One-part fish-out-of-water rom-com, one-part female empowerment story, and one-part anti-war morality tale, director Patty Jenkins' breath-of-fresh-air Wonder Woman is a seamless, masterful blend of three film styles mostly unique to comic book superhero movies, and certainly to Warner Bros.’s DC Extended Universe. Things take a slightly unwelcome turn late when the last quarter of the film plays very much like a been-there/done-that DCEU final act, but that isn’t enough to take away from the triumphs that come before.
Beginning gorgeously during Princess Diana’s childhood in a lush, exotic Themyscira of sunshine-lit blues and greens that immediately sets Wonder Woman apart aesthetically from any comic book movie that’s come before, Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg set the empowerment tone by not hitting the audience over the head with an all-female society of Amazons.
Women vs. men is not played for obvious laughs or heavy-handed preaching - the opening act is no more about a band of all-female warriors than 300 was about an all-male band of warriors. And that’s what makes it effective - its assumption of equal standing.
And despite some obvious “Diana meets a man for the very first time” jokes when Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor washes up on shore, Jenkins and Heinberg deftly avoid making him the butt of the jokes or the target of ‘men-are-responsible-for-war-and-inequality’ social commentary. Pine’s Trevor is a strong, smart, empathetic character in his own right, and while the story allows him to comically struggle with Diana’s bucking of all social norms when they head to the front lines of World War I together, it’s never at her expense, nor at his. Trevor and Diana have immediate respect for one another even when her belief she can end the war at its cause strains their bond.
Pine plays Trevor a little less cocksure cowboy than his Captain Kirk and that’s a good thing. It’s a shame he likely won’t have a role in the DCEU moving forward.
The film, however, belongs to Gal Gadot, and she hits all the right notes in a star-making performance almost without flaw. Gadot’s Diana is assured, strong, naïve, and awkward all at the same time. Whether she’s unwittingly turning the tables on Trevor’s attempts to be gentlemanly or charging into situations a WWI-era society would frown upon, Gadot manages to make those moments feel organic rather than overly theatrical or comical. There isn’t a moment you’re not there right along with her.
The film’s signature set piece and its true introduction of Wonder Woman springs from Diana’s naivety over the horrors of war. She simply can’t process what she witnesses at the war’s frontlines and launches into action almost without strategy to put a stop to the only human suffering she’s ever witnessed in her life. Gadot makes you feel her urgency - urgency that’s as resounding and relatable as ever. Despite being a period piece, simple confusion over the state of world affairs is in no way an anachronism, which Jenkins and Heinberg seem to understand well. Wonder Woman instantly becomes, dare we say, comic book movies’ best everyman.
What follows ranks alongside the original Avengers’ ‘New York’ third act as the most engaging action sequence of the comic book sub-genre, and certainly its most emotional and inspiring by far. While comic book movies can sometimes rightfully be criticized for using civilians as supervillain chum, Jenkins turns that dynamic on its ear, remembering that superheroes exist to protect, and not to knock down skyscrapers in 3D. If the film ended there Wonder Woman would be in the conversation for best of its kind.
Which is what makes the final “big boss” sequence that much more disappointing, though not a deal breaker by any means. Judging by the early reviews, critics seems to be forgiving of the final act, but given how unique everything that comes before it is, it’s surprising things move in the direction they take. The film takes on a very Zack Snyder-like visual palette as superhero and supervillain charge at one another like rams again and again in what feels like a continuation of Man of Steel and/or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; it even has some shades of Suicide Squad. A more nuanced and less formulaic finale would have been welcome.
Despite the hiccup, Wonder Woman seems to be the movie Warner Bros. wants and needs to finally establish its superhero voice. Here’s hoping they look to the film’s first three-quarters and the frontline action sequence if worldwide moviegoers embrace the film like it deserves.