Review: 'Wonder Woman' Shoulders The Weight Of Lofty Expectations

Superhero movies, like the comic books that inspired them, should be fun, but they should also inspire. I think that's something Warner Bros.' beleaguered DC Films has forgotten about or completely ignored along the way with dark, grim movies that leave you feeling hopeless rather than hopeful. That's just part of the reason why there's so much weight of expectation heaped on the shoulders of Wonder Woman. But forget that it has the potential to turn the studio's fortunes around. Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot carry the hopes that the first major female-led superhero movie since 2005's Elektra, and incredibly the first for the DC heroine in 75 years, will be everything that women deserve it to be, that this industry needs it to be.

No pressure.

Remember how Wonder Woman swooped in to rescue the leaden Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, flooring us with the immense potential of what her solo movie could be? Wonder Woman more than shoulders the weight of our expectations, and dazzles us with brilliant kick-ass action and *shocker* heart that her male counterparts couldn't hope to match. The irony is that the script was written by a man, comics scribe Allan Heinberg, from a story drafted by Jason Fuchs and *double shocker* Zack Snyder, the guy held mostly responsible for everything people hate about DC Comics movies.

When the film falters it's when it looks too much like Snyder's commandeered the ship, but fortunately those moments are few and relegated to the final stretch. Jenkins, a director who helped earn Charlize Theron her Best Actress Oscar, clearly had the most influence on how to tell Wonder Woman's story. And she's faced with no shortage of challenges because this is a story told on many fronts in many different genres. An origin tale bracketed by contemporary moments set somewhere within 'Batman v Superman', the film really kicks off on the idyllic island paradise of Themyscira, a land gifted the warrior Amazon women by the Greek gods themselves. It's there that we meet young, fearless Diana, a princess to the great queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who along with their greatest warrior Antiope (Robin Wright) have sworn an oath to defend humanity. But what they are actually doing is hiding out on their secret island with no outside contact at all, until their peace is ruined by the arrival of British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), closely followed by a squad of Nazis. With their advanced weapons, the Nazi troops inflict severe damage to the Amazons before being defeated, but their presence stirs something within Diana. It's an urging to leave the island and to help stop the senseless bloodshed caused by the outbreak of WWI.  What good is a warrior who refuses to fight? What good is a protector who refuses to defend the innocent?  Get that woman her lasso, her Godkiller sword, and her fancy tiara, please. Unfortunately, no invisible jet. Yet.

If they had kept the film on the gorgeous isle of Themyscira that would have been perfectly fine with me. In the brief time spent there we're teased a fascinating political system based on combat, mixed with a lineage stretching back to the literal Greek gods of Olympus. One of those gods is Ares, the god of war, who Diana comes to believe is the reason man engages in war's atrocities. Once off the island the story switches into another mode, an even better one, as Steve tries (and mostly fails) to acclimate Diana to polite human society when all she wants to do is charge in like a bull, sword and shield in hand. She sees it as a simple fight of right vs. wrong; kill Ares and the war stops. But Steve knows better; he knows there are political concerns, a way about doing things, and he's not at all certain this Ares guy even exists. You'd think for someone who just crash landed on an island of 6-foot-tall Amazon women he'd be more open to such things, but whatev.

The fish-out-of-water dynamic gives Wonder Woman a lightness that has been missing from DC movies far too long. Much of the humor comes from the obvious attraction between Steve and Diana, and their inability to explain it. There's a great scene on a boat where she fails to understand why he won't sleep with her, as in next to her, and it ends up with a gag about how useless men are for pleasure. The romance that brews between them is totally expected, but having Steve as Diana's love interest and not the other way around gives it a fresh spin.

Speaking of which, every opportunity is taken to hammer home how much of a big deal Wonder Woman is. Sometimes it borders on heavy-handed, like when Steve shouts "No MAN can cross it!", referring to a deadly battlefield that Diana proceeds to slice and dice her way through. That said, some of these moments provide some truly iconic imagery, and Diana strikes an electrifying figure that far outweighs any statements on feminism. The script mostly avoids tackling the gender issue in any stated way because it doesn't need to when the sight of Wonder Woman, clad in her glistening armor, leads an army of men into the uncertainty of war. There are plenty of other ham-fisted speeches to chew on, mostly about love, compassion, and the meaningless nature of violence, that Gadot delivers with more zeal than they probably deserve. It's truly special to see Diana be transformed by her experiences. She doesn't begin the film as a hero, but by the end of it she's exactly the hero the world needs, one that can be looked up to.

A ton of characters criss-cross through the story but the focus remains steadfastly on Diana, which is exactly how it should be. Of course it comes at the expense of the supporting cast who don't get much of an opportunity to strut their stuff. In particular the villains are incredibly weak, such as Nazi scientist Doctor Poison, played by Elena Anaya in a role that seems like a knockoff of her performance in The Skin I Live In. Danny Huston growls and snorts weird chemicals but little else as real-life German officer General Erich Ludendorff; and even Ares, whose identity shall remain a secret here, fails to spark the imagination. As dull as the bad guys are that's how much fun Lucy Davis is as Steve's plucky sidekick Etta Candy, who shows Diana that women come in all shapes and sizes, but are no less heroic than she is.

Snyder's fingerprints are all over the final act, a loud and unimpressively choreographed fight that feels like an obligation. While CGI is used off and on throughout to animate some of Diana's more incredible feats, it's used to excess in the end, along with tricks (such as speed-ramping) she must have learned from the Snyder school. This wouldn't be such a big deal if Diana had a villain to battle worth investing in, but she doesn't. In the end, great characters make it easy to forgive anything and that's true for any movie, not just this one.

A big part of Diana's journey is learning that man is worthy of being saved, when other Amazons and even Ares would have said the opposite. Her experiences in war teach her that for all of man's many faults, it's their imperfections that make them unique, and their constant striving to be better. Wonder Woman is also an imperfect creation, but Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot  have given us the best DC Comics movie yet, one that future films would be wise to follow.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5