Movie Review: Wonder Woman
By Ben Gruchow
July 4, 2017
You can't just flip the gender. During certain moments of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which at last validates DC Comics’ burgeoning cinematic universe from a narrative and artistic perspective, I attempted to reenvision the scene with a male protagonist (we have a lot of precedent for that, of course…most directly and clearly in this character’s Marvel counterpart of Captain America). And you can't do it - or at least, you can't simply switch genders and have the same proceedings unfold. Wonder Woman resides at a different point on the spectrum of emotional intelligence and temperature: one aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in circumstance that result from its protagonist being a woman instead of a man (an Amazonian woman played by an Israeli-American actress, at that). There is a secret, deeper heart beating underneath the superficial proceedings at almost all times here.
That deeper heart infuses the movie with an agency that's unequivocally beneficial to its function; without it, there are enough storytelling and pacing issues in this 141-minute film to assert their presence more forcefully on one’s impression of the film’s quality - not nearly enough, it must be said, to drag it over the line from a positive one to a negative one. On its own merits, this is an earnest, layered, and energetic piece of work; it's the antithesis desperately needed to the respectively leaden and fractured natures of last year’s Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. In the context of its subgenre, it's the best in years; if last March’s Logan represented the best execution of the apocalyptic/dystopic comic-book adventure, Wonder Woman represents the apotheosis of the pragmatic and humanist adventure.
The movie’s period and setting is ideal for a challenge on that front, and it's the first clue that we have that there's an agency at work here very different from what's come before it in the DCEU lineup. The World Wars are an easy time to set a movie about American exceptionalism (or trading on its imagery, at least), with the curve heavily favoring the latter one: unlike any real-life global conflict since, it provided us with a binary choice between good guys and bad guys, with a figurehead known far more for what he represented and encouraged than for what he said or did. Wonder Woman is set during the First World War, and this is pivotal to setting up the clash between idealism and reality that the movie targets almost from the second scene.
That second scene is set on Themyscira, which is an island nation populated by the Amazons: warriors and citizens tasked with protecting the world. Their history and origin is told to Diana (played as a child by Lilly Aspell, and as an adult by Gal Gadot) in an animated segue that is, all by itself, more evocative in its mythic power than anything in this genre of film that I can recall. The Amazons are expecting the eventual return of Ares, the god of death; some of them, like Antiope (Robin Wright), more aggressively than others, like tribe Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).