When reviewing Suicide Squad (2016) I suggested that despite the DCEU’s problems, there remained plenty of time to make amends. Just because Warner Bros got off to a wobbly start didn’t mean they were doomed to a lifetime of everlasting failure. It was still early days, meaning teething trouble was to be expected.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) confirms not every movie in this lineup is doomed to the same fate as Batman v Superman (2016) or Suicide Squad. To say this feature is perfect would be something of an exaggeration, however it is a pretty fantastic piece of work for a variety of reasons.
Unlike previous films within this Extended Universe, one of Wonder Woman’s joys is the fact it has a coherent story running throughout. This may sound like damning with faint praise, however that isn’t the case. Even in isolation from the larger body of films this belongs to, the screenplay works really well. It’s funny, engaging and for the large part focuses on the themes it sets out to tackle. Fine, so there’s a bit of clunky exposition near the start regarding Zeus, Ares and the Amazonians – plus the antagonists in general are poorly handled (more on that shortly) – however the overall narrative remains consistent from start to finish.
Screenwriter Allan Heinberg successfully sets up Themyscira, fleshes out Diana’s backstory, reconstructs 1918 England/Germany, establishes Diana’s goals, creates believable relationships with surrounding characters and wraps all of this up nicely before the end credits roll. There’s no bulky side plots, nothing gets shoehorned in to set up future movies and random superheroes from other movies don’t barge into the picture. There’s a few minor references at the start and end regarding the larger DC universe, but beyond that Wonder Woman gets on with telling the story audiences paid to see.
Speaking of consistency, Heinberg and Jenkins do a fine job in this regard when it comes to thematic execution too. Setting this movie during World War One helps to strengthen the film’s themes a great deal. Diana comes from a world isolated from the horrors committed by humanity. The whole point of Wonder Woman is to introduce Diana to the evils which lie outside of her homeland. Throughout her journey she’ll discover the goodness of humankind as well, yet for the most part this is about her leaving Themyscira in order to confront humanity’s horrors on a scale she never knew possible. What better period to thrust her into than an historical moment where over seventeen million individuals lost their lives?
Aside from her being exposed to the terrors of war, we also get to see Diana encounter 1918 society in general for the first time. This is one of the more entertaining characteristics of the film. Watching her interact with civilians, attempt to use revolving doors, try out different clothes, barge into spaces she’s not socially privy to, stroll around busy environments holding dangerous weaponry and challenging intoxicated blokes in rowdy bars makes for many comedic moments.
Except these scenes don’t simply play for laughs. This period of history is likely just as alien to audiences as it is to the film’s protagonist. Much of the world depicted here no longer exists. Some of the unpleasant social bigotry still hangs over, however on the whole we now live in a totally different world. Having this time period introduced to audiences alongside Diana eases viewers into this world through her eyes. She’s our identification figure; allowing us to soak in 20th Europe from her perspective.
This in turn helps us to connect with her on a more emotional level. Not only do we learn about this strange land with her, we related to the surprise and bewilderment she expresses toward their ways of life. It creates empathy just as much as understanding toward the surrounding environments.
Diana has of course travelled to this land so she can try to save those suffering from the horrors she believes have been brought about by the god of war; Ares. It’s clear from the start that her goal in life is to help every person in need. This means for the first time in the DCEU we finally have a hero who wants to actually be a hero in a classic sense of the word. Who would have thought eh…
Except the point this film goes on to make is she can’t save everyone. The world is far too big, callous and morally complex to allow salvation for all. What’s so great about this is we finally get to see a protagonist fighting for a specific goal that she’ll inevitably discover is not 100% obtainable. By the time Wonder Woman ends Diana learns something about the world she’s fallen into. All good stories teach their main characters a valuable lesson(s). Here she discovers there’s much darkness to mankind’s existence. The truth is no matter how hard she tries she’ll never be able to help everyone.
Despite the awfulness of our world there are those out there working toward diminishing misery in whatever way possible. No one can bring about peace indefinitely, yet so long as decent people do their bit – no matter how big or small – they’ve helped to make the world a little bit more tolerable. It’s this realisation which helps Diana see although she cannot save the world every time, she can still do her bit.
Not only does this teach our protagonist something, it furthermore makes her a more authentic and flawed individual than she could’ve been. For all her intelligence and strength, Diana is naive. He has an idealistic view of the world. Seeing her try with all her might and grow enraged as she discovers her abilities have limits makes her extremely human.
Which is exactly how you write a solid lead character. Don’t make them perfect. Nobody’s flawless and nobody knows everything. Audiences want to be able to relate to those driving a movie forward. Seeing as we are all naive and idealistic in our own unique ways, we want to see these characteristics represented within the heroes we love.
Actor Gal Gadot sells these motives and frustrations with little trouble; making a fine job of bringing Diana to life for the big screen. She conveys the hope and anger this protagonist feels toward her adopted home. There’s even times in which she conveys both these emotions in a single beat.
