While walking into the anticipated screening of director Patty Jenkins' film Wonder Woman, two women were walking a few steps in front of me and one of them proudly said, "We finally have a superhero we can call our own." It's a pertinent comment because this Wonder Woman film is a huge step in the right direction for female-fronted superhero films, but also the DC Extended Universe, which has seen a string of disappointing superhero/antihero films, including Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.
Looking at the history of superhero/comic book films provides an even greater depth to the comment made by the two women walking into a predominantly male-driven character genre of film. And when you look at the comic book films that promote a female lead, the results are less than favorable. DC Comics' Supergirl was released in 1984 and starred Helen Slater, Peter O'Toole, and Faye Dunaway. The film was poorly received and felt like a cheap jumpstart for Christopher Reeves' Superman franchise, which by this time was basically defunct. Marvel's Elektra, which starred Jennifer Garner at the height of popularity, suffered from poorly designed characters and storylines. Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, was a complete mess of a film that ignored much of what turned that character into an interesting hero, though the character was originally a villain. The best example of a female-focused comic book film is probably the cult classic Tank Girl or the fantastic graphic novel adaptation Ghost World, but both of these films venture far from the realms of the superhero mythos.
Fortunately, Ms. Jenkins has crafted a much better film than the ones just mentioned. Wonder Woman focuses on creating a good origin story for the character, something other films in the DC Extended Universe have struggled with. It also does a great job of separating this character from the others around her, primarily separating a woman from a bunch of men, and letting Wonder Woman discover her own path to heroism.
The film introduces Diana (Gal Gadot) as a fearless child eager to take on the attributes of the Amazon warriors around her, a population of women living on an island in the Mediterranean that is shrouded by magic. Diana's mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), wants a daughter who minds her royal upbringing while her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains Diana in the art of combat. As Diana matures into a woman, it's easy to see she is unlike others living on the island. When a World War I fighter plane bursts through the clouds, Diana is forced to save a drowning pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). But Steve isn't alone, he was being chased by enemies who invade the world of the Amazons, pushing Diana into the world of men in an effort to end a war.
The script is written by Allan Heinberg, who works to take the familiar troupes of the superhero genre and infuse it with a story of a woman born with exceptional abilities. Instead of taking the journey of other heroes, where powers are received by some kind of accident or experiment gone awry, Diana simply is born into great power. From here, the film has the character make the choice to intervene and do what others say is impossible in an attempt to make a difference in a world near the end of the Great War.
Along the way, the film provides more interesting character dynamics, one specifically placing Diana into the middle of a world she knows nothing about. It's a "fish out of water" moment that is pretty funny, but it is also used to introduce Diana to the faults of our world, specifically the struggles of humanity. Another element is playing with the issue of saving lives and taking lives, a problem that has plagued comic book heroes and recently brought complaints against Superman due to the ending of Man of Steel. Diana's goal is to bring peace by any means necessary, and this includes the death of lots of people. The film handles this aspect without overemphasizing the gratuitous nature of the violence.
Along for the journey with Diana is a group of men. Steve Trevor continues on the mission, but adds a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewan Brenner), an Indian fast talker (Said Taghmaoui), and a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock). These characters play important roles individually, but the film never moves away from the emphasis on Diana. In fact, they actually play very good supporting characters that assist in making Diana understand why humanity is worth saving instead of taking control over the heroics in the film. The big superhero moments are all reserved for Wonder Woman.
Gal Gadot plays Diana exceptionally well. She has the charm and attitude to give her character immediate screen presence. Chris Pine is also good. The moments the actor has with Ms. Gadot create great chemistry for the pair with scenes that are both flirtatious and funny. Also making appearances here are Danny Huston, who plays a villainous German army leader, and Elena Anaya, who plays the appropriately named Dr. Poison. As bad guys, these characters are space fillers, a necessary evil for good to triumph over. They are never provided much opportunity to threaten Diana or her abilities, which in turn leads to an eventual encounter that holds no risk. It's a problem that plagues superhero origin stories, mainly that it is difficult to find time to compose an equally interesting villain to engage the hero.
Unfortunately, the momentum isn't kept up all the way through, as the third act of the film resembles every boring comic book movie finale that has come before it—CG bad guy flying over here, someone being thrown over there, and blasting lightning bolts in all directions. There is nothing interesting about it, nothing that displays the lessons learned on the journey made. Instead, it's just there to fill time until the ending.
While the finale may end on a lackluster note, the beginning and middle parts of the film are well-executed with an appealing mix of humor, heart, and spectacle. Gal Gadot completely owns the film with a great supporting group of actors to fill in the spaces around her. Wonder Woman is the best film the DC Extended Universe has to offer so far.
Monte's Score: 3.5 /5