Wonder Woman (2017)Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Daniel Huston, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Wonder Woman is a special film. It’s not the only superhero film being released this year. It’s not the only action film directed by a woman. But it is the only successful big-budget superhero action film based on a popular comic book that both stars and was directed by a woman. As a fan of comic book superheroes and a woman, that set the expectation bar pretty high for me. But Wonder Woman delivered.
There have been some complaints by reviewers that too many comic book films are origin stories, telling the audience how the character gained his powers and chose to become a superhero. Wonder Woman is an origin film, too, but in this case it was the right thing to do. The first portion of the film explains not how Wonder Woman gained her powers or what those powers are, but the culture and family that made her who she is. Princess Diana of Themyscira was raised to be a warrior, even though her mother Queen Hippolyta didn’t want her to be one. Her entire culture is one of warriors. Diana was also raised to have a fairly black-and-white view of right and wrong, and to believe that it is her duty to protect others. This all comes into play when she meets the first man she has ever seen in the flesh, American spy Steve Trevor, and decides that she must go to the world beyond Themyscira to stop the First World War.
I was really pleased that the filmmakers chose to set this in WWI. It was a turning point in warfare, the first time that airplanes, tanks, and long-range artillery were really used in an international war. War had become impersonal. Earlier wars had artillery, but soldiers often still fought hand-to-hand. WWI changed all that, in addition to adding chemical weapons to the horrors of warfare. Wonder Woman touches on that by making one of its villains ‘Doctor Poison’, a scientist engaged in creating gas weapons for Germany.
Interestingly, this scientist is a woman, which wouldn’t actually have been that strange in the real world, although in real life her contributions would likely have been credited to her male partners. Despite the horrible things Doctor Poison does throughout the film, the story treats her with surprising compassion and empathy instead of making her a cardboard heartless villain.
As Diana gets to Europe she deals with culture shock, especially rampant sexism, but the film doesn’t spend too much time focusing on that. The point of the film is for Diana to become Wonder Woman, protector of the Earth, and for her to recognize the full extent of her powers. It’s also important for her to recognize that even though people do bad things, that does not always make them bad people. She learns to broaden her world view and to maintain her great compassion and desire for justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
The choice of a relatively unknown actress in the role of Diana is a good one. It sets aside any viewer expectations of that actor, and allows the audience to get to know the character without being burdened by thinking of other parts the actor may have played. It’s also satisfying to me personally that they chose someone who isn’t American, who has a more ‘Mediterranean’ look. I’m sure there are some fans who are annoyed that she didn’t wear blue contact lenses to make her look more like the iconic comic book character, but I personally have always thought it odd that someone from a Mediterranean island would have blue eyes; I’m sure it’s not impossible for people of Mediterranean ancestry to be blue-eyed, but it’s probably uncommon. The production team also didn’t require the actor to become as muscular as a competitive bodybuilder, something that often happens in male-dominated action films and has become an irritating cliché in recent years. Wonder Woman has the power of the ancient Greek gods; she doesn’t need overdeveloped muscles to be powerful. It was also nice to hear a voice that didn’t speak in flat, generic American accent. Wonder Woman may have been created in American comics, but she’s a global hero.
The film also achieves what many reviewers have blamed its predecessors Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice for failing to do: bring humor to the DC Comics cinematic universe. I disagree with the oft-expressed opinion that the other two films are awful; I enjoyed them. But they do have a grimness that I would be glad to see less of in future DC films. Despite being set during a very grim period in world history, Wonder Woman isn’t dark. There are moments of laughter and tenderness, and during the introductory scenes set on Themyscira everything is very bright and sunny and optimistic. It’s important to the character of Wonder Woman that while she faces darkness, she doesn’t lose that optimism and compassion she learned in her homeland.
Wonder Woman includes some incredibly exciting and beautifully imagined action scenes. In fact, I’ll admit that some of them literally brought tears to my eyes with their beauty. A battle scene that takes place on Themyscira wonderfully demonstrates what incredible warriors the Amazons are. And probably the best action scene in the film comes when Wonder Woman decides to take the battle to the enemy after she travels to Europe. It’s a brief scene, but an overhead shot of her using her shield to deflect machine gun fire in No Man’s Land is just awe-inspiring to me.
If I have to find anything to complain about in this movie, it’s the implied budding romance between Diana and Steve Trevor. I don’t want romance in my action movies most of the time, unless it really propels the story, and I think that having them become friends could have been enough to do that. I’m glad that the romantic element didn’t go any further, and that Diana didn’t end up marrying Steve. But I wish that the filmmakers had looked at the fact the Amazons are all women and accepted that women in a situation like that would not be looking for male romantic companionship. I suppose I can accept that Diana might be curious about having a relationship with a man as a new experience. But that plot element points out that our filmmaking industry still has far to go in accepting other kinds of romantic and sexual relationships beyond heterosexual, and other kinds of male-female relationships beyond romance.
Despite that one minor quibble, I give Wonder Woman five stars out of five. I made an effort to go back to a theater to see it a second time, and I have no doubt that in future years it will fall into that category of movies that I will watch whenever they are on television, along with Captain America and Iron Man, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Fifth Element. In my book, residing in that company is high praise indeed.