Review: Wonder Woman

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It’s women to the rescue for the DC cinematic universe, as Gadot and Jenkins deliver a tentpole that could break the glass ceiling.

 

By Nick Milligan

“Be careful in the world of men, Diana, they do not deserve you,” says Amazonian Queen Hippolyta to her daughter, Diana. Despite the advice, Diana, aka Wonder Woman, doesn’t need to be too careful in the world of men, because your average male is but a mosquito to be swatted; this gal can move faster than a bullet, leap across the landscape in giant bounds and pummel hordes of blokes without breaking a sweat.

The latest adaptation of the famous DC character is faithful to Wonder Woman’s back story. Princess Diana (Israeli actress Gal Gadot), is a badass bodice-rockin’ warrior and lives on the magical island paradise Themyscira, which is veiled in a supernatural force field that cloaks it from the outside world (known as “Man’s World”).

For the uninitiated, Wonder Woman’s origins are woven into Greek mythology. Diana is the daughter of Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the niece of Amazonian army commander Antiope (Robin Wright). The Amazons were created by Zeus to keep men in check, custom-built by the King of the Gods to placate and diffuse the inherent violence in men’s hearts and keep the world at peace.

But Zeus’ jealous son, Ares, the God of War, goes about corrupting man (it doesn’t prove difficult) and then kills off every god that challenges him, including his father Zeus. As Hippolyta explains to young Diana in the film’s opening act, Zeus has left the Amazons a weapon to defeat Ares, should he ever return.

 

If you were to ask Wonder Woman “Who run the world?” she would enthusiastically reply “Girls! We run this mother!”

 

The idyllic Amazon existence is disturbed when handsome World War I air force intelligence officer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane into the waters off the coast of Themyscira, and is rescued by Diana. Steve is the first man she has ever met. The spy explains to the princess and her people that outside the literal bubble in which they reside, the world is at war. Upon hearing of the extent of the devastation, Diana believes “The Great War” is the work of Ares and it’s her duty to stop him.

Romance inevitably sparks between Steve and Diana as he leads her into the real world, and comic moments are derived from the “fish-out-of-water” scenario. Diana (in the alias Diana Prince) doesn’t take too kindly to male-dominated London circa 1918, because of her upbringing in an empowered matriarchal society. If you were to ask Wonder Woman “Who run the world?” she would enthusiastically reply “Girls! We run this mother!” To better fit in, Steve tries to get Diana Prince to be submissive, but this is never going to happen. Diana’s no Eliza Doolittle. In fact, she’s probably met Pygmalion.

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Wonder Woman has been an enduring feminist icon in popular culture and in the hands of Monster director Patty Jenkins, the message of empowerment is writ large throughout. Jenkins was an interesting choice, given the harrowing and gritty nature of her 2003 debut foray into feature film. Monster garnered Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar for her role as executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos and was made for only $8m.

As seems to be the case when indie directors are handed the reins to a monolithic comic or video game adaptation, the individual style and voice of that person seems lost in the blinding sheen and impatient narrative. Jenkins’ sensibility remains, perhaps, only in the obvious feminist markers, but is as lost to the scale of the production as Duncan Jones in Warcraft and Colin Trevorrow in Jurassic World.

While largely indistinguishable from that of her superhero director peers, Jenkins’ handling of Wonder Woman‘s effects-laden set pieces is impressive. Diana’s rampage on the Belgian front is a fresh and visually arresting sequence, as is the moment German soldiers land on the shores of Themyscira and are dispatched with lethal elegance by the bow-and-arrow toting Amazons.

Other moments feel all too familiar. With evil Germans General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) plotting all sorts of devious acts, the film sometimes echoes of Marvel’s World War II superhero flick Captain America: The First Avenger, where Hugo Weaving sunk his teeth into the particularly heinous Nazi Johann Schmidt. And when the principal antagonist of Wonder Woman is revealed it’s something of a disappointment, making for a very strange showdown. It’s an odd creative decision and piece of miscasting.

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But there’s a lot to like about Jenkins’ film. The feminist themes may be heavy handed, but it’s hard not to smile when Wonder Woman visits the Belgian front and proves that “No Man’s Land” definitely doesn’t apply to women (“I’m the man that can!” Diana roars when Steve tells her no man can make it across the unoccupied zone). It’s hard not to chuckle when Steve’s secretary Etta (The Office‘s Lucy Davis) explains her job to Diana and the heroine replies: “Where we come from, that’s called slavery.”

Sure, you can dismantle Wonder Woman and locate a chain of cliches – that is, after all, what male-centric superhero movies have been spewing for decades. But Jenkins’ fantasy epic is a Warner Bros. tentpole that just might break the glass ceiling. With an opening weekend of $100.5m, Wonder Woman has become the biggest opening box office gross for a film directed by a female.

That’s not the only record to fall. Jenkins was handed a $140 million budget, a figure that’s the largest for any female director in history. It broke the previous record held by Kathryn Bigelow for 2002’s $100m submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker. Jenkins has also become the first female to direct one of these wizz-bang superhero flicks and, on the strength of it, maybe needs more input into following DC instalments.

The director is served by a strong cast. We were first introduced to Gadot as Wonder Woman in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. She’s genetically perfect as the warrior princess. And, along with being aesthetically mesmerising on a big screen, the statuesque actress is both stoic and endearing, demonstrating both the physicality and sense of comic timing required to carry a blockbuster. She manages to ground the large-scale dizzying escapism with a committed performance. With Wonder Woman being such a single-mindedly heroic and selfless creation, Gadot’s delivery could have been as beige as Henry Cavill’s Superman. But she’s far sassier.

Pine, key to the Star Trek franchise, is no stranger to big-budget fantasy. He’s suitably rugged and charismatic as Wonder Woman’s famous love interest, and has real on-screen chemistry with his co-star. Pine deserves an Oscar for keeping a straight face while bound by the “Lasso of Truth”. The supporting cast, which includes Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner, inject humour and levity where necessary.

Only good can come from the introduction of Wonder Woman to a new generation of young girls and boys, with positive feminist messages conveyed amongst the popcorn moments. Diana is the catalyst of the action, leading men into battle without fear. She doesn’t wait for permission. While you can’t dismiss Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel universe, “reformed Russian assassin” doesn’t seem quite as relatable as “brave warrior princess” for a young imagination.

Wonder Woman‘s worth two hours of your time. Jenkins and her leading lady have made this film the saving grace of the so-far substandard DC cinematic universe. Unless the game is rigged, expect Gadot to steal the show in the impending Justice League crossover.

THREE STARS

 

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