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Review: "Wonder Woman" is every bit the cinematic landmark we have asked it to be
Wonder Woman is an outstanding superhero movie, and in a better world, that would be the only sentiment that matters in discussing what a remarkable film it truly is.
Unfortunately, that better world is not the one in which we live, and Wonder Woman arrives in theatres accompanied by a multitude of external expectations and baggage. It is not only the first mega-budget female-driven superhero movie – produced nearly two decades after the genre began entrenching itself as a modern cineplex mainstay – but the largest Hollywood production ever helmed by a woman; assuming it performs well at the box office, it will almost certainly be the highest-grossing feature ever directed by a woman as well. It comes on the heels of the two worst films the superhero genre has ever birthed – the interminable Batman v Superman and the offensively incoherent Suicide Squad – and enters American pop culture at a moment when the worst impulses of humanity, sexism chief among them, are an open and daily horror burning at the heart of our politics and society (fires the film’s aforementioned DC predecessors fanned incessantly). Most superhero blockbusters, no matter how good, are ultimately disposable entertainment, and may live or die as such with little additional pressure; Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a film our culture needs, its mere production a landmark many decades in the making, its quality critical in opening doors that have too long been shut, in starting conversations that have too long stayed silent.
That Wonder Woman is genuinely exquisite has, on most levels, nothing to do with all these external pressures. It is intelligently written, beautifully acted, and passionately directed, made with a sense of purpose and perspective that far outpaces most entries in its genre. Yet the fact that it is all these things, at this specific moment in time and with the burdens of so many cinematic firsts riding atop its shoulders, only makes the film’s many admirable qualities shine brighter. Like its fundamentally optimistic hero, Wonder Woman emerges into a world beset with problems and strives to rise above them, to inspire and uplift by being the best version of itself it can be; like the secondary characters who witness her heroics, I too am moved by the power and insight with which this film carries itself, am enraptured by the many possibilities suggested by its extraordinary existence.
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What I find most impressive about the film is the pervasive sense of purpose and vision with which director Patty Jenkins and her collaborators tackle the material. This is the rare superhero blockbuster that knows exactly what story it wants to tell and which themes it wishes to impart with its iconic title character, and which executes on those fundamental ideas with clarity and style from beginning to end. It understands that the best superhero origin stories – Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man – are about proactive characters who identify a problem in the world and strive to rectify it using their unique gift. This should not, perhaps, be a hard fundamental to identify, save for the fact that that the genre has drifted so far away from these ideas in recent years. Films like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel or Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man make their worlds small and insular, telling reactive stories where the ‘hero’ has no choice but to save the world, usually because the life-threatening problem is one of their own circumstance or making.
As realized by Jenkins, writer Allan Heinberg, and star Gal Gadot, Diana of Themyscira is anything but reactive. Her arc is a series of proactive choices, not of mere destiny or reductive plot machinations. She chooses to train with the Amazonian warriors around her as a young girl; she chooses to rescue Allied soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when his plane crashes on her island; she chooses to have him take her to the front lines when she hears of the Great War raging outside Themyscira; and she chooses to use her gifts to save human lives when the ordinary boundaries of warfare make situations seem hopeless to all in the vicinity. Diana is a hero because she chooses to be, because she wants to be, and compared especially to other entries in the DC film canon, those decisions make all the difference in the world. It is the difference between a character who holds themselves with an unwanted burden of purpose and one who carries that mantle willingly, no matter how difficult the situation may seem. It is the reason why Christopher Reeve’s Superman charmed and inspired audiences when he appeared many years ago, and why Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman will likely have a similar effect on viewers of all ages today.
Gadot, it should be said, gives nothing short of a star-making performance in this film. Her work is deeply confident and considered in every frame she appears, taking what is a very smart character arc on the page and imbuing the material with endless pathos and humanity. The key creative choice in the entire film is to treat Diana’s journey not just as an ‘origin story,’ but as a coming of age tale. Diana starts the film as a child in more ways than one, and even once Gadot appears as the adult version of the character, she views the world with an innocence, optimism, and enthusiasm that is simply infectious. Gadot’s face and body language are expressive in ways that recall the great silent film stars, and Jenkins clearly enjoys lingering on her expressions at in-between moments; with a smile or a laugh or a look of barely contained excitement, Gadot’s face can tell us more than any monologue ever could about the exhilaration she feels at contemplating the larger world of possibilities laid out before her.
Wonder Woman, then, is a story of maturation, of Diana’s naivety towards the outside world being confronted by the harsh realities of human conflict and suffering. That’s a tricky story to tell, let alone to tell well, and where the easy route with this material might be to defer towards cynicism (as every prior DC ‘Extended Universe’ film has so far done), Jenkins and company go for something more honest and complex. The film isn’t a story about Diana losing the faith she feels as a young woman, but about that faith evolving to encompass both the good and the bad she experiences exploring the human world. Diana assumes the Great War she encounters must be the product of Ares, the God of War engrained in her mythology, and that humans alone could not be responsible for such widespread atrocities. That she must learn the world is more complex than this leads the film down darker and more difficult paths than most summer tentpoles dare tread, and at its best, the material is genuinely affecting, the film treating its first World War setting with far more sensitivity and thoughtfulness than I necessarily expected.
That setting and other assorted plot points make comparisons to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger unavoidable, and while the films are ultimately quite different, I cannot help but find considering the two in tandem instructive. I love that first Captain America film deeply, but because of the simpler, ‘purer’ place WWII holds in our collective mythology as ‘the good war,’ that film is allowed to move with a lightness of foot that Wonder Woman cannot afford. WWI is messier, darker, a war we regard as far more senseless because the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are so much harder to ascertain. That forces Wonder Woman to dive deeper at every level, to paint its characters with narrower brushes and move at a more leisurely pace. The supporting characters of Captain America are fun, simple archetypes, effective sidekicks but hardly memorable as individuals. The small team of military misfits Diana joins forces with, on the other hand, are more complex figures; they suffer from PTSD and are visibly worn down by the pressures of war. Jenkins lingers with them longer, making them the human faces of complicated, multifaceted ‘goodness’ in which Diana must come to believe.
Nowhere is this quality of the film more apparent than in male lead Steve Trevor, played beautifully by a fully engaged Chris Pine. He is a character realized with far more thoughtfulness and thematic consideration that most female romantic leads have ever been afforded in a male-driven superhero movie, and as Diana’s window onto humanity, he is a fascinating character in his own right. Trevor isn’t perfect; at times his masculinity seems fragile, unsure of how to respond around a woman so confident and alien to him, his impulse to think he knows better than Diana emerging more often than he might care to admit. But the film does not damn him for this – such traits are acknowledged as part of a more complicated character mosaic, in which his more fundamental instincts towards courage and self-sacrifice are in line with Diana’s. As in the best screen romances, the two are attracted because they complement one another; in each other’s presence, each is constantly challenged to be the best version of themselves. Their scenes are authentic and touching, and over the course of the film, as those challenges grow greater and greater, their relationship takes both characters to places more emotionally and thematically complex than this genre typically broaches.
That Jenkins feels little pressure to pace her film like a typical summer tentpole is what makes so much of the film’s greatness possible. Expensive special effects aside, Wonder Woman moves more like a studio drama from the 40s or 50s, its pace slow and steady, filled with long character beats that are allowed to breathe to their fullest, such as a scene where Diana and Steve negotiate the space between each other as they sail away from Themyscira, or a long sequence depicting a quiet evening spent basking in the glow of a hard-earned victory on the front lines. Jenkins handles the film’s action with aplomb, and her camera has a knack for stunning moments of visual iconography – the first image of Diana in the full Wonder Woman costume is an absolute on-your-feet knockout of a moment, one of the best such scenes in any superhero film to date – but it’s in those quieter, simpler, slower scenes that the beating heart of the film can be found. Jenkins has made a real movie, not just a product in a larger corporate machine, and that’s what ultimately makes Wonder Woman a cut above most films in its class.
It is not a perfect film (though few of course are), and I find myself still working through some creative choices made in the third act. I find the climax and resolution largely effective – some moments positively soar – but the film also expands to a greater scale in the home stretch than it had previously operated in, and while I don’t think the movie ever loses sight of its thematic north star, some of the imagery in the climax conjures memories of the worst excesses of DC’s past cinematic missteps. I might not find some of the imagery problematic were Wonder Woman the first film in this enterprise, but given how strongly Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad all fetishize power and destruction, it is slightly disappointing to see Wonder Woman dip into the same bag of tricks, even as it does so with far more purpose and far better execution than those other films ever achieved. That Wonder Woman finds so many lovely and powerful grace notes in the midst of its third act mayhem is undoubtedly impressive, and helps to separate the film from the pack; yet I cannot help but wish those grace notes constituted a larger percentage of what wonders the climax has to offer.
No matter. Wonder Woman is on the whole a triumph, plain and simple, an outstanding achievement in pop filmmaking that understands and executes upon the fundamental needs and underpinnings of its genre with far more success than the majority of its male-driven counterparts. In a better world, the film should not have to be the landmark it will inevitably become – but while watching, one senses that Jenkins, like Wonder Woman herself, doesn’t really care what she or her work ‘must’ be. She has simply done great, thoughtful, intelligent work on the largest canvas possible. The rest will speak for itself, and I suspect the impact this film will have on a generation of viewers and filmmakers will be something wondrous indeed.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.
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