We could tell even from her abbreviated appearance in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that Wonder Woman was going to be a major player in the DC cinematic universe specifically and the superhero oeuvre in general. As portrayed in that film and now her own movie by Israeli-born actor Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman was the strongest and smartest (and an argument could be made, the most powerful) person in any room but she never had to act like she was. Her lifetime of training in battle and weaponry made her fight with surgical precision in a world filled with other superheroes exercising the subtlety of a wrecking ball.
As excited as I and many others are that this film even exists, none of that means much if the movie is no good. And I’m pleased to say that Wonder Woman is easily the best of the recent crop of films based on DC comics characters, and not just because it features a female lead. Judged on equal footing as all other superhero films, as it and all movies should be, this is a terrific action film, a sly take on gender politics of the early 1900s, and a wonderfully crafted antiwar picture, the latter of which I absolutely was not expecting.
It might actually be criminal that director Patty Jenkins hasn’t helmed a feature since her 2003 award-winning Monster (although her pilot for the great series “The Killing” is well worth seeking out on Netflix if you have it), so for any studio to take a chance on her might seem like going out on a limb, when in fact, it’s not. Jenkins is a proven talent who knows how to pull performances out of her actors that reveal more about them as characters than likely anything in the screenplay. Written by Allan Heinberg, Wonder Woman is a full-on origin story—not just a telling of how the Amazonian Diana made it off the hidden island of Themyscira and into the “world of men,” but also the story of how Diana as a young girl grew up to become the all-powerful warrior of her people, long before she ever set eyes on a male of the species.
Themyscira as a setting is a great way to kick off the film, a natural paradise that weaves Greek mythology with comic book lore—Diana was apparently molded from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), with Zeus bringing her to life. The Queen attempted to protect Diana from the ways of fighting, but the Amazons top general, Antiope (Robin Wright), felt that teaching her to become the greatest fighter was the only way to prepare her for a destiny that is kept secret from us for most of the film. One of the nice touches Wonder Woman has is making the entire population of Themyscira have accents that match Gadot’s heavy Israeli accent, rather than going the usual route of having everyone sound British or American.
When an American spy working for the British military ends up crashing his World War I-era plane on the shore of Themyscira, Diana rescues him and opens up the floodgates of the modern world. Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, whose mission is to find the location of German Gen. Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his resident scientist/expert in deadly gas, Maru (the unrecognizable Spanish actress Elena Anaya of The Skin I Live In), who has been nicknamed Dr. Poison by friends and enemies alike.
The first big battle sequence of the film is between the Amazonians and a battleship of Germans chasing Trevor. It’s the first time, the sword-wielding, spear-throwing, bow-and-arrowing Amazons have fought against bullets, and it’s a devastating awakening. It’s also the first time we get a sense that Wonder Woman isn’t simply an action film, as it never misses a chance to shine a light on the horrors of war. Although it carries a PG-13 rating, this film features a shockingly high body count, and it’s clear that Jenkins never wants us to forget how ugly war always is.
Without much convincing, Diana accompanies Trevor to London (which she deems “hideous”), where he meets with his assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and his superior, one Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who secretly tells Trevor to continue his mission to find Dr. Poison, even though the military higher-ups have told him to stop while a delicate peace treaty is being ironed out. Diana’s personal mission is a bit different. She’s convinced that this war is the result of the god of war, Ares, returning to earth to wreak havoc. Her theory is that if she can kill Ares with her special god-killing sword, the war will end immediately, and she feels certain that Gen. Ludendorff is Ares is human form, which is bad news for him.
Trevor gather a team of outcasts (naturally) to accompany him on his mission, including folks played by Ewan Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock, each having a set of skills useful in getting into Germany and assassinating Ludendorff and Maru. In case you’re wondering, it’s well over an hour into Wonder Woman (maybe even about the halfway point) until we see Diana in her familiar full regalia—sword, shield, wristbands, even golden lasso, which doesn’t actually compel someone to tell the truth as much as it punishes them for lying. But that first time you see her march alone across a No Man’s Land (get it?) battlefield that Brits and Germans have been fighting over for a year, it will likely take your breath away.
The truth is Gal Gadot makes playing Wonder Woman appear both difficult and easy. Diana is meant to be one of the planet’s great beauties, and Gadot ticks that box quite effectively, but when she enters into battle, the men around her literally can’t contemplate what they’re seeing. The idea that a captivating woman can end a year-long battle in a matter of minutes is something their minds simply cannot comprehend, and capturing that reality is one of the best things about this movie.
The world of the 1910s was one in which women were effectively seen as less than fully human, so having Diana blow up in a meeting of Parliament (or even be in the room at all) was seen as shocking, bordering on offensive. But she sees the world in a much more black-and-white way than everyone else. She is about saving innocents from the horrors and certain death of what is to come, which is the only reason she’s willing to fight alongside Trevor and his group. In many ways, she’s too good and naive for this world, and while she never seems in any real danger of being killed, it’s her spirit and innocence that are certain to be casualties of war. Diana sees herself as the protector of those who can’t protect themselves, and while that is certainly a noble mindset, it’s destined to lead her down a path to pain and disappointment.
At some point during Wonder Woman, Trevor actually forbids our heroine from doing something, to which she replies “What I do is not up to you.” It’s such a short, simple statement, but it’s one that fuels the entire movie and drives everything that happens. Diana is one of the only women on the planet who hasn’t grown up being told what to do or not to do by men. Watching this film made my mind jump to the Diana Prince we met in Dawn of Justice, who has just spent the previous 100 years learning what it’s like to be a woman in a world run by men—sublimated, treated as less than, looked at as an object.
Wonder Woman is a film so good and thorough in building its title character that it actually makes you think about the world through Diana’s eyes after this story ends. And it might make you weep a bit, for her and for history. I haven’t thought this much about a superhero’s place in history since the first Captain America movie, but even with him, I didn’t think much past how tough it must be for him to understand a cell phone. Cap was lucky; he got to sleep for decades and didn’t have to see the world or his country fall apart in bits and pieces. Wonder Woman was wide awake for all of the 20th century, and I hope that future installments of her solo films jump back and show us her adventures during World War II, the 1960s, the Reagan years, etc. I want to watch as the times try to break Diana down and she emerges victorious.