The so-called DC Extended Universe films have been so badly reviewed that I haven’t any of them since the mediocre Man of Steel. What I’ve seen from the promotional campaign for upcoming Justice League film doesn’t fill me with much confidence either. I wasn’t going to watch this one as well but the excellent word-of-mouth and reviews changed my mind. I have to say that there’s also some meaning in supporting the first solo female superhero movie in a good long while.
Diana grows up on the island of Themyscira, isolated with the other Amazons from the rest of the world. She is taught that her people were created by Zeus to protect humanity from Ares who had slain the other gods but her mother Hippolyta seems intent on keeping them apart and is reluctant to even allow Diana to train to be a warrior. One day American pilot Steve Trevor pierces through the veil surrounding the island, pursued by German soldiers. The Amazons learn that World War I rages across the rest of the world and Diana is convinced that the devastation and savagery must be due to the influenced of Ares. Against the wishes of her mother, she accompanies Trevor to London where he assembles a team to destroy powerful chemical weapons devised by the German General Ludendorff and his scientist Doctor Poison. Diana also hunts Ares with the intent of killing him with the so-called Godkiller sword.
Comics fans will immediately recognize how this deviates from the usual origin story in several important ways. For one thing, this film establishes that pretty much all of the Olympian gods are dead making it clear that Warner Brothers has no interest in using their equivalent of Asgard as a setting. A more intriguing decision is to set the story during the First World War instead of the more traditional Second World War. This was unexpected but turns out to be a good one as the Second World War is probably overused and the scene of Wonder Woman striding out across No Man’s Land is easily the single best one of the film. I also liked how the Godkiller Sword is a bit of a misdirection on the part of the filmmakers and that the film ends up emphasizing the character’s more traditional weapons after all.
Still, there are plenty of flaws in it as well. The character of Ares has some potential but this film squanders most of it and ends with a laughably bad climactic fight to boot. In fact I was very surprised by the poor quality of a lot of the CGI here as if this were a low budget production. The fight choreography is decent especially in the Themyscira scenes but most of the scenes in which Diana exerts her superpowers look silly and unrealistic. I loved the theme of Diana being mistaken about how defeating Ares is sufficient to redeem humanity but it simply isn’t developed very well. The poor worldbuilding contributes to this as well. The film sorely needs a scene in which Diana speaks with Hippolyta after knowing the truth of her origins. Ironically I thought that the Marvel version of Ares would have been a better fit here. Imagine an Ares who deploys the full arsenal of human weapons against Diana: rocket launchers, cannons, grenades, multiple machine-guns, etc. It would have been more thematically appropriate but the technology level required would be incongruous with the early 20th century setting.
Despite being initially skeptical of this film’s credentials as a pillar of feminism, I ended up being convinced. I’m sure this wouldn’t have been possible without a female director like Patty Jenkins. Gal Gadot looks fantastic in this role and the early doubters have definitively been proven wrong. She’s confident, heroic and most of all inspiring. Even when she’s portrayed as being ignorant of how life in a modern city works, she never stops being intelligent, aware and well-educated. People have compared this version of Wonder Woman to the old Richard Donner Superman films and they’re absolutely right to do so. She manages to imbue meaning and gravitas to what should be a ridiculous superhero costume and while she is always beautiful she is never treated as a sex symbol. There is in fact not a single male gaze shot in this film, which I’m certain a director like Zach Synder would have been unable to resist. In fact, I loved how Jenkins seems to deliberately poke fun at the traditional male gaze camera by turning it on Chris Pine as Steve Trevor.
Way back in the day, Marvel differentiated itself from DC by telling human-scale stories, emphasizing the fact that these characters were ordinary people who just happened to have superpowers. On the other hand, DC’s most iconic characters were gods, both figuratively and literally, beings to be looked up to and far beyond the ken of mortals. Appropriately enough the MCU has achieved great success by playing to their traditional strengths by humanizing their heroes but DCEU has continuously stumbled as it has tried to find its place. Wonder Woman however is proof that DC has finally found its footing. It’s still a film that suffers from serious flaws, especially technical ones, but it’s a welcome harbinger of a promising direction the DCEU could take if only Warner Brothers would be willing to let go of Snyder’s edginess.