DC finally gets it right with Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman thanks to its tight direction, lighter tone, and star affirming performance by Gal Gadot.
Finally, after nearly ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and four years of the DC Extended Universe has a female superhero been featured as the lead. Not only that, they’ve paired her up with a female director! Gender equality in Hollywood is here! Right? Well, that’s a discussion for another time. But the fact that this is the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman has to be celebrated when talking about Wonder Woman, the fourth installment in the DC Extended Universe. And it’s good! It’s actually good! After three failed attempts to get the franchise off the ground, Patty Jenkins has finally been able to harness an iconic character in the DC pantheon and apply her to the superhero origin formula successfully. While she definitely adheres to the formula, especially since this is an origin story, Jenkins uses all the potential it has, which helps you forgive the movie for its flaws.
However, many of those flaws carry over from the dour style established in the first two movies in the DCEU. Jenkins takes the parameters she has to work in and builds the film around an inspired performance by Gal Gadot. Although this is yet another origin story, it isn’t one that audiences are as familiar with as the ones for Batman or Superman. This gives Jenkins the freedom to shape the story as she sees fit. Though, she doesn’t stray too far from the source material. Young Diana is the princess of the island Themyskira, a hidden paradise populated by a society of all-female Amazons. The women were created by Zeus to protect men against the corruption of his son Ares, the god of war. Ares eventually fights with the gods before ultimately falling to Zeus. Unsure whether or not he’ll return, Zeus gives the woman a weapon that is capable of killing Ares — the god killer. Young Diana is desperate to train with the warrior Amazons including her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, a standout in this section). However, her mother, Queen Hippoltya (Connie Nielsen) forbids her. Eventually, as Diana’s desire becomes too much, Hippoltya allows her to train. However, the one caveat is that Antiope must trainer her harder than any other warrior before her. The first act of this movie is extremely expositional, which makes it lag compared to later sections. However, Jenkins had the fortune of taking a less-known origin story and really bringing it to live. The vividness of Themyskira comes through in the costume and production design. And every woman from Gadot to the background actors bring the island to life.
Later, an older Diana, after training extensively for years, watches a plane go down after crashing through the barrier that makes the island invisible to outsiders. Inside is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a U.S. Army captain who has been working as a spy against the Germans during World War I. Diana saves him, but not before German troops break through the barrier as well and begin to invade the island. This first battle sequence between the Amazons and the Germans gives us just a taste of Jenkins’ ability to direct action. And while she contends with Snyder’s speed-up/slow down style, she also gives the fight a clear narrative, not dissimilar to the way George Miller directed the action in Mad Max: Fury Road. After learning about the war and becoming convinced that Ares is behind it, Diana compels Trevor to take her to the battlefront to find Ares and kill him before more innocent people are. From the first scene they have together, Gadot and Pine display an incredible chemistry that really drives the emotional beats of the movie. Even with the comic tone of their first scenes, the connection is palpable.
The first third of the movie is shaky but impressive. However, the movie takes flight when the duo arrives in Jolly Ol’ London. Steve leaves Diana with his secretary Etta Candy (a truly delightful Lucy Davis) to get her into more appropriate clothing for the time. The comedy of manners trope has been used in superhero movies before, but it still works here and is fresh. Especially due to the fact that many of Diana’s comments to society are biting and true — her takedown of marriage is specifically memorable. Trevor approaches the Imperial War Cabinet with a journal that contains the notes of Isabel Maru aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), who, along with Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), has developed a poisonous gas that they plan on using at the front of the war just as the armistice is about to be called. Most of the cabinet shrug off the threat saying that it is not going to happen because of the impending armistice. However, with the help of Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), Diana, Trevor, and his team — grifter Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and smuggler Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) — make their way to the western front to confront Maru and Ludendorff. I think the three men that make up Trevor’s team are a perfect example of why this movie works and the other DCEU movies don’t. Though their screen time is small, each makes an impact. Each matter. Each has a character that has emotional resonance in the story.
Wonder Woman doesn’t reinvent the superhero genre. What it does is it shakes off the chains binding it to its franchise and the burden of creating the first installment in a series and instead becomes an actual movie with actual characters and actual conflict. This is something that has unfortunately eluded the DCEU until now. Not only that, the film actually has fun with its characters. The brooding and dark tone of Batman vs. Superman and Man of Steel is left behind for the light and colorful look that the Marvel movies have so successfully harnessed. While Jenkins’ direction is a huge reason for that, Gadot and Pine give performances that elevate the already solid material. Gadot exudes the hero that she is playing. She gives Diana an air of importance, but not self-importance. More importantly, her internal conflict is one of a hero and she sells it even when the script doesn’t. Pine, on the other hand, inhabits the sidekick/love interest role that has been filled by a woman in superhero movie perfectly. He lets Gadot drive the movie, but he gets his moments to make the audience laugh and swoon.
I think the final twenty minutes of the movie loses the pace and smartness of the second act — the final act, in general, is rough around the edges plotwise. It turns into a less scattered version of the final battle in Man of Steel. The difference, though, which is a testament to Patty Jenkins, is that it takes time to give us character moments throughout the battle. After all, we spent an entire movie with them, getting to know about them, and caring about them. Jenkins doesn’t let the need for a final battle take away from that fact. It just shows that with good direction, even a formulaic superhero movie can be good. A prime example is the first major action sequence with Diana in full Wonder Woman garb. The fluidity of the action matched with the emotional swell of the moment makes it one of the most memorable superhero reveals in an MCU or DCEU movie. Gadot sells every move with a confidence that few actors would be able to exude while Jenkins captures her grace with bravado. That scene stays with you throughout the movie.
Patty Jenkins has already made history with Wonder Woman. However, it was an earned victory. She singlehandedly made a case for the DC extended universe to go on. She proved that you can make a successful movie with these properties that is also good. It’s a legitimately good movie. It doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the genre. You have to go back to The Dark Knight to find any original elements in a superhero movie. However, she adds a new flair to the familiar beats that make Wonder Woman one of the most exciting superhero movies in recent memory. It has its flaws. It is not infallible. But you can’t help but root for Diana and the characters on screen. The same way you can’t help but root for Jenkins. Still, she makes it easy to be on her side. Wonder Woman is a pure delight.