Leave it to Patty Jenkins to remind us how to do a superhero film right with “Wonder Woman,” a film that manages to overcome most of its origin story limitations and simplistic allegory on heroism and man’s barbarism by serving it up with a different perspective and tone.
The combination of the character’s backstory and gender with the World War One period setting gives Jenkins several fresh angles to tackle in this all too often formulaically rigid genre – angles that she exploits to great effect, adopting relatively subtle approaches at times that will reward more on subsequent viewings.
The result is that for much of its near 140-minute runtime, this soars and flows with far more ease and naturalism than many of its brethren. Chemistry and pathos feel truer and more grounded, jokes flow naturally and embrace the cheese, action has not just genuine stakes but also emotional consequences that stick, and there is a commendable humanism and compassion at play.
There’s no better example than the film’s high point – the No Man’s Land sequence seen in the trailers. Diana’s rising out of the trenches and racing across the war-torn territory is a sublime moment – an action set piece with the intensity of the opening levels of “Battlefield 1” but with a clear sense of geography, enjoyable stylistic flourish, and all executed with real weight both character-wise and thematically. Action scenes often find her fighting from a position of defensiveness, never going on the attack until she’s left with no choice which makes for a welcome change of pace.
When filmmakers say they’re bringing ‘heart’ to a story it often implies a forced measure of pathos, something wedged in to try and add weight to the hero’s battle. That’s not the case here, Diana’s empathy is her central quality throughout. The film isn’t preachy so much as a bit heavy-handed with its simple message that conflict and war are the true enemies along with anyone wielding force under the delusion of moral absolutism. Jenkins sells what could easily be dismissed as cliche through Diana’s relentless dedication to that belief in the face of increasing horror.
‘Wonder’ also truly understands the ‘superhero as a god’ iconography far better than most of this genre, helped by its blending with Greek mythology in a more respectful and faithful form than many other films based directly on Greek myths in recent times have (looking at you “Clash of the Titans” & “Immortals”).
Having stolen the show in ‘Dawn of Justice,’ Gal Gadot proves even better here – getting to play a healthy mix of empathy, righteousness, stubbornness, bravery and self-determination. There’s plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy and skewering of female character tropes, and in action she offers a wonderful athleticism, one of poise and grace that sings despite the overuse of CG assists.
The surprise here is Chris Pine, who drops the brash cockiness of Captain Kirk to offer a much more sympathetic and likeable roguish routine. Yes, there is the inevitable romantic element that comes into play, but it’s handled with the right touch of humor and resolves in a grown-up, mature and touching way. Plus it helps that the pair have an excellent screen chemistry, and the sexual politics are underplayed and handled with a welcome playfulness.
Never afraid to play second fiddle, Pine is welcome support along with several of his cohorts – most notably Lucy Davis as the comic relief character Etta Candy, and Said Taghmaoui as Steve’s friend and cohort. The film gives these broad but not kitschy characters time to shine, really enjoying its small character moments from Taghmaoui’s sudden sharp delivery of a moment of powerful social commentary to the way everyone handles Diana’s amusing and understandable frustration with British societal mores and government ineffectuality.
The film can’t escape all the cliches though. The CG work is over-relied upon, culminating in an all too drawn-out third act battle with a mostly CG villain bent on conquest – a shame considering in the immediate lead up to this, the film effectively resolves Diana’s arc in a very unexpected and mature way before sadly falling back into simplified familiar fisticuffs with evil personified.
The villains themselves, of which there’s more than you might think, are also mostly forgettable bar Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison who ticks the mad scientist cliches but gets a few welcome moments to show off the scarred and hurt soul within – something that can’t be said for Danny Huston’s one-note baddie.
The Themyscira scenes are lovely if a little dry. These are the scenes that require the most groundwork laying, and the various actresses from Robin Wright to Connie Nielsen try to engage with the material as much as they can. It yields some lovely images, excellent action and interesting points of view. Still, and though far better than the final fight, these scenes are missing that energy and life that powers the movie once it gets to Europe.
While the character’s music riff is excellent, it’s overplayed one too many times and Rupert Gregson-Williams’s overall score is unmemorable. There’s also use of slo-mo at points which just feels unnecessary, and the overall film does run slightly too long for its own good.
Getting back to what works, there’ll be understandable snickering over the framing device which involves superhero e-mail, but aside from the brief prologue & coda, the film is blessedly self-contained and leaves the door open for more potential stories of Diana navigating the 20th century. Matthew Jensen’s cinematography is often gorgeous and reminds you how good these films can look when someone really tries. Costume and production design are also top notch.
“Wonder Woman” doesn’t transcend or reinvent the genre, the film’s backbone remains wrapped around the worst tropes of superheroism, and there are some notable lulls in the overall narrative energy. However when it’s working, which it does for the easy majority of its runtime, it succeeds in a way so many others fail because it gets the details right.
There are real stakes and sacrifice, genuine heart and humor, and a real life to this welcomely direct and uncluttered tale of one unwavering ageless princess finding herself in mankind’s darkest hour.