal-in-the-sky device. Writer Allen Heinberg, who worked on the pilot of CW’s unproduced Wonder Woman series Amazon, has a clear love for the character, her integrity and occasional shortsightedness. If love does, ultimately, conquer all, then it’s a platitude that seems somewhat refreshing in the context of so much dourness and cynicism that’s come before. If ‘S’ really does stand for hope then it’s Wonder Woman who makes the best claim to the logo.
If not quite a wondrous cinematic achievement, it’s certainly a superhuman effort. Warner Bros. owes Patty Jenkins a debt of gratitude for hauling the DCEU into the light. Time will tell if Justice League can continue the levitating act.