Wonder Woman does a lot of challenging things right. Like Marvel’s The Avengers, this DC Comics film has to accommodate almost too many elements, and yet, surprisingly, holds them fairly well in balance. There are viewer expectations of every stripe from devoted readers of the comics to overly sensitive sociopolitical critics ready to pounce on any part of the film they deem disappointing or questionable. There are the challenges of place—the ”real world” of WWI and the fantasy world of Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and how to believably integrate movement between the two.
Then there is Wonder Woman herself, upon whom hangs the history of the television series, the respected history of her character, and the outsized expectations of the first modern female superhero that go with her–all the girl-power hopes on one hand and the financial hopes of the film’s producers on the other. Of course there are the issues of how she’s going to be dressed and presented; will this just be another example of female exploitation and a sell-out to the male gaze? How will she relate to men? How far back into our heads might we be required to roll our eyes?
Certainly the film has proved popular and financially successful. I’ll leave it to others to happily write away as to why, and everything its success says about our times and culture. I’m just going to focus on the film itself.
The film takes on just about the right amount of story. Yes, it’s an origin story, but it doesn’t get lost in either the history or the details of the Amazons and too much of the life of Diana (WW). The “real world” intrudes at just about the right time and is as surprising and negative to the viewer as to the Amazons. For someone not in love with characters who inhabit fantasy universes (like myself), the world of the Amazons demands a rather large suspension of disbelief, perhaps more than the usual. But the world is clearly explained and explored, and we’re on our merry way rather quickly. It was a little disconcerting to find Claire Underwood wearing her warrior armor on the outside, but (double spoiler alert) it was refreshing to see her sacrificing herself as opposed to killing someone.
Once placed in the midst of the war, the film spends a good and enjoyable amount of time exploring Diana’s wide-eyed discovery of the world outside of her island paradise. The fish-out-of-water trope doesn’t get old when it’s done well, and here it’s handled with humor, and later, with increasing seriousness that occasionally brings the film into a strong anti-war mode. The fantasy/real world tension gets stretched almost to the breaking point in the challenges Diana and others need to address to keep the Germans from winning; the combination of tragic historical events and people with the more fantastic elements of otherworld weaponry doesn’t always make for the smoothest combination. But on the other hand, it opens the door to Wonder Woman’s powers.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana is a real find. Of course she is the requisite stunning beauty, but there is strength and great intelligence behind those eyes. Without playing dumb for a second, she brings a charming naïveté to her new experiences that allows the viewer to enjoy her discoveries with her. As every superhero is these days, she is incredibly strong when she enters the fray and has a confidence more like the self-sacrificing Captain America than the egotistical cockiness of Iron Man. It’s easy to believe in her.
And that costume. I can’t imagine the discussions that must have taken place and the many considerations that were tossed around. Bottom line: It quite clearly shows a lovely young woman who is in great physical condition, but it demonstrates strength and power rather than sexiness. It’s not cheesy, and it’s not skimpy. It doesn’t even look like a compromise.
Chris Pine plays the love interest, and it is among his better performances. His character’s connection with Diana is cute, charming, tough, romantic, and at all times credible. After the film presents his bravery and warrior skills, the film flips the usual script by making him the object of Diana’s gaze, something mildly and amusingly subversive. Pine is asked to do a lot in the film, from playing action hero to romantic hero to comedy to having to spout near-cliché lines about war that he actually pulls off. He’s clearly found this character, and he acts based on having that locked down.
Of course the other real star of the film is director is director Patty Jenkins, whose previous non-TV film was 2003’s Monster, which won Charlize Theron her Oscar. Other than having a strong central heroine at the center, these films couldn’t be any more different from one another in tone, place, and subject matter. In that earlier film, darkness and edge reigned. Here, Jenkins presents a film where the characters are believable, even within the fantasy context, and the story moves forward so deftly and quickly that we accept what we see. It’s more of a feat than is often acknowledged to have characters from two different worlds or universes enter a storyline that is essentially ridiculous, and yet make the viewer accept it all. Of course there is a suspension of disbelief in any comic book tale put on screen, but creating a world on screen that contains all these characters and actions plausibly is a directorial feat.
As has been noted by others, the first half is stronger than the second, and the CGI-ridden mega-showdown at the end is played out much too long. It plays not into the film that has preceded it as much as the regrettable tradition of Marvel and DC Comics on screen that demand a monstrous display of destruction in the last half-hour. It makes the film too long, and here, and the villain is less than convincing and definitely less than frightening. It’s a serious disappointment and a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t ruin the film.
Obviously, work has already begun on the sequel. Having succeeded in so many ways on the first outing, and having conquered quite a few artistic battles here, we can only hope that the creativity demonstrated here isn’t simply repeated, but is allowed to continue with fresh approaches to the characters and action.