Lets get the hyperbole out of the way, shall we? Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” (the fourth film in the D.C. Extended Universe) is the best DC superhero film since “The Dark Knight.”
Now let me qualify that statement a bit: being the best DC superhero film since “Dark Knight” isn’t exactly a high mark to clear. “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v Superman” are miserable, overstuffed slogs and “Man of Steel” is good until that trainwreck of a last third. However, DC’s recent slump doesn’t diminish the high quality displayed in Jenkins’ picture. “Wonder Woman” isn’t merely passable or mediocre, it’s drastically better than those other lackluster flicks.
Jenkins emphasizes character over spectacle while the narrative is coherent and focused. It doesn’t tease upcoming DCEU films and the script by Allan Heinberg doesn’t clog the movie with unnecessary side plots or excess McGuffins to give the illusion of depth. Additionally, “Wonder Woman” is a lot of fun--charming and silly in equal measure. It combines the goofy, mythical otherworldliness of “Thor” with the period combat/espionage film dynamics of the first “Captain America” and lightly touches on the horrors of war and the struggles women face in society.
Through a flimsy flashback-framing device (that opens and closes the film with terribly ham-fisted voice over) we’re transported to the lush, dislocated island paradise known as Themysciria where a race of Amazons live in peace. Wonder Woman, aka Diana (Gal Gadot) is the most restless and headstrong of them, desperate to become a warrior and protect others from danger. She gets her chance when U.S. solider Steve (Chris Pine) crashes his airplane near the island. Steve is doing spy work for the British and warns the isolated Amazons about World War 1 and its threat to humanity. Diana decides to accompany Steve on his mission (going to the chaotic Western Front) hoping to singlehandedly stop the war and bring peace.
However, things aren’t so simple and in this regard “Wonder Woman” is a poignant coming of age film. Diana is fierce and self-assured, boldly marching into any harry situation. And unlike the pessimistic Batman or the latest mopey incarnation of Superman, she’s brimming with optimism. Though she’s also incredibly naïve and unprepared for the fact that humans, especially men, are a violent species that crave war and conflict. Her initial plan to stop the Great War is noble but somewhat simplistic, not taking into account the complexities and messiness of war. She’s never seen a village full of women and children cruelly gassed. This harsh reality has a tremendous effect on Diana, ultimately leaving her mature and slightly jaded.
This is admittedly gloomy material but Jenkins’ never lets said gloominess totally dominate the picture. “Wonder Woman” touches on the horrors of war and the cruelty of humanity while giddily embracing its pulpy comic book origins at the same time. Diana may not be able to fully comprehend the messy and gruesome nature of human conflict but she is a super being from a mythical realm--meaning she can do things the average solider can’t. At one point Diana heroically charges across No Mans Land to attack a German trench and free a French village, eventually inspiring fellow soldiers stuck in the trenches. Not a bad ally to have. Instead of spending all her time sulking about how awful humanity is Diana is proactive; killing plenty of Germans with her patented glowing lasso and shield, trying her hardest to remain optimistic and slice through the dense politics and convolutions of human conflict.
On top of that, “Wonder Woman” playfully mocks rigid societal codes and structures, like The Patriarchy. The sequence in which Diana and Steve are in London to prepare for their mission is rife with great fish-out-of-water humor. Diana being puzzled by and then criticizing silly, misogynistic societal norms is a joy to watch. For example, her priceless reaction to the fact that women aren't allowed to be apart of high-level strategic meetings. Related to this spirited ribbing is the superb chemistry between Gadot and Pine-- their repartee and comedic timing are impeccable.
Pine, with his cocky and dopey performance, may be at his very best but Gadot is the star here. While her performance is occasionally shaky, (this is her first leading role) overall the relative newcomer holds her own, injecting Diana with ferocity, compassion and effortless wit. Jenkins keeps the film’s focus squarely on Diana and her evolution from bright-eyed Princess to grounded warrior.
The picture can be very clunky and heavy-handed at times, (ala the superfluous flashback-framing device) spoon-feeding fairly obvious plot points, themes and character arcs. Making matters worse, the last act is a mess. It’s the only time Jenkins really loses control of the project and things become incoherent. The final hero-villain showdown is an exhausting muddle of ugly CGI destruction (the CGI throughout looks third rate) and the villain himself is overly generic and one dimensional. It's the same old story: good third acts and compelling villains are difficult to pull off in superhero movies. Spectacle and cliche briefly snuffs out character and narrative clarity.
Nevertheless, “Wonder Woman” is an empowering, self contained, character driven, all around entertaining superhero origin film that more than adequately sets up the Amazonian Princess for future films.