Make no mistake, there was a lot riding on this film.
Patty Jenkins’ passion project (and a passion project it was, Ms Jenkins first petitioned Warner Brothers to direct a Wonder Woman film right after directing 2003’s Monster nearly fifteen years ago) was fighting a battle on two fronts since its inception.
Firstly, the film had the unenviable task of bucking the trend of dubious critical reaction to all of the DCEU films thus far.
Man of Steel (2013) fared okay with critics but it wasn’t the triumphant re-imagining of the Superman franchise that fans had hoped for. I loved it (and still love it) fiercely, but many fans (and even comic book writers) were highly critical of some of the decisions that the film made.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) did very well at the box office (to the tune of almost $900,000,000 worldwide) but didn’t match the studio’s meteoric expectations and it took until the film’s Ultimate Cut release on blu ray for fans to realise that they liked it. Hell, I really didn’t know what to make of it the first time I saw it.
Last summer’s Suicide Squad was absolutely mauled by critics but few can deny that the film found its audience. The irreverent antics of the ‘Worst Heroes Ever’ struck a chord with audiences, particularly audiences of colour. In its diverse cast, the film reminded us just how rarely non-caucasian and non-male characters get to dominate the box office.
There’s no denying, Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment needed Wonder Woman to be an unequivocal hit.
The second, and arguably most important, front was to do justice to Wonder Woman’s unimpeachable status as a feminist icon.
Diana has adorned many a lunchbox, backpack and pyjama set but this was an opportunity to show little girls all over the world that women had a cinematic icon with every bit as much heroism, charisma and ass-kicking awesomeness as the male superheroes they’re used to seeing. Moreover, little boys needed to see just how awesome and inspiring a female superhero can be and hopefully walk away with a little more appreciation for their mothers, sisters, teachers and female friends at school.
That’s a lot of pressure, but then again Wonder Woman has a history of being able to literally take the weight of the world on her shoulders!
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was sceptical of the casting of (then) little-known Israeli actress Gal Gadot upon hearing of her casting as Wonder Woman in BvS. I felt that the character’s iconic status demanded a seasoned veteran, not a former model whose primary film experience had been the Fast & Furious movies.
I hoped to be proven wrong, and I was.
Zack and Deborah Snyder saw something truly special in Gadot when she tested for the role and last March, audiences saw it too.
However wildly opinions differ on BvS itself, Gal’s performance and the depiction of Wonder Woman were met with near universal acclaim. This Diana Prince was a jaded outsider who has walked among the world of men for a century and been disappointed by them at every turn. Her verbal sparring with Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne (also weary and cynical, but far more given to bitterness), was one of the highlights in the film.
As bored and wryly amused as she appeared at the violent antics of ‘boys born with no natural inclination to share’, she still retained that glimmer of hope for man’s world which made it so rewarding for the audience when she finally returned to save the day in the familiar red, blue and gold armour.
Wonder Woman proves that origin stories needn’t be old hat, embracing the character’s roots in Greek mythology and striking a tone between fantasy epics like Clash of the Titans (1981) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and swashbucklers like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) , viewed through the earnest lens of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).
To bring a sense of age to an ageless character like Diana is no mean feat for an actor, and Gal’s performance in this film combines all the intelligence and strength from her performance in BvS but tempered with an almost childlike idealism that creates a stark juxtaposition when she is brought into the uncompromising industrial violence of the World War One.
The period setting (eschewing Diana’s traditional first contact with the world of man in the mid 1940s) is perfect for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the advent of the first world war coincides roughly with women’s suffrage and allows for some amusing but politically poignant ‘fish out of water’ stories. Secondly, it represents the dawn of a new kind of warfare; industrial, impersonal and unprecedented in its savagery. It’s no secret that Ares, the God of war, is the arch villain of this film, can you imagine more fertile ground in which for him to thrive?
Without getting into spoilers, I will say that the handling of Ares in the film is clever and inventive and just perfect for his first depiction on film.
By no means is the God of War the only threat to Diana. The tyrannical General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Houston) serves as the principal antagonist, determined to perpetuate the war, whatever the human cost. He believes that war is a proving ground in which man shows his true character and that it is therefore necessary for the advancement of the human race.
He is joined by the brilliant and sadistic Dr Isabelle Maru AKA Doctor Poison. Elena Alanya’s performance is genuinely disturbing as the classic comic book villain. She takes a practically rhapsodic pleasure in the pain and suffering of others and combined with Huston’s stoic ruthlessness as Ludendorff they make for an imposing double act.
Diana does not have to face these threats alone, however. Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, the American spy who crash lands on Diana’s island home of Themyscira, bringing his usual Captain Kirk charm to proceedings in spades. If you’re looking for a dashing and courageous swashbuckler who’d rather charm his way out of an altercation than pick up a weapon, there can be no better fit! It takes a real screen presence to share a screen with an amazon and Pine earns every minute he spends on screen with Gal and her fellow amazons.
The amazons themselves are a formidable bunch and welcome proof that there are ample opportunities for actresses over forty to play strong, courageous characters and not just put-upon matriarchs.
Connie Nielsen’s Hippolyta is the very definition of a warrior diplomat, ruling with equal measures of compassion and authority. She is brimming with maternal love for Diana but shows the subtlest signs of the wear incurred from maintaining the fragile peace of Themyscira for centuries.
I’ve been a fan of Robin Wright from her turn as the charmingly subversive Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1987) to her compelling portrayal of the American Lady Macbeth, Claire Underwood in House of Cards (2013-). As Hippolyta’s pugnacious-yet-compassionate sister Antiope she is the baddest of badasses and gets even more ‘holy shit’ action moments in the film than even Diana.
Rounding out the cast are Lucy Davis as Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy, who serves as the film’s political barometer for society’s attitude towards women of the time, the Professor Lupin himself David Thewlis as the avuncular statesman Sir Patrick and Ewan Bremner, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock as a ragtag team of misfits who can be best described as Diana’s Howling Commandos.
The stellar cast are supported by a witty, intelligent script that’s rich in Wonder Woman’s comic book canon.
The production design is phenomenal, with Themyscira representing the DCEU’s most sumptuous visual world building since the Krypton sequences in Man of Steel. The island paradise is wonderfully shot by Matthew Jensen, rich in lush vegetation, cobalt blue seas and powdery white sands. The design gives the island a rich sense of history, populated by ancient artefacts, each with its own history.
Paradise island gives way to the greyed out smog of industrial era London and eventually the body strewn trenches, creating a rich sense of historical authority and using our familiarity with the iconography of the early 20th century to enrich our sense of immersion into this world.
Speaking of enrichment, I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention Rupert Gregson Williams’ soaring musical score which does a great job of conveying Diana’s lofty idealism but weaves in phrases from Hanz Zimmer’s kinetic Wonder Woman theme from BvS when there are asses to be kicked.
Some may find the transitions jarring but for my money the score does a great job of encapsulating the inherent dichotomy of the warrior diplomat.
Wonder Woman is a masterclass in knowing (perhaps unlike the more disjointed Suicide Squad) exactly what sort of film it wants to be and staying true to its own tone ans message.
For all its action and unflinching portrayal of war and violence the film’s message is one of love, optimism and hope.
And right now, that’s exactly what the DCEU wants, needs and deserves.