Editor’s Note: Wonder Woman opens in wide theatrical release today, June 2, 2017.
The Holy Trinity. No, not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit of Christianity, but Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, DC Comics’ oldest, most iconic superheroes. DC’s Holy Trinity debuted over a comics-redefining four-year span, Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939, and Wonder Woman two years later, but while Superman and Batman made it the big screen in serial form first, TV second, later to be followed by big-budget, high-profile blockbusters in the ’70s and ’80s, Wonder Woman never made it past a campy, ‘70s TV series starring Lynda Carter as the titular heroine. It took another four decades before Warner Bros., in their finite wisdom, finally decided mainstream moviegoers were ready for a standalone, big-budget Wonder Woman film. Fifteen or twenty minutes into Patty Jenkins’ (Monster) take on the iconic character and it becomes abundantly clear that this is the Wonder Woman we should have had 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Anyone who doubted Gadot could carry a superhero film on her own, especially after several, less than impressive performances in the Fast & Furious series, can put that doubt aside permanently. Gadot certainly has the physicality down, but it’s the emotion-heavy moments, the everything-is-new-to-Diana moments, where she truly impresses.
Wonder Woman opens not with Wonder Woman as a young girl, a teen, or even a young woman, but a Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) we’ve met before: The same Wonder Woman we met in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. With the cataclysmic events of that film behind her, she’s retired to the Arts and Ancient Weapons department of the Louvre Museum in Paris where her latest acquisition, a century-old photograph of Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and several other men, sends her back into extended flashback mode. Patty Jenkins and her screenwriter, Allan Heinberg, give moviegoers the full origin story treatment, if not quite from birth, then close enough. We catch up with a young, independent-minded Diana as a preteen, already pushing against the rules and limits imposed by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the ruler of Themyscira, an isolated island paradise protected from the outside world by persistent fog, before jumping ahead to Diana as a teen and finally Diana as a young woman, trained in the Amazonian ways of battle, but also in the duties and obligations of an Amazonian warrior: To serve and protect humankind.
Before long, however, Trevor, an American spy working for the Brits at the tail end of World War I, drops out of the sky, his damaged plane falling within swimming distance of the island. Jenkins frames a dying Trevor, trapped in his sinking plane, looking desperately towards the rapidly fading surface, a silhouetted figure standing on a broken wing. He’s shocked and awed by the sight of Diana, a beautiful, physically capable woman saving him from imminent doom. Before he can thank her, however, his pursuers, a squad of German soldiers, arrive on Themyscira. An immediate battle pitting the Amazons and their millennia old weaponry against early 20th-century weaponry follows. All-around Amazonian badassery wins the day, but their victory isn’t without cost.
Fifteen or twenty minutes into director Patty Jenkins’ take on the iconic character and it becomes abundantly clear that this is the Wonder Woman we should have had 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Rather than rejecting the outside world and the war it could bring to Themyscira, Diana embraces her role as protector and savior, all minus the self-absorption or brooding that characterize the other members of the Trinity, Batman and Superman. She’s the rarest of contemporary superheroes, naïve, innocent, and filled with romantic idealism about the world and her place in it, but her journey entails the kind of maturation and growth, specifically a recognition of the world with all of its complexities and contradiction, also rare in the usual punch-fests typical of superhero fare. She experiences the regressive, gendered, patriarchal world first-hand, but she doesn’t so much change as become even more determined to change the world. Jenkins and Heinberg, with an able assist from Trevor, guide, mentor, and eventual romantic interest, use Diana’s journey, including her wide-eyed amazement and yes, wonder, at the world of men, to tweak and critique gender roles and assumptions (then and now), always with just enough sly, subversive humor to avoid turning Wonder Woman into a cultural history lesson. It helps too that Jenkins and Heinberg, obviously aware of the flaws in too many male-centered superhero films, give weight and dimension to Trevor. He soon learns he’s not Wonder Woman’s equal in combat, but he’s secure enough in his masculinity that he doesn’t run away, instead embracing his secondary, supporting role.
Superheroes aren’t superheroes unless they have something to fight against (and for, of course). Jenkins and Heinberg pit Diana and Steve against Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), an anti-armistice, war-embracing German general, and his unofficial second, Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), a scarred scientist and chemist with a talent for creating new, increasingly lethal chemical weapons of mass destruction. There’s another villain too, Ares, the God of War, but he’s left offscreen, a hidden, veiled figure, possibly real, possibly a figment of Diana’s overactive imagination. Diana truly believes that killing Ares will end the “War to End All Wars” (until World War II put the lie to that phrase). Diana’s journey toward self-actualization and self-knowledge, however, involves a key realization: Even with Ares working behind the sidelines, responsibility for the war lies not with him, but with humankind (men, basically). Thematically, it’s on the heavy side, especially for a big-budget superhero film meant to lay the groundwork for and extend a shared cinematic universe.
Casting matters too, of course. For all of its thematic depth or compelling central characters, Wonder Woman would have floundered, sinking under the weight of its pretensions and expectations, without the right actress in the lead role. Zack Snyder chose well. Anyone who doubted Gadot could carry a superhero film on her own, especially after several, less than impressive performances in the Fast & Furious series, can put that doubt aside permanently. Gadot certainly has the physicality down, but it’s the emotion-heavy moments, the everything-is-new-to-Diana moments, where she truly impresses. She brings just the right mix of seriousness and lightness to a role that’s become fully her own. It’s be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine another actress in the role. Minus the obligatory CGI-filled, effects-heavy, videogame cut-scene quality finale, Wonder Woman may just have saved Warner Bros.’ cinematic universe from a potentially fatal stumble before Justice League arrives in multiplexes at the end of the year.
With its thematic depth, compelling central characters and Gal Gadot's powerhouse performance, Wonder Woman may just have saved Warner Bros.’ cinematic superhero universe.