When I review a movie, I prefer to go in cold. But the early praise for “Wonder Woman” was inescapable. Most people really seem to like it. I wish I shared that response. While I’m tired of being Disagreeable-Joe (which, if I were a superhero, would be my alias), I think it’s just good enough.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is an Amazonian princess. Raised (to her mother’s chagrin) as a warrior, she lives on a magical island hidden from the rest of the world by Zeus’s powers. One day an airplane crashes through the island’s barriers. She saves the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), from drowning, but soon the island is attacked by pursuing soldiers; World War I has been raging outside. Diana becomes convinced that Ares, the god of war, is behind the unending conflict. With Steve in tow, the duo embarks on an adventure to bring the Great War to an end.
Whoever hired Gal Gadot to portray Diana (aka Wonder Woman, though I don’t think those words are uttered once in the film) deserves a promotion. The whole movie rests on her and she really pulls it off. With the sheltered nature of her character, there was a danger of infantilizing her, but between the writing and Gadot’s performance Diana ends up wise, charming, and innocent, yes, but not child-like. The fact that she’s quick to smile and show warmth stands in stark contrast to the stoic heroes we’ve seen in the earlier DC Universe films (“Man of Steel,” “Batman vs. Superman,” etc.), and the movie is better for it.
Chris Pine is no slouch either. A complaint I often have in female-led action movies (beyond why don’t they make more of them?) is that they tend to lower the male co-lead to a hapless dork as if the filmmakers don’t trust that a woman could stand out and apart if the male co-lead is also strong. That’s nonsense, of course. You don’t have to denigrate one to venerate the other. Director Patty Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg understand this, and while Pine is the second banana, as it should be, he manages to be more than just set decoration. He has a personality and a strong character arc that melds into a perfect dramatic moment in the film’s concluding moments.
There’s actual thought put into the characters and a clear, honest-to-goodness theme that runs through the film (the nature of humanity, yadda yadda). True, it doesn’t rise above simple platitudes with Diana at one point concluding that, “Only love can save the world,” for example. It’s scriptwriting 101 stuff, for sure, but even that’s often missing from spectacle filmmaking, so I’m glad it’s here.
I did notice that much of the praise thrown at the movie was for how it rose above the gloom and doom of the previous DC movies; that it’s generally more fun than dark. That’s just not true, though. Yes, there is more humor, and it is welcome, but the movie is plenty dark, nonetheless. But it is more understandable this time because of the World War I setting. You can’t really make things too light in the midst of a horrifying war.
If the movie screws up, it’s that it tries to add a fantastic element to the WWI setting and then doesn’t commit to it. “Captain America: The First Avenger” did something like that, marrying sci-fi/fantasy with a World War II backdrop, but with one crucial difference: it stuck with that combo, making it integral to the plot. Here, you have disturbing imagery connected to WWI (trench and chemical warfare), but then you also have a villain (Danny Huston) who snorts superpower-snuff-stuff that gives him superpowers, or something. Not only is the visual incongruous with the tone and setting, it also has little to no bearing on the plot. It’s almost as if the filmmakers felt the movie wasn’t “comic book” enough and just kind of wedged it in there.
(WARNING: SPOILERS COMMENCE) Like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” before it, “Wonder Woman” also has a villain problem, the same one, actually. Both hide the main antagonist for far too long, and I don’t see the benefit of this. Here we’re stuck with Ludendorff, the aforementioned power-sniffer, until the final reveal, and he makes little impact beyond annoying the audience. But Jenkins keeps playing it up as if we’re supposed to be afraid of him when we’re clearly just waiting for the real villain to finally show up.
And when he does, I, sadly, flashed back to a movie I didn’t want to remember, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Both have character actors who, during the final confrontations, are turned into armor-clad CGI. “Wonder Woman” at least keeps that final battle visually clear and doesn’t descend into the nauseating, herky-jerky cinematography that plagued “King Arthur,” but it’s, sadly, no more exciting. (SPOILERS CEASE)
In general, though, the action is well done…up to a point. Some of the imagery is quite stunning like when Diana crosses no man’s land to take out a machine gun nest and then a village overrun by enemy soldiers. Tons of slow-motion and heroic posing ensue, and I was so impressed that I began planning my review while watching the movie. I was going to start with, “Man, Patty Jenkins brings the thunder!” But then the action kept going and kept getting weaker as an unconvincing computer-generated Diana bounced like a rubber ball around the screen.
“Wonder Woman” is the best of the DC superhero films that we’ve gotten so far, but with the garbage that has preceded it, that’s not exactly high praise, and there’s still a ton of room for improvement. Still, I’m just glad we finally have a superhero film with a female lead (and directed by a woman, no less), and one that doesn’t suck. But when it comes to big budget films like this, I ask myself one question: Do I want to watch it again? And, honestly, I’m fine seeing “Wonder Woman” only once.