Overview: Diana, warrior and Princess of the Amazons, leaves her homeland when an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crashes on Themyscira and tells her of a great war. In her quest to bring peace to the world, she discovers the scope of her powers and the truth behind who she really is. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 141 minutes.
Wonder: It was the first scene in Themyscira in which we see Amazon warriors Antiope (the ever-perfect Robin Wright) and Philippus (Ann Ogbomo) in battle training that I realized something was off. The hype surrounding Wonder Woman, skepticism over its director, Patty Jenkins, and criticisms of its leading lady, Gal Gadot, had been growing in volume and absurdity for some time ahead of the film’s release. Wonder Woman, after 76 years, was finally getting her own film with a female director, and we all collectively crossed our fingers and held our breath. But it’s in that first training scene, where that something “off” became apparent: we were watching fierce warriors train for battle, and these weren’t just strong Amazonian women but strong middle aged women and women of color. And while these may seem like insignificant casting selections to some, they are noteworthy because of their rarity. Seldom do we see films represent women as physically powerful and even less frequently do we see women of all ages and races portrayed as such. And not only are the women of Wonder Woman well-represented, but it’s immediately apparent that even in a superhero movie with great action choreography and minimal wardrobe that women in this superhero movie may be sexy but not sexualized. Wonder Woman doesn’t just deliver a popular icon for young girls; it’s representative of all women, both in intrinsic qualities and external characteristics.
We’re promised an origin story, and the first act in Themyscira provides a grounding portrait of a young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) who is as independent and rebellious as she is smart and kind. She is surrounded by women who nurture, protect, but also challenge her. As she grows up, Diana (Gadot) struggles to obey her mother Queen Hippolyta’s (Connie Nielsen) wishes that she not train alongside the Amazons, but when she relinquishes, Diana starts to uncover some of her inexplicable capabilities. But when Captain Steve Trevor (the delightfully charming Chris Pine) inadvertently brings war to the Amazonians’ isolated utopia, Diana first rescues him from the ocean, again from the German military, and then, with his story of a worldwide war, ponders saving humanity. (It’s worth mentioning that act one’s first major battle scene between the Amazons and Germans is arguably the most beautifully shot and well-executed of the film.) With Diana’s ultimate decision to leave her homeland to stop the war that she believes is being controlled by Ares, they journey back to London, each with different but similarly noble missions.
Depth: Uniquely enough, the film allows us dual fish out of the water stories, first with his crash landing onto Paradise Island and the second with her entrance into dreary London. The comedic sequences work well in both, not only as genuinely funny, laugh aloud moments but also as foundational elements for each character’s development and the progression of their shared love story. Despite witnessing some of the Amazons’ and Diana’s inexplicable capabilities, Steve remains quietly skeptical for much of the film. And in London, Diana’s naiveté extends beyond the customs and technology of a foreign land but to the deeper emotional components—what compels these people is of greater mystery than why they would choose to wear such binding clothing. But even in her endearing, naïve moments, she never wavers from wickedly smart. The scene where she storms the military council rivals her most epic battles. In allowing both characters stretches of vulnerability and opportunities to learn from one another, in many ways, they are each other’s equal. That notion of equality, that very premise of feminism, is woven throughout the film.
Perhaps what most distinguishes Wonder Woman from other blockbusters is the emotional depth our superhero and her love interest are allowed. Diana and Steve’s quiet scenes are never rushed or unnecessary. Jenkins’ decision to carve out to time to forge their relationship through small conversations, humorous misunderstandings, loud disagreements, and even dancing in the street never feels contrived. Gadot and Pine’s chemistry is magnetic and wholly believable. Their love story, though occupying a small portion of the overall screen time, rivals some of the best modern romances.
And while Gadot and Pine could not be better suited for their roles, the rest of the cast works to varying degrees. The supporting cast of misfit characters allows for some much needed continued comic relief but also serves as examples of a few players of war. The Scottish marksman, Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is our drunken, shell shocked sidekick—the embodiment of the devastation that lives inside a person who experiences war. Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is keenly aware that while Wonder Woman and crew may be fighting the war to end all wars, the ramifications of previous wars linger. And Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) rounds out our odd crew as our everyman, the average civilian turned soldier. Though we never dive too deeply into the lives of the supporting crew, their presence, as is, is functional and provides enough balance to Diana and Steve’s narratives. But if there is any deserved Wonder Woman criticism, it is undoubtedly its villains. General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is based on a real-life German general but is somehow flatter and less interesting than any fictional character in the movie. In turn, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) shares similar cartoony, evil lair leanings to Ludendorff. In a film so keen on effective character development, the villains are surprisingly flat, appearing as more of an afterthought. Though no villain is as effective as he/she could be, in some ways, it’s helpful to deflect some of the violence and heaviness of the chosen war, which was a deviation from the comics.
Time: The first indications of time—the airplane, ships, and German uniforms (and arguably the photograph if you were paying attention at the beginning)—are a bit jarring. Wonder Woman should be fighting alongside the Allies in World War II, right? The decision to instead spend the majority of the movie in a hundred year old flashback set during World War I was risky. The Great War, in particular, is not simple to depict and certainly not something that lends itself to the humor or lightheartedness superhero films need to call upon. But somehow, it’s the most fitting choice. The technologies deployed in WWI were unlike anything the world had ever seen, with unprecedented mass casualties—an entire generation lost. Depicting a villain knowingly concocting deadly chemical gas to wipe out not only the enemy but civilians too is no light undertaking. And while most films ultimately glorify war, sidestepping the innocent casualties in favor of revering our heroes, Wonder Woman doesn’t lose sight of our superhero’s mission or the realities of war in the human world. War, in no uncertain terms, is decided by well-dressed men in faraway meeting rooms, and innocent civilians will be casualties of those decisions. The film asserts this notion again and again, and while seeing women and children in trenches is jarring and witnessing men gassed to death on screen is alarming, Wonder Woman doesn’t gray the message or spare any of the brutalities that a PG-13 rating will allow. It asserts itself as the anti-war superhero movie not only with Wonder Woman’s certainty that love conquers war but in its depiction of its grim realities.
Overall: Gadot perfectly captures Wonder Woman’s hopeful optimism, curiosity, and compassion, navigating the emotional complexity of the character with ease and humor. While the final battle scene deviates from what the film built in the previous two acts, the last exchange between Diana and Steve is nothing short of magic. The world may not deserve Wonder Woman, but man, are we lucky to have it.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures