Taken on its own numerous merits, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an entertaining, heartfelt, artfully made summer blockbuster. However, it’s hard to divorce it from the mediocre DC Extended Universe (a phrase that I hate typing as much as I hate writing about any and all “shared universes”). It’s a part of the same world that gave us Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (where leading actress Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman first appeared), and Suicide Squad, and as such it needs to regretfully be judged as a part of a series. On it’s own, it’s a fine film. As part of a series, Wonder Woman towers over every other offering without a hint of contestation. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s as close to perfect as this otherwise suspect franchise had previously been, and it hopefully marks a key turning point that could save an entire billion dollar industry for DC.
An Amazon born from the powers of Zeus, Diana (Gadot), daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and niece of heralded warrior Antiope (Robin Wright), has grown up training to become a fierce fighter like all the other women on their secluded, magically hidden island homeland, but her mother has kept her true ancestry a secret. Danger comes to her homeland when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a World War I era spy working for the British government, crash lands in the ocean. He’s trailed by German troops who want the secret plans for a deadly nerve gas that he stole from a beastly general (Danny Huston) and a deformed scientist (Elena Anaya), literally referred to as Dr. Poison. Steve, the first male and non-Amazon Diana has ever met, tells her about the “war to end all wars,” and the warrior princess becomes convinced that the battle for the land of man is the work of the long banished god of war, Ares. Wanting to prove her worth as a warrior, Diana demands to accompany Steve to the front lines of the war.
There are two things immediately apparent in Wonder Woman that make Jenkins’ work here different from what Zack Snyder and David Ayer attempted with their entries into the DCEU. First, Jenikins (a television veteran whose only other big screen credit was the exceptional 2003 biopic Monster) wants to employ a much brighter aesthetic than her peers. Even in the grey gloominess of war-torn Europe, Jenkins wisely opts for period appropriate aesthetics and design instead of post-modern dread and brooding. It’s a choice that suits the character of Diana well, as she’s portrayed here wisely by Gadot with equal parts intelligence, wit, and strength, but also a dash of almost child-like bedazzlement. Through the film’s visuals and performance, Wonder Woman feels like it’s a grand epic told through the eyes of someone looking at the world around them for the first time with both hope and skepticism.
Second, the pacing and storytelling acumen of Wonder Woman handily surpasses the previous DC related films, despite screenwriter Allan Heinberg working from a story that has been crafted to fit neatly into a continually evolving, larger franchise. Unlike Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, but more like Man of Steel, Wonder Woman isn’t afraid of letting viewers get to know the characters. Jenkins and her crew are assured that as long as things don’t get boring, viewers will be more appreciative of the time spent on such moments. Wonder Woman is the first time in several DC films where it truly feels like one gets to know and care about the people involved in the story. Not every breath and beat is wasted with hopelessly stacked and crammed exposition. The plot and the characters within it are balanced.
The plot itself, both inside the DCeU or outside of it, isn’t much of anything new. In many respects, Wonder Woman is DC’s riff on rival Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s a wartime story where the hero experiences their first romantic feelings towards someone, rounds up a band of outcasts and soldiers crazy enough to go behind enemy lines, and they try to stop someone who wants war on earth to last forever. It’s not a carbon copy replication, but the gist is the same.
Here, Diana’s wartime posse, including Saïd Taghmaoui’s smooth talking spy, Ewen Bremner’s burnt out sniper, and Eugene Brave Rock’s mercenary, all have a slight bit of development, and their adventures together are actually played out instead of wasted in a single montage. It’s also winking and nudging far less at links to other franchise films than the first Cap film did, and that counts for more than one might expect.
The teaming of Gadot, who displays even more charisma here than she was able to in her previous outing in Diana’s armour, and Pine, who continues to improve as an actor, is an inspired one. They have a remarkable push-and-pull chemistry that makes their flirtation feel warranted. Steve knows what Diana is capable of, but he’s still forced by superiors to adhere to an old school code of conduct that suggests women shouldn’t be seen or heard from, let alone put on the front lines of a battle. The banter between Gadot and Pine crackles, but the best moments between them come from a recurring motif between them.
Diana will often demand to do something potentially dangerous or something that will blow their cover in the name of stopping Ares, with Gadot wonderfully conveying the character’s sense of duty and righteousness. What’s interesting is how Jenkins and Pine wait for Steve’s response. There’s always a pause where Steve processes the situation, and he never responds immediately. He knows Diana doesn’t know the ways of the human world, but he knows she’s a capable soldier. Most of the time, his answer is to just let her go ahead with her plans, as he trusts in her implicitly. But sometimes, he will speak up and say something is a bad idea, but in a way that’s never dismissive. Yes, the romance between Diana and Steve is tacked on, but the relationship between these characters is always a reasoned and mutually respectful one despite Wonder Woman acting as a traditional fish out of water story. Diana is a fish out of water, but Steve knows she can handle almost anything that comes her way. They make quite the heroic team, and neither is above playing to the story’s obvious camp value.
The action sequences are frequent and technically top notch, although curiously not the climactic sequence set at night on an airfield, which looks visually indistinguishable from the climax of Batman v. Superman (albeit a bit brighter and less chaotically edited). An early battle between the Amazons and the invading Germans is a showstopper, and Diana’s heroic walk through a German frontline to liberate an entire town is one of the best moments in any superhero film. Jenkins, like Snyder, has a tendency to speed up and slow down her fight scenes in an effort to make things look more impressive, but the hand-to-hand stunt work and accompanying effects are also bone-crunching and noteworthy.
Despite leaving room for the character to grow in the future, Wonder Woman is a resolutely self-contained effort. It’s a character that plays into a larger story telling her own narrative without interruption, deviation, or distraction. Outside of the first five minutes and the last two minutes, there’s nothing here to connect back to any other film in the franchise, and even those call backs are subtle and poignant instead of a shoddily constructed bridge. Wonder Woman is a popcorn movie blockbuster in every way, but it’s one that’s relaxed and unencumbered by its own scope and stakes.