Wonder Woman Delivers on the Power and Courage It Promised
I don't do a lot of movie reviews here, but we need to talk about Wonder Woman, readers.
I've been nervous about this movie ever since it was announced. I wanted it to do well, because if it didn't, we wouldn't get another female-led superhero movie for at least five years.* But the news (and other movies) coming out of the DCEU just enhanced my jitters. Casting Gal Gadot, a supermodel, instead of a tried and true actor? A lukewarm Batman vs. Superman? A Suicide Squad just a bit too schizophrenic to be really good? And it flew under the radar for a long time, with the marketing campaign really only picking up in May. Let's just say DC and Warner Bros. didn't have me exactly brimming with confidence.
Then the early reviews came in: all positive. The buzz started forming. And I bought my ticket, put my butt in a comfy AMC chair and crossed my fingers.
I'm not worried any more. Wonder Woman is knockout amazing.
There's a lot of reasons why, and I'll get to each of them in turn, but I want to start with the one that hit the hardest for me: the reason I almost burst into tears mid-way through the film when Wonder Woman walked across No Man's Land to save a village.
This moment rocked me; it was the most visceral reaction I can remember having to a film. (I don't appear to be the only one, judging by the Internet's reaction). I know exactly why. This was the first time I've ever truly been able to place myself in a superhero's shoes and empathize with the character.
Fellas, let's chat for a moment, because the impact of this moment (other than its coolness factor, which it has plenty of) may be lost on you. You've grown up surrounded by movies and other media which place you at the center of the narrative. Every time you walk into a Marvel or DC film, you can immediately empathize with the hero. The whole movie is a power fantasy for you. Sure, you probably don't look as buff as that guy on screen and you don't have his special abilities, but you can imagine it. You can feel it.
Now, because you've been surrounded with this your whole life, it's not a particularly special feeling. It's awesome, sure, but you don't notice it unless you're confronted with a protagonist who you have more difficulty empathizing with (usually a woman). That feeling is so ubiquitous for you that you only notice when it's lacking.
Now try to imagine the reverse.
As a woman who loves nerd culture and always has, I've seen every Marvel film and most of the DC ones. I have learned over many many years to find ways to empathize with male heroes - because I had to, if I wanted to enjoy the film. I latch onto characteristics that I share (like the intelligence of Doctor Strange or Tony Stark's sarcasm), because I can't reliably expect the hero to look like me.
And even when the hero does look like me, she's usually not being shot with the female viewer in mind. Those few female-led superhero films that exist are made by men for men, and you know where I'm going. The hero will wear a catsuit or skimpy outfit to make her sexy (instead of something actually protective), and the camera will focus on her ass or her boobs as she beats up the bad guys. When that's the focus, and not the story or the character herself, the movie is set up for failure.
Wonder Woman is the antithesis of this, and I had no idea how much I needed it until I saw Diana Prince walk across that battlefield.
The movie focuses on her, and it focuses on the things that give her power, everything from her ideals to her physical ability to her godlike powers. The sex appeal is still there, but it takes a back seat to everything else. The shots of her fighting focus on her strength (jumping through a brick wall), her speed (blocking bullets with her vambraces), her character (literally running across a battlefield to save a village because no one else can or will). We're not focused on her boobs or her butt, we're focused on her beating up the bad guys - just like we would be with any male superhero.
But Danielle, you say, she's still wearing a skimpy outfit. To some degree, that's true. A large part of that is likely because they couldn't stray too far from her traditional outfit without angering fans. But notice the subtle changes they've made. Gone is the hotpants-esque onesie, replaced by a leather skirt and a bodice that appears to be made of metal. This is armor, ladies and gentlemen, much more than a spandex suit, and we're not focused on tightness of it.
In writing this, I have to give credit to director Patty Jenkins, because we would have gotten a very different movie from a male director. It's noticeable from the earliest scenes of the film that the camera's gaze is female. Far more than not just focusing on sex appeal, Jenkins and her team shoot the film in angles that make Diana and her fellow Amazons seem larger and stronger. They are grounded in a way that female heroes rarely are, the camera lending extra power to their actions.
I could go on, but I'm going to leave this here: Wonder Woman is the first superhero film to portray a female superhero as truly powerful on her own terms. It is the first time I've ever felt that character empathy men get to feel when they watch literally any other superhero film. For that alone, I would recommend it. But the movie has much more to offer than just that.
Let's start with the casting of this film, which is superb. Early worries aside, Gal Gadot is sublime in this role. She channels so much charisma into the part, investing it with a pathos that the movie needed if it was going to succeed. We have to be able to feel Diana's reaction to the horrors of WWI, and we have to be able to empathize as she struggles to resolve the war with her ideals. Gadot captures this beautifully in her facial expressions throughout the film, particularly after we transition to the front lines.
At the same time, she is full of light in the midst of a very grim and gritty DCEU. The movie has moments of humor, most of which rely on Gadot to carry, and she nails it. Her conversation with Steve about sex is hilariously awkward, and her indignation at London fashion will make you laugh with how true it is. Gadot simply embodies the part; I've never been happier to eat my words.
The excellent casting doesn't stop there, as Chris Pine turns in one of his best performances. He had a fine line to walk here as the supporting love interest, and Pine (who is this generation's Kirk and no stranger to being the action lead) settles comfortably into a role that helps Diana take center stage. Steve Trevor is the perfect foil for Diana, the cynic to her idealist. His reactions reinforce just how unusual and exceptional Diana is, and through him, we see firsthand the effect she has on those around her. (In fact, this whole movie is about finding the middle ground between a lofty set of ideals and the darker side of humankind, and the writers were smart to embody that in Diana and Steve.)
The immediate chemistry between Gadot and Pine also sells what would otherwise be a very fast romance, allowing that angle to impact the climax of the story in a believable way.
The rest of the cast gets vastly less screen time, but still get to shine in little moments of their own (looking at you, singing Irish sniper guy). Lucy Davis is a treat as Etta (I wish she'd had more screen time), and David Thewlis is wonderful as he always is.
Overall the script is well written and adds to the film. The dialogue isn't exceptionally clever, though it has its moments, but it's more than serviceable. The plot is solid, if not quite airtight (some odd location/timing issues and the question of how Diana knows languages that didn't exist when ancient Greece was around...?). It doesn't waste any time navel-gazing, but goes straight for the important scenes.
I've touched on the action scenes above, but I just want to say again: yes. Particularly the battle on Themyscira and the aforementioned walk across No Man's Land. Jenkins makes repeated use of slo-mo during the fight sequences. Some folks might find it a bit jarring, but I actually appreciated it. Fight sequences happen at a lightning pace, and Jenkins uses the slo-mo to highlight things that are particularly cool or athletic. Again, it's all about making Wonder Woman (and the Amazons) seem powerful. It reminded me a bit of The Matrix actually, and I love that movie.
Every movie has a flaw somewhere, and Wonder Woman falls a bit flat on the CGI of the last battle. When CGI isn't up to snuff, it interrupts your suspension of disbelief, and that occurs a few times in the last fight. The villains also have one or two comically cheesy lines that stood out. But honestly - it's not that big of a deal. The rest of this movie is so good that it more than makes up for two tiny failings.
Far from failing to meet expectations, this movie was everything I hoped it would be. It delivered on all the superhero goodness I wanted, and hopefully it has forever laid to rest the idea that a female superhero film can't be good. It can. Oh Lord, it can. Please make more.
While I'm waiting, I'll go see Wonder Woman again.
*I'm aware this isn't actually true and that Marvel is working on a Captain Marvel film. But it feels like this is always the reaction.