Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Running Time: 141 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Of all the superheroes that have made it to the big screen, whether it be Marvel, DC or otherwise, it's the role of Wonder Woman that's been hardest to cast. That we've gone literally decades without a film dedicated to the character, as numerous incarnations of the project stalled in pre-production, speaks to this difficulty. There must be a vault somewhere of all the unproduced scripts and lists of potential actresses rumored to follow TV's Lynda Carter in the highly coveted role, one that doesn't come with the built-in benefits accompanying Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, or even James Bond and Indiana Jones. All those franchises will continue no matter who plays the character, as disastrous selections have demonstrated. They can be rebooted, remade, prequeled and sequeled to death because no one person is bigger than the character or property itself. Wonder Woman is different.
When Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman got the greenlight, it was all but guaranteed we'd never get another one if it didn't do well. Just look at how long it took to get this. And while there would be plenty of blame to go around, we all know who the public would point fingers at: Whoever plays her. It may be the only case where a really terrible film could be made, but as long as they got the casting right, everything else would be forgiven and it would rule the box office. The primary audience for these types of movies have always been young male fanboys with strong opinions on how the actress playing her should look, talk and act. And they're more than willing to tell you that no one will ever be good enough. While it's true every iconic pop culture character carries similar baggage to some extent, none have bared the burden quite like Wonder Woman.
Leave it up to DC to give the superhero with the roughest road to the big screen an introduction that does feel a little different, not to mention overdue. While it seems as if some actual thought and vision went into this, it does come back around again to the casting, as we knew it would. Somehow, they found an actress who personifies Wonder Woman in every possible way and then actually bothered to surround and support her with a worthwhile film that uses its content to reach an audience far beyond what was considered possible for the character. In other words, they nailed it. And while it's not without certain problems, it's nice to report for a change that there isn't a laundry list of them.
Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, as a member of a race of warrior women Zeus created to protect mankind. But this doesn't sit well with his son, the angry and jealous Ares, who vows to obliterate humanity, nearly succeeding before being run off by his father. Anticipating Ares' eventual return, Zeus leaves the Amazon women a secret weapon known as the "Godkiller," which could potentially defeat him. Despite Hippolyta forbidding it, a young Diana is secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), until her mother eventually relents.
Under the right guidance, Diana grows up to become a fierce warrior woman (Gal Gadot) whose life is interrupted when American pilot and Allied spy Steve Trevor's (Chris Pine) plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira and she rescues him. Hearing of the war and believing it to be the work of Ares, Diana leaves home and joins Trevor in his attempt to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who's chemist Isabel Maru (Elena Ayaya), aka "Dr. Poison," is engineering a deadly new form of mustard gas to end the war. Trevor recruits his own ragtag team of misfits to stop them, but it's Diana, armed with lasso, sword and shield, who proves to be their greatest asset, realizing the full extent of her powers to incite change in a world overcome with turmoil.
It's become commonplace to dread the first half-hour to forty minutes of a superhero film where an"origin story" is inflicted upon us. These extended (sometimes neverending) prologues are often ridiculously acted, give audiences information they already know or don't need, and frequently feature distractingly awful CGI. At times it feels like they're just there to pad the running time rather than to give viewers an actual connection to the story or its characters, with Marvel's Thor being the most glaring recent example of these offenses.
Monster director Patty Jenkins gets it right with an origin story that doesn't feel like a complete drag. It helps that aside from the character's recent, well-received Batman v. Superman appearance, she's relatively fresh and untainted from previous incarnations or big screen outings, making her the only remaining superhero that could possibly feel "new" to this generation. But that doesn't take away from everything Jenkins does really well in introducing this character, like keeping things simple. Or competently staging battle scenes that more closely resemble live-action, freeze frame murals or paintings than the overstylized, overedited effects we're used to getting in war porn like the 300 films.
The first sign that Allan Heinberg's script is truly working comes with the death a character early that we really shouldn't have any business caring about, but do, since their importance and connection to Diana was well established within the first twenty minutes, informing each lap of her journey going forward. When Steve Trevor crash lands and Diana makes the sacrifice to leave her people in pursuit of a greater good, we're there, fully invested in seeing her reaction to being thrown into an entirely new world.
It's a surprise just how much the script exploits both dramatic and comedic possibilities of this fish-out-of-water narrative, immeasurably aided by the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, with the latter conveying a likability and comedic delivery rarely displayed in his previous roles. And unlike most recent entries in the genre hampered by goofiness, the humor works for rather than against the more serious aspects of the narrative.
There's a feeling that the actors aren't just phoning it in for a big superhero payday or that this merely serves as an advertisement for a future series of films or spin-offs. While we know there undoubtedly will be and the term "Extended Universe" still very much exists and applies, other than a brief nod bookending the opening and closing, Jenkins focuses entirely on the task at hand. It's especially a relief to not be "treated" to a pointless post-credits scene for purely commercial purposes. For a change, all the energy does seem completely channeled into this project, with so much of it provided by the performer chosen for the allegedly uncastable title role.
Leaving any irrelevant concerns about her accent, physique or acting qualifications in the dust, Israeli actress Gal Gadot simply assumes the mantle of Wonder Woman from the moment she first appears. Not only does she look the part when judged against any previous incarnation of the character, but she's believable as a badass fighting machine, while also managing to convey the naivete and vulnerability accompanying Diana's confusion at mankind's propensity to destroy itself. Her curiosity and disappointment forms the core of a story that remains unusually focused much of the way through.
With superhero movies' reliance on stars at an all-time low, it may be possible for an actor to be afforded the opportunity to give what's considered a truly great performance in this type of role again. And while I'm still unsure Gadot does exactly that, she may accomplish one better by simply doing the character and our imaginations justice. It's as much an achievement in casting as acting, lending weight to those Christopher Reeve mentions, even as this has little in common his Superman films. Its whole look, feel and tone is actually more in line with something like The Rocketeer, a comparison that was more hastily ascribed to Marvel's recent Captain America entries.
If a hero's only as strong as their villain, there's some debate as to who's considered the main one here. Though there's a good reason for that, it's still a bit of a problem considering it's so clearly Elena Ayaya's "Dr. Poison," with her terrifying look and intriguing motivations, who leaves the most lasting impression as an adversary. It's saddest to admit that as strong as most of the picture is, it still doesn't completely break out of the box, remaining recognizable as exactly what it is: Yet another superhero movie. What it has going for it is unusually good direction and a masterstroke in casting. What has little to do with that is the fact that it was directed by woman. Having everything to do with it is that she was the right person for the job, regardless of gender.
Still overlong at nearly two and a half hours, it uses its time better than most, before delivering a third act that doesn't really distinguish itself from other entries in the genre, falling back on a climactic CGI-laden showdown, with a bit of a surprising twist. But at least most of what leads up to it works better than most expected given all the obstacles in bringing one of the most creatively challenging comic characters to the big screen. Whether this can continue, or more importantly, whether it should, is a different question entirely. But for now, it's worth basking in the victory of a successful Wonder Woman installment that's feels as if it's been a long time coming.