Well, DC finally did it. At long last, after three failed attempts, the comics company made a film in their shared cinematic universe that I can actually recommend. Just don’t expect it to be the second coming everyone’s saying it is.
Princess Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), lives on the magical island of Themyscira with other Amazons. The Amazons are warrior women created by the gods to protect mankind. Ares, the god of war, corrupts man. Zeus is able to kill Aries, and he creates Themyscira, which is (sort of) invisible to the rest of the world. Things go swimmingly for the the Amazons until 1918 when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a plane on the island, with German soldiers not too far behind. He tells the Amazons, who are wary of men, of the war to end all wars. Millions have died, soldiers and bystanders alike. Diana (Gal Gadot) is devastated by the thought of so many innocents dying. She thinks the war is the work of Ares, and insists on leaving the island with Trevor. On her way to kill Ares, she and Trevor must stop a mad scientist (Doctor Poison played by Elena Anaya) and war hungry German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) from using a deadly gas on ally soldiers and civilians. Helping them is Charlie (Ewen Bremner), a heavy drinking Scottish sharpshooter with PTSD; Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a secret agent and wannabe lady’s man; Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a dealer to both sides of the war; and Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Steve’s plucky secretary. But some are doubtful that Aries even exists or, if he does, if he’s really responsible for the atrocities of the so-called Great War.
Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad suffered from overly complicated stories and WAAAY to many characters and subplots. Here, screenwriter Alllan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins were wise enough to keep the story simple and straightforward with a relatively small cast list and easy to understand main objectives: Steve wants to stop Doctor Poison and Baron von Bad Guy from unleashing a terrible gas upon ally soldiers and innocent bystanders; Diana wants to find and kill Ares so the war will end and the Germans will be free of his evil influence. There are some twists and turns in the narrative, but things don’t get too much more complicated than that. Jenkins doesn’t have to juggle as much as Zack Snyder or David Ayer in the previous cinematic universe films so she’s able to make what story she does have particularly good. If there are any problems, it’s that maybe the story is predictable and doesn’t take enough risks.
The smaller cast is a breath of fresh air after two crowded DC films. Heinberg and Jenkins give the brunt of the focus to Diana and Steve. That’s both good and bad. It certainly means the two characters are given plenty of space to develop even if you can see where most of their character arcs are going within the film’s first half-hour. Pine certainly isn’t playing Kirk, but he’s not light years away from that role, either. Don’t get me wrong, he’s good as Steve. He’s enjoyable to watch, but there just aren’t any surprises in his performance, which is a shame.
Gadot, on the other hand, continues to not only surprise but amaze with her choices and overall performance. She’s truly perfect casting. I know many, including myself, had reservations about her playing the part when she was announced before the release of Batman v Superman, but boy, were we all not be more wrong. Diana needs to be honorable. Check. She needs a strong moral compass. Check. She needs to be a compassionate, carrying, idealist who wants nothing but peace but can still be a kick ass warrior (my Zeus, is she badass) when the situation calls for it. Big check. Not only is Gadot great casting, but, unlike Henry Cavill with Superman and Ben Affleck with Batman, she’s getting material that accurately represents the character from the comics.
The rest of the cast is sadly underdeveloped. Little attention is given to Sameer, Charlie, and Chief. They’re probably more developed than the Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger, and they’re probably more real and nuanced than the Commandos. But they aren’t as memorable nor do you invest in them as quickly and easily, and it’s sometimes hard to find a reason to care about their fates. You can see great or at least good characters, but there’s a lot of underutilized potential. One obvious thing to develop further is Charlie’s PTSD. So little is done with it that it’s more cliche than pathos.
Some other character problems. Etta is annoying. She was perfectly fine in the trailer. In the actual movie…not so much. It’s obvious how and why she’s supposed to be funny and charming, but Lucy Davis is trying too hard. It’s not all her fault (I’m looking at you, Heinberg and Jenkins), but while I certainly didn’t hate her character, I was a little relieved when she was off-screen. She’s a character who could really bring the film down. Thankfully, her whole is ultimately small.
Finally, there’s our villains Doctor Poison and Mr. German Evilton. Doctor Poison is kind of just there. She almost starts working in the last act, which is more than can be said for probably one of the most cliched, blandest, and most forgettable super-villains in recent memory. To make another Captain America comparison, there wasn’t much to Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, but at least he sticks out in the mind. Generic McVillain has nothing going for him…AT…ALL…He’s a poorly written and poorly realized villain who feels more like a pushover henchman than one of our big bads. He’s by far the weakest aspect of what is otherwise an enjoyable popcorner.
The cinematography is still leaning a little heavy on the dark, but that’s because most scenes, for good reason, take place at night or in dark interiors and not because of some bogus attempt at being “adult.” The film is adult in the right ways, such as Diana’s journey to discovering the world is far more complicated and less black-and-white than she realized. That’s where you can find mature material, DC, not in this other pretentious crap you’ve been doling out lately.
But what this movie gets right that at least Man of Steel and Batman v Superman failed miserably at is bringing in adult moments without forgetting to have fun. Admittedly, it takes about half (or so) of the movie to get to the real ace stuff. When Diana’s fight scene in a European village kicks the awesomeness off, though, the movie more or less stays at that level until the end.
Women, young and old, need more representation in Hollywood. Wonder Woman certainly delivers that with an ideal leading lady, a nice if a not fully realized cast, and a serviceable story that deals with mature issues while interjecting in a fair amount of fun. Is this one of the best superhero movies of all time? No. But it certainly an indicator that films with women leading the pack can be box office gold, too.
To sort of quote The Princess Bride: DC, you did something right, but don’t let it go to your head.