To call Wonder Woman the best DCEU film is to damn it with faint praise. It’s certainly a true statement, but limiting it to those terms does a disservice not only to how the film stands on its own, but how it represents a notable achievement (and hopefully turning point) for the representation of women in superhero cinema.
But even on its own merits, the film succeeds when it breaks away from the conventions cemented by its Bat- and Super-brethren, and stumbles when it gets caught in the same muck that has hobbled the movies of Wonder Woman’s D.C. Comics stablemates. The end result is the DC Extended Universe’s first legitimately good film, but one still weighed down by the cinematic baggage of its predecessors.
It’s notable then, that the film’s closest silver screen analogues are some combination of Captain America: The First Avenger and the first Thor movie. Wonder Woman follows the former’s sense of throwback adventure, inserting a super-powered individual into a world war to fight its supernatural threats with a ragtag team of allies. But it also captures the latter’s sense of a god come to Earth, with the same sort of mantle relinquishment, fish out of water-style comedy, and romance between deity and man that drove Kenneth Branagh’s lone foray into the superhero genre.
To that end, Wonder Woman is at its best when it leans into the elements that have helped fuel the success of the Marvel movies — humor and human connections. The middle section of the film is the most enjoyable part, largely because it’s where Wonder Woman’s commitment to comic relief and character moments is the strongest. It finds Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s “world of man” pseudonym) coming to World War I-era London and puzzling over the hypocrisies and odd conventions of this strange new land.
It’s here that star Gal Gadot does her finest work in the film, playing the fish out of water with a combination of bemusement, confusion, and disbelief that makes Diana’s transition from a mythic paradise to scrubby London more than just one big scene change. Chris Pine (playing Diana’s love interest and British spy Steve Trevor) shows off the fast-talking, self-aggrandizing-yet-deprecating charms that made him a nice fit as the heir to William Shatner in Star Trek. And the film has a ringer in Lucy Davis (of The Office fame) who adds her comic chops to that broth, with assists from Trevor’s motley crew of old buddies. This devotion to humor livens the film and makes it easier to warm to its central figures amid the larger, globe-threatening plots.
But Wonder Woman also creates a convincing romance between Diana and Steve. The nature of the plot means the blossoming of that romance is inevitably a bit rushed, and the closing portion of the film bogs down in trite ruminations on the power of love. But the heart of the film is founded on the relationship between those two characters, and between their chemistry and some deft writing, it absolutely works.
That starts with Pine, who plays a convincing love interest with just enough guile and guts for a warrior like Diana to appreciate but also full of enough wit and smart remarks to prove a worthy foil to her. Still, it ends with Gadot, who convincingly portrays the determined gladiator gradually warming to her erstwhile tour guide to the world of man, and the pain of those harrowing moments when he’s in danger. That alone makes them the two most compelling characters in the DCEU so far, and the ones with the best-defined inner lives.
That’s an important ingredient in the film, because Wonder Woman tends to falter when the two are apart. The opening act of the film largely centers on Diana’s Greek myth-inspired homeland, Themyscira. It’s there that the film barrels through a fairly tedious origin story, mired in the usual clichés of “I want to fight!”/”No, you’re not ready,” done in the usual stilted, high fantasy dialect. Visually, the scenes set on this isle of myth are impressive, with the beauty of verdant growth on weathered stone, the force and grace of the Amazons’ fluid fighting style, and a brief backstory-delivering art shift. But beyond doing the paint-by-numbers work of establishing Diana’s will to war and providing the legally required exposition and cryptic hints, the film only truly ticks up once Wonder Woman makes it off the island.
But similar issues affect the film in the third act, particularly in its action scenes. When sending Diana into combat, Wonder Woman defaults to the DCEU house style. That means antiseptic, undifferentiated action, filled with breakneck cuts and a lack of choreographic continuity. The film can’t escape the visual influences of the cinematic universe’s founding director Zack Snyder in these sequences, and while Snyder’s 300 is not a bad reference point for mayhem centered around a Grecian warrior, the pre-viz backgrounds and “stop, start, and slow down” tack of the fight scenes tend to dull rather than excite. That’s particularly true in the last portion of the film, where Wonder Woman meets its mandated quota of CGI-drenched fisticuffs, leaving every skirmish feeling like it was plucked out of a video game.
It also belies the theme of Wonder Woman, and Diana’s arc in the film — that war is not a glorious or simple thing, but rather a complex source of grief, one that proves to be neither an easy source of laurels nor simple to end or comprehend.
Caution: The remainder of this review contains major spoilers for Wonder Woman.
To that end, the cleverest part of the film is its third-act turn, when Diana kills General Ludendorff, the German commander she believes to be Ares, the god of war, in disguise. Ares is a vengeful deity in Wonder Woman, who supposedly cursed mankind with a propensity for violence and conflict. But after killing Ludendorff, Diana is shocked to discover that the fighting continues unabated, rather than ending in concert with his demise, like she expected.
It’s then that the real Ares emerges, in the form of Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis, best known as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter franchise), one of the members of England’s Imperial War Cabinet. Morgan had spoken in favor of an armistice earlier, but now reveals that it was only to prolong the broader conflict between nations.
It’s here that Wonder Woman displays the complexity under its hood. Diana’s journey — from believing that war (and by extension, evil) are personified forces that can be slain and thus defeated in black and white terms, to her understanding that Ares had been pulling strings on both sides of this conflict and that the causes of such devastation are more complicated — is a sound one. Ares’s initial taunts and temptations prove the most convincing vehicle for the film’s ideas, and the twist provides an worthwhile epiphany for Diana, cementing a genuine coming of age story that helps grow the character.
The problem comes when the inevitable clash of titans arises and Ares words go from sounding like the honey-dripped promises and reassurances of the devil on your shoulder, to the generic boasts and declarations of your bog-standard movie villain. Almost immediately after Wonder Woman unveils the complexity of its themes, it proceeds to dumb them down to the usual good vs. evil aphorisms to make way for a super-powered throwdown.
That same issue extends to the film’s meditations on the nature of humanity. At times, Wonder Woman uses a light touch. There are hints in the brief stories of prejudice and oppression from Trevor’s friends Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), that the evil that lies in the hearts of men goes far beyond any god of war. Ares’s own villain monologue evinces the interesting notion that he merely stokes fires already burning in the individuals on both sides of the war, rather than introducing some new element that wasn’t already there into an otherwise pure people.
But again, these promising thoughts devolve into standard bad guy clichés and the usual voiceover claptrap about love being able to conquer hate. In that, Wonder Woman follows the lead of its DCEU predecessors like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, which graze legitimately profound ideas but can never quite nail them down, and lose them entirely in the perfunctory climactic maelstrom.
Still, by any measure, Wonder Woman is a big step forward, both for D.C.’s efforts to establish a worthy foothold in the cinematic universe era of comic book movies, and for the cause of greater balance in the superhero genre on the silver screen. The movie is far from perfect, suffering from many of the same problems that dulled the impact of its fellow DCEU flicks. But in its humor, its heart, and the individual at the center of its story, Wonder Woman breaks away from those limits and flaws and charts exciting new territory, both for this series of films and for comic book films as a whole.