Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman combines feminity and ferociousness, and ends up a tonne of fun, as she unleashes Gal Gadot and the lasso of truth to not only liberate humanity from its worst destructive impulses in 1918 Belgium, but to also free the DC Extended Universe from its tedium. There’s something poetic in the fact that, stepping into the iconic void left by Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine in the excellent Logan, we have a similarly genre-defining take on a superhero, one who means so much to those hoping for the shattering of the glass ceiling in film, and even more to her adoring fans who have long wanted to see something of themselves onscreen.
After a utopian opening that sees her being trained in the Amazon homeland of Themyscira, Diana, Princess of said island, takes it upon herself to aid the stranded Steve Trevor (a wisecracking, scene stealing Chris Pine) in the battle against the Hun, who she believes to be corrupted and guided into the War To End All Wars by her people’s nemesis, Ares the God of War. Heading to the front on the orders of David Thewlis’ Sir Patrick Morgan, they pick up spy Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), smuggler Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) and sniper Charlie (Ewan Bremner) on their way to stop a possibly possessed Baron von