It seems folly to discuss Wonder Woman outside of the greater context of the DC Extended Universe, but Patty Jenkins’s film begs to be discussed in isolation – it’s simply in another stratosphere. So, that’s it; that’s all the comparison to the DCEU that will be contained in this review. The rest of the time will be spent heralding Wonder Woman as a superhero film that knows precisely how to tell a refreshing origin story, establish stakes and pathos in a fantastic world, and champion a powerful theme of heroism, strength, and love. With a stunning performance from Gal Gadot, a brilliant fish-out-of-water skeleton, and action sequences that contain spectacle and depth, Wonder Woman is potent storytelling.
The story of Wonder Woman begins in the present, but unfolds as the memory of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman during World War I. Raised on an island of amazons, Diana is told that they are the protectors of men, and must use the Godkiller sword to destroy Ares when he returns and brings endless war. When Chris Pine’s character crash-lands near their island and brings tales of the Great War, Diana believes it is her duty to find and destroy Ares.
Wonder Woman isn’t perfection, but the portrayal of the main character by Gal Gadot flirts with it. Early on in the film, she has an innocence and an untapped strength guided by her sense of justice and desire to protect men from the evils of Ares. She has combat prowess, confidence, and a palpable intelligence about her, dramatized by her understanding of many languages and historical texts. As she gains more exposure to the outside world, her idealism is challenged by the pragmatic minds of the men in charge of fighting the war, though Diana routinely stands up to them without hesitation. Gadot captures the character evolving along her arc, a performance full of reservation and subtlety. In a film full of attractive qualities, Gadot’s performance is the grandest triumph.
Though Wonder Woman must tread the familiar steps of the superhero story, it manages to inject some novelty into Diana’s origin. Chiefly, this is thanks to the decision to frame Diana’s story as a fish-out-of-water tale. Of course, this has been done with superhero films before, but never with the particular tone that Patty Jenkins has struck. Diana is new to this world, but has some proper context and is guided by her overall philosophy. Hence, she can marvel at ice cream and reel in horror over mustard gas, while simultaneously expressing her unique heroic qualities and not defaulting to a bumbling child. It allows for the perfect balance of fun and serious, while also making room for a few biting critiques of modern society (though a few of them are a little too blunt). In this context, Diana’s heroism is even more powerful. Because she is an outsider, her decision to offer protection and champion the downtrodden resounds in every decision.
The action in Wonder Woman has a well-traveled style about it, but adopts some specifics to depict the fighting style of the amazons. We’re treated to the general aesthetic in the first ten minutes of the film: very fluid, jumpy, and frantic. There’s a slight tendency towards the the kind of Fast/SlowMo that we’ve seen for years now, and sometimes it is too distracting. I’d prefer the emphasis to come from interesting in-camera action, not something manufactured by literally slowing time around our characters for artistic effect. Still, the action itself is often quite entertaining for the most part.
Far more importantly, the action has meaning behind it. Early on that meaning is mostly literal and narrative, showing Diana’s growing combat skills. But later, Jenkins and Gadot make sure to infuse key action set pieces with powerful thematic material, made all the more effective by their remarkable patience and restraint with the usual Wonder Woman iconography.
All of these elements come together near the end of the second act, when character, action, story, and theme meld together into one of the strongest depictions of superheroism on the big screen. Walking through the trenches of the front, Diana is haunted by the tragedies she sees all around her. A woman begs for her help, but her compatriots immediately balk. It isn’t their job to save everyone, they have a “more important” mission. But for Diana, nothing could be more important than protecting the innocent from the ravages of war. Wonder Woman reveals her iconic regalia, leaps from the trench, and charges the German position. It is superheroic perfection.
The third act of the film never quite reaches the same heights, as it devolves into a by-the-numbers CGI climax. We get to see the expected rompfest with Ares, whose identity is as predictable as a Scooby Doo episode. There’s also blunter expressions of the same themes expressed earlier in the film. Overall, there’s not a lot to be added to the film by the climactic action sequence, and there’s an argument that it is the least effective of them all.
Still, the essence of Wonder Woman is beautifully expressed in Patty Jenkins’s film. Diana’s idealistic heroism bleeds through Gal Gadot’s performance. Her fish-out-of-water story makes her personable, giving the character a realistic arc despite her fantastical origins. The action sequences launch crucial characterization and thematic moments, and contain some truly empowering moments. I am excited to experience the further adventures of Wonder Woman; this is a character, a hero, that feels worthy of celebration.