Release: Friday, June 2, 2017
Written by: Allan Heinberg
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Not even the comfort of Marvel Studios’ most luxurious pampering package can compare to the thrill of experiencing the struggling DC “extended universe” dropping an instant classic. Wonder Woman may be an event film but it’s also one of the most exciting new releases of the year and quite possibly the most compelling and emotionally resonant superhero film we’ve been delivered since The Dark Knight.
In the fifteen installments that the MCU has cranked out over the better part of a decade, not once has a standalone superheroine story made its way into the fold. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable names on the planet and yet the Black Widow project page on IMDb remains at the time of this writing a blank canvas. Perhaps it would be a stretch to give a full-length treatment to the likes of Scarlet Witch, but then no one expected Ant-Man to work. Besides, that time has come and gone anyway. And remaking Elektra is such an afterthought it seems not to exist.
Patty Jenkins, notable for directing a radically transformed Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster — a film about a prostitute turned serial killer — becomes the first woman to be handed the reigns of a studio-produced superhero film, only the second ever to handle a budget of $100 million. In the process she’s become something of a savior for DC, delivering an immensely entertaining package that succeeds in its aspirations to become something more than spectacle. The real beauty of Wonder Woman is that Jenkins has as much of an interest in female empowerment as she does in providing an earnest exploration of our fallibilities as human beings, regardless of gender.
Wonder Woman is a surprisingly moving and heady origins story that tells of a beautiful and fiercely powerful Amazon warrior named Diana and of her loss of innocence. The Israeli beauty Gal Gadot fulfills the iconic role made famous in 1975 by Lynda Carter, sculpting not out of clay but rather an obvious and deep belief in the character’s sense of morality a performance that stands tall amongst the genre’s finest. Her saga is constructed in a flashback, triggered when Diana, working in the present day as a curator for the Louvre’s Department of Antiquities, receives a photographic plate from Wayne Enterprises which causes her to reflect upon her past.
The trip down memory lane takes us all the way back to the secluded isle of Themyscira, a paradise deliberately obscured from our world and home to the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors created by the gods of Mount Olympus and sworn to protect humanity against the wrath of Ares, god of war. The opening sequence pulls us into a heaven on earth resembling an ancient Greco-Roman utopia, one populated entirely by women. It is here where we first meet a young and wide-eyed Diana (Lilly Aspel) who is hungry to start her training to become among the elite fighters of her tribe. But her mother, the intensely protective Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), won’t allow her daughter to throw herself headlong into a world which she can’t possibly understand, much less control.
Naturally, Diana begins training in secret with her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) — widely regarded as the fiercest amongst all the Amazons. Refreshingly, the consequences of Diana’s disobedience don’t render her a prisoner in her own bedroom or with a silly slap on the wrist. They’re far more devastating. As a mother trying to do what’s best for her child Nielsen’s understated performance slowly slips into a pained resignation to what’s inevitable, eschewing the histrionics typically associated with parents reading their children the riot act. She’s well aware that experience is the best teacher; that perhaps the only way to learn that idealism is not a weapon is through trial by fire.
Diana’s journey of self-discovery takes us down the gauntlet of human cruelty and suffering as the environment flips from the ethereal to the brutally real. After American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on the beach of Themyscira, bringing with him a fleet of pursuing German soldiers, Diana learns of a Great War engulfing the planet and that man’s suffering has reached a crescendo. Her altruism won’t allow her to sit idly by while innocent lives are lost, and so she decides to accompany the first and only male she has ever met to the “hideous” shores of England.
Along the way, Diana’s fish-out-of-water presence on the streets of London inspires a litany of keen yet broadly comical observations about human relationships, social norms and gender dynamics. Whereas the umpteenth male-centric origins story might flounder in its down moments, Wonder Woman is buoyed by an unusual perspective that keeps even its more pedestrian scenes interesting. Try, for example, taking an Amazon princess clothes shopping on Oxford Street. Or taking her out for ice cream. Or explaining to her why human beings are compelled to partner up. Meanwhile Gadot plays off her character’s immunity to such trivialities with deft precision. She emotes intensely when the scene calls for it, but what defines her performance more is a haunting sense of detachment and a loneliness that suggests immortality might be overrated.
The larger dramatic rhythms of Wonder Woman remain beholden to the Marvel blueprint, particularly with the gradual build-up of each battle sequence, but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store along the way. As per tradition, the central hero becomes surrounded with others who become personally invested in the good fight. The film commits to giving these fringe players both purpose and personality. There are bad guys as pawns, cluttering the path to legitimate evil that must be stopped at all costs. While the legitimate evil is still not something we can fear entirely naturally — believe it or not it’s harder to identify with the ideology of a raging god than, say, that of a German chemist — those pawns offer up some of the film’s most barbaric acts. Danny Huston’s insane General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Dr. Maru (a.k.a. Doctor Poison) slightly overcook their parts, but they’re more compelling than the average, disposable baddie DC has offered so far.
The specifics of how it all plays out is where a review must end and the movie must take over, but suffice it to say the embattled heroine at the center of it all is more than enough to make up for any narrative shortcomings or predictability. Gal Gadot puts her best foot forward, rendering a performance that should go down in the history books as bold, brave, righteous. Wonder Woman is an epic tale fueled by female strength on both sides of the camera, two tidal forces both complementing and inspiring one another. It is, in short, a marvel to experience.
Recommendation: Sensational action sequences (the rising from the trenches in No Man’s Land is, quite frankly, a scene that no movie this year is going to be able to match) combine with heartfelt and inspired performances from the leading cast, with Chris Pine giving great support to his on-screen, equally “average-looking” co-star. Wonder Woman is not simply a DC film done right, it’s a superhero film executed to near perfection. Easily one of the best and most surprising movies of 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy, eat your freaking heart out!
Running Time: 141 mins.
Quoted: “You have been my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow. Be careful, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
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