Movie Review: Wonder Woman
By Matthew Huntley
June 13, 2017

The stuff that dreams are made of.

Wonder Woman is not a unique superhero movie just because its protagonist is female, although this aspect alone is worth celebrating. It also separates itself from the pack by telling a thoughtful origin story alongside another, self-contained narrative that's just as engaging, allowing the movie as a whole to not get bogged down by obligatory hero introductions, characters arcs, etc. These are present, yes, but they have a rhythm and strike a balance with the movie's other working parts so that everything feels unified and fluid. Plus, as outrageous and fantastical as the material is, we take it seriously because the filmmakers keep it grounded and unearth real emotion from the story and characters. At a time when a new superhero movie practically comes out once a week, Wonder Woman stands out as something special.

All this comes as a real surprise given Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was first introduced in the bloated, loud and much-maligned Batman v Superman (2016), which made it reasonable to expect Wonder Woman would be just as overwrought and messy. But if Wonder Woman's own film does anything, it underlines just how under-utilized she was in Batman v Superman, which relegated her to silent reaction shots and a few fight scenes at the end. As far as any substance or dialogue were concerned, it was severely lacking.

The reason for this may be due to the fact Batman v Superman was directed by a man, Zack Snyder, whereas Wonder Woman was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. It seems only natural that a female director would be more in touch with and better appreciate the value of a female hero, and Jenkins, working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, shows great affection and respect for her main character, although not necessarily because the main character is a woman. This isn't a “I am woman, hear me roar” project, but rather a “I am a virtuous, compassionate person (who happens to be a woman)” one and it thoroughly wins us over. That it doesn't take cheap and easy opportunities to stress that Wonder Woman is, indeed, female speaks to its confidence.

What's also remarkable about Wonder Woman is the way it's able to engross us despite being told as one long flashback, and therefore we know how things will turn out (for the most part). Each aspect of it is given weight and attention, including things as superficial and seemingly assembly-line as the fight scenes and special effects. Such elements can still feel distinct and thrill us when they work with the story instead of being made to overshadow it.

We first meet Wonder Woman disguised (black-rimmed glasses and all) as Diana Prince, working as a curator in the Louvre in Paris. Following the events of Batman v Superman, she receives a package from Bruce Wayne that contains a picture of her and a band of other soldiers, along with a message asking if one day she'll tell Bruce her story in person.

That's exactly what we get as Diana narrates her life leading up to the photograph, beginning with her upbringing on the mythical island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, a race of superhuman women who train as warriors. A young Diana dreams of becoming a warrior herself against the wishes of her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who's told Diana she was carved out of clay and brought to life by Zeus. However, there's a deeper truth to her origin and Hippolyta fears if Diana learns it, she'll be more susceptible to Ares, Zeus's son and the God of War who corrupted mankind and prompted them to attack the Amazons and whom the Amazons believe will return one day. But Diana is stubborn and desperately wants to be the one who wields the sword Zeus left the Amazons in order to kill Ares, and so Hippolyta agrees to let her train under her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who pulls no punches and encourages her niece to channel her true powers.

Diana's story continues and segues into the movie's parallel plot when an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes off Themyscira's coast after stealing a German airplane during World War I. Diana saves him, but he's been pursued by German soldiers, who end up attacking the Amazons with gunfire, leading to tragedy. After telling Diana who he is via the Lasso of Truth, Steve informs her there's a great world war happening “out there” and Diana comes to believe Ares is the sole cause of it. She insists on sailing back to London with Steve and saving the world, but Steve tells her it's more complicated than that, and his mission, at the moment, is to hand over a critical journal he intercepted from the Germans to the British authorities. The journal contains information about a new form of mustard gas developed by the scarred Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who's working under the evil and maniacal General Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

In terms of plot, Wonder Woman is fairly traditional and safe, and as an adaptation of a DC Comics property, it often mirrors rival Marvel's Captain America. But as familiar as its developments may be, they don't merely serve as a backdrop for the action sequences. In fact, the movie catches us off guard by allowing its story to actually build toward the action so the action itself takes on greater meaning. It's not on-screen all the time and comes only after the characters speak and plead their case for why any violence has to happen in the first place.

So, when we see Diana for the first time as Wonder Woman - in full superhero garb and walking toward the camera in slow motion - it excites us because the movie has paced itself and waited patiently for this moment. In the hands of a lesser director, we might have been compelled to laugh and wipe it off as something frivolous or cheesy, but because we respect Wonder Woman and what she stands for, it excites us and we feel like cheering. The movie's closing shot has the same effect and it reminded me of two other indelible superhero movie moments: the scene at the end of Superman II when Superman crushes the hand of General Zod; and when Peter Parker busts out of the rubble in Spider-Man 2, essentially becoming Spider-Man again. Such moments are rare but remind us just how invigorating the genre can be.

Wonder Woman is not just spectacle, though. The dialogue also carries weight, especially Pine's as he attempts to teach Diana that war is not as cut and dry as she thinks. I was surprised by how much I responded to the movie's underlying themes and the characters' convictions about wanting to make the world a better place. So often we're asked to simply wade through superhero movie dialogue and wait for the action sequences to wake us up, but here both aspects keep us alert.

It's been a while since a movie has given me chills because of how much it stimulated me and centered around a protagonist I truly believed in, but Wonder Woman did just that. It's all the positive adjectives you could think of to describe an exemplary superhero movie experience (you know what they are). Sure, there are room for improvements, including Gal Gadot gaining more abilities as an actress, but with the same quality and attention to detail as this first entry, I'm confident any future Wonder Woman installments would not only arouse the genre as a whole but perhaps progress it toward something even greater. Who knows, maybe we haven't tapped into all its powers just yet.