Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman ★★★★

Movies are alchemy. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it many more times before I’m gone, but it’s the truth of the cinema: a magical, hard to harness process can turn a strip of film into something far more precious and meaningful.

Watch WONDER WOMAN with distant, unengaged eyes and you might see the seams, the places where reshoots came in or where the story is papered over in order to keep moving along to the next scene, where actors are standing in front of green screen or their faces have been plastered on a stunt double. But that’s the lead, and in the hands of Patty Jenkins it’s all turned into gold. What’s her secret? I believe it’s a combination of sincerity, conviction and, most of all, love.

Unlike Zack Snyder, who birthed the DCEU into which WONDER WOMAN explodes as the best (and maybe only truly GOOD) entry, Patty Jenkins isn’t looking to deconstruct her heroine, nor is she looking at Wonder Woman’s heroism as something weird that needs to be explained. Jenkins embraces the goodness of Wonder Woman - and tests it, as a good drama should - without irony or a need to ‘modernize’ it. She just simply loves it. And we end up loving it as well.

I was one of the doubters when Gal Gadot was first cast as Wonder Woman for BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. She didn’t have enough experience, I thought, and she came across to my chauvinist eyes as kind of scrawny for a superhero. Where, I kvetched at the time, was the gravitas of a princess of Themyscira? I have to say, BvS didn’t do much to convince me I was wrong; Gadot is one of the highlights of that film, but at the time I thought she was a relative highlight, only as compared to the jar of peach tea in which she found herself.

I spent most of the running time of WONDER WOMAN eating my words. Gadot isn’t just a movie star, she’s a fine actress, bringing a level of complexity to a character who, in the wrong hands, would have been boring, bland and one note. Gadot is able to navigate complicated waters between being naive and sweet and being tough and deadly, and she does it with ease - sometimes in the exact same goddamned shot. She’s magnetic in a way that makes you lean in and bask in her presence, and it’s good that you’re leaning in because there’s a lot of subtlety that she’s bringing to the role of a demigod.

What Gadot does with Diana of Themyscira is miraculous; I worried that the tone of the DCEU would demand a hardened warrior Wonder Woman (which exists in the comics - at one point she murdered Maxwell Lord, for instance) but Gadot plays her as a wide-eyed idealist, a woman who will not allow practical considerations to get in the way of her innate drive to heroism. If MAN OF STEEL sketched out a Superman who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into heroism, WONDER WOMAN presents a hero who is born to it, who burns with it.

Gadot plays her arc gently, going from a hero who can’t help but be a hero to a hero who truly understands what it means to lead and inspire, and how to be inspired in turn. And that’s not just coming from her - it’s baked into the script, the first script in the DCEU that fundamentally understands how heroism works. The scene where Diana charges across No Man’s Land, having made up her mind to save a French village on the other side, is one of the finest examples of cinematic superheroism ever, and like the great train scene in SPIDER-MAN 2, it highlights the way the superhero inspires the regular heroes among us. It was one of many scenes of hope, light and decency in WONDER WOMAN that brought tears to my eyes.

Opposite Gadot is Chris Pine, a supporting actor cursed with leading man looks. WONDER WOMAN, like INTO THE WOODS, goes a long way to proving that theory - he’s incredible as Steve Trevor, a spy who accidentally brings WWI to the shores of Amazonian paradise Themyscira, and it’s because he has the space to NOT lead the whole film. He gets to be a charming rogue, and to play a few other interesting shades, without the burden of leadership, and he’s better for it.

One of the things I quite liked about Steve Trevor is that he enters the film a hero. A very easy, and very schlocky, arc for Steve would have been to begin the movie as craven and selfish and, through the inspiration of Diana, become a good man. Instead screenwriter Allan Heinberg (who had much uncredited help including, according to my sources, Geoff Johns himself) opts to have all of that story happen before the movie takes place, and Trevor is a good man who has already tried being a bad one. Pine plays it well - hints of regret and weariness dance at the edges of his performance - and in the end his Trevor is a guy who inspires Diana as much as she inspires him. It’s a truly egalitarian relationship in that way, and it’s thrilling.

Patty Jenkins works beautifully with her cast, getting great and fun (if occasionally irritatingly anachronistic) performances from them. Her action scenes are remarkable as well; heavily Snyderian in influence, Jenkins’ action scenes use speed ramping not as a way of underlining brutality or kewlness but rather of highlighting grace and beauty in action. Zack Snyder speed ramps for the fist pump; Jenkins does it to elicit ‘aaahs’ from the audience.

One of the best examples of this is in the early beach battle, as Germans storm Themyscira (here, by the way, is a good example of how the quality of everything else helps move us past problems - the Germans have a steam ship that shells the beach at one point, but nobody ever deals with it! What happened to that ship?). Jenkins allows the film to drop to slomo to highlight the balletic grace of the Amazons as they take on the clumsy and bewildered men; in one of 2017’s highlights Robin Wright’s Antiope leaps off a shield proferred by one of her Amazonian sisters, soars through the air and unleashes a triad of arrows into the chests of some of the Kaiser’s best men. It’s a rousing moment, and the slomo heightens it, never cheapening it.

The action in WONDER WOMAN is consistently excellent, and it all parallels Diana’s journey. Watch closely as she battles earlier in the film, and see that she is beating on guys and cutting their guns in half and knocking them out; she leaves the killing for her ragtag Howling Commandos. But as the story goes on, and as rage and doubt builds within her we see Diana start simply slicing soldiers to ribbons; Jenkins never calls attention to it (as a warrior Diana doesn’t have a big crisis of conscience about killing when it is needed, and that’s correct for THIS character) but she uses it as a way of telling a story about this character. It’s subtle and smart and I love it.

If WONDER WOMAN falls into bog standard superheroics at the end, I can forgive it. There are a couple of problems with the end of the movie - including the casting of Ares, which is a) bad and b) obvious from a hundred miles away - but a clumsy third act in no way derails what came before. And what came before was an accumulation of beautiful moments - the scenes on Themyscira, Diana trying ice cream, No Man’s Land, the first snowfall, Ewan Bremer’s tiny little arc (“Who will sing?”) - that built the film into something truly special.

And, if we’re being honest, something Marvel-esque. From the humor and the emphasis on hope to the weak villainy, WONDER WOMAN feels more like a Marvel movie than what we have so far seen from the DCEU. More than that, it feels like a mash-up of THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGERS (WONDER WOMAN even has another Steve hijacking a plane full of weapons of mass destruction at the end - a little on the nose, guys), but that’s not a complaint. I think that the Marvel style is the RIGHT style for most of the iconic superheroes, not just the Marvel characters. We want to watch heroes who want to be heroes, we want to enjoy them more than the villains (the main weakness of all the Batman iterations, imo, is that the villains are consistently more interesting than the hero), and we want to feel hope and happiness along the way. We want to see our heroes tested, but we want to see them succeed, and to succeed rousingly. We don’t want their heroism questioned and deconstructed, we want it celebrated. No, we’re not going to a superhero movie for a treatise on the miseries of the real world and how it beats you down, we’re going for a bright shining moment of inspiration on how to live in that world.

That lays at the heart of one of the more brilliant choices in WONDER WOMAN: the time period. There is no war worse than WWI, an unbelievable slog where millions died for very little reason and where humanity’s murderous ingenuity far outstripped its decency. WWI represents a major turning point in human history, and not just because of the scale of the conflict. For the first time, as we see in WONDER WOMAN, the forces of science were truly aligned with the forces of destruction, setting the scene for the next hundred years, where the military-industrial complex has been the main motivator and funder of scientific advancement. Fuck, man, Velcro got invented for war. So did Silly Putty.

It was the most human of the human historical moments - our incredible intelligence and problem-solving skills, all brought to bear for the purpose of mass killing in a war whose exact stakes were unclear (WWI is so much murkier than WWII, which makes WWII a not very good setting for this kind of story. After all, Diana’s villain is war itself, and it’s hard to argue that both sides were equally bad in WWII. It takes very serious ethical gymnastics to get there). That allows the setting itself to fundamentally speak to the movie’s themes, about the journey that Diana goes on where she comes to understand the duality of man. Staring into the face of the mechanization of killing, looking at the true horrors of indiscriminate slaughter, Diana comes to one conclusion: she can only love humans, as weak and fucked up and wrong as they often are. It’s a rousing and moving end to her arc; she goes from naive hope to a clear eyed hope, never hardening, and in fact becoming softer in ways that make her stronger.

Over the years I’ve been accused of hating the DCEU, of coming at these movies from a place of bias. Those accusations are partially right: my bias is that I love these characters and want to seem them translated to the screen with the proper respect not only for their aesthetic and their most famous storylines but for their thematic meanings. WONDER WOMAN is the first DCEU film to do this, to present a cinematic version of these DC characters that feels like it understands why these characters have persisted for 75 to 80 years so far. The film is sincere in its appreciation for Diana and her ethics and her ideals, and it never wants to undercut them. In MAN OF STEEL Zack Snyder spent the whole movie trying to - and finally succeeding in - breaking Superman’s ethics and, in effect, proving why Superman doesn’t work today. That, to me, was the easy route. Patty Jenkins has taken the harder route, placing Wonder Woman in a time of true pointless horror and still finding a way to be hopeful and idealistic through it all. That takes strength, that takes courage, and that, it seems, takes a woman.