Same goes for the ways in which she reacts to her new surroundings. Gadot plays Diana walking the streets of London with a combination of bewilderment, fascination, annoyance and even authority. Few actors would be able to enter a room simultaneously pretending they own the place as well as being unsure about it. Her ability to combine multiple moods sells the emotional complexity and intelligence of Diana with no difficulty whatsoever.
Chris Pine’s take on Captain Steve Trevor is a joy from start to finish too. If anything, Pine is at his best when playing an heroic character who’s out of his depth. This is why he ended up being so great in Star Trek (2009). Watching him try to grapple with particular events makes him amusing, likable and relatable.
Pine plays the role of Trevor with the same vulnerable-yet-noble angst here as he did in Star Trek. Beneath his valiant demeanor lies a nervousness which adds character to his performance. Watching him try to stop Diana walking into trouble during those early parts of the movie make for some wonderful sequences. As for the moments in which he’s taken prisoner by the Amazonian woman, the restless unease he conveys when recounting his backstory sets him up for the rest of the movie.
Steve Trevor could’ve easily ended up being played as an arrogant fool set on stealing the limelight from Diana. Instead Pine’s outstanding performance prevents this from ever happening.
Gadot and Pine’s chemistry is where the real magic lies mind you. Her ideals and frustrated naivety alongside his vulnerable angst not only makes for some humorous moments, but furthermore allows them to establish a relationship that feels authentic and downright adorable. The evolution of their relationship comes across as more organic than many on-screen love stories. Never once does it feel as if one of them is pushing the other toward a romantic affair. When they finally get together it’s legitimate; never once seeming as if it’s happening because the narrative demanded it.
All of this means when the time comes for Steve Trevor to die, it’s one hell of a punch to the gut. Both Pine and Gadot establish a relationship throughout that’s both joyous and credible; making us want nothing more than for them to live happily ever after. His demise is truly heartbreaking. It could’ve easily fallen flat, however thanks to some fantastic directing and outstanding performances, the emotional potency hits like a ton of bricks.
There’s a couple of issues with the film of course. Like the character of Diana, Wonder Woman isn’t perfect. On top of all the annoying overuse of CGI – not to mention all those irritating slowmo shots – the antagonists are pathetic.
Mustard gas engineer Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison) and General Erich Ludendorff play the main baddies for most the film’s screen time. They are your stereotypical mustache-twirling villains. Evil for the sake of being evil. There’s no reasoning or logic behind their motives. Whenever they’re onscreen all they do is creep around the place cackling at their own schemes. This movie may be based off of a comic book series, but must we really have such two-dimensional adversaries? After all that fine work contributed toward fleshing out the protagonists, it’s a shame they did nothing interesting with the bad guys.
As for the inclusion of Sir Patrick Morgan as Ares, what was the point? Even if this is part of the comics, this character has no room in this interpretation. His inclusion completely undermines Steve Trevor’s final speech about humanity’s moral complexity being to blame for the awfulness found in our world. Part of Diana’s transcendence from naivety falls upon this discovery.
Although Ares claims he only gave mankind firepower, his presence suggests he’s the sole cause of all this chaos. So was Trevor right? Or is Ares responsible for World War One? Either way including him here pollutes the overall message of the film.
Just because Diana based her world view upon this mythical character doesn’t mean he needed to physically show up. Sure, her initial mission was to stop him, but by the end everything boiled down to her wanting to save those in need of salvation. Her accepting she can’t help everyone yet can contribute toward diminishing suffering was the real point behind this movie. Surely her stopping the mustard gas from taking out the United Kingdom was enough to achieve that in the context of this story.
There’s probably a counter-argument about how making a British General the true big bad is a clever way of subverting expectation. Films set in The First (or Second) World War often frame German’s as the face of evil. Switching that around can be perceived as a way of challenging these preconceptions. Nonetheless this doesn’t take away from any of the problems surrounding Ares’ inclusion in this script. It still feels shoehorned in and contradictory to everything which took place prior to the plot twist.
Having said that, Wonder Woman’s positives are so good it’s hard to criticise the film too much based upon these blunders. Everything else works so well it’s difficult to care too much about weak protagonists, abundant CGI and persistent slowmo.
Some out there have been claiming the film has been so well received due to diminished expectation. From their perspective the reason Wonder Woman is striking a chord with so many isn’t because it’s good, but because it’s an average flick better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.
Whereas the overall plot can be considered average, there’s an awful lot going on in here which elevates it beyond such a status. The removal of the male gaze, fantastic performances, incredible chemistry and emotional resonance found throughout transcends the film far beyond what the finished product could have ended up being.
Wonder Woman successfully incorporates a large number of elements missing from many contemporary blockbusters. It has a heart, engaging characters and far less objectification than many big budget movies. The all too common mean-spiritedness seen in franchises such as Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007-2017) isn’t present here; allowing audiences to connect with it.
So no, people aren’t praising Wonder Woman because it’s “not Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad”. They are doing so because it possesses a heart and soul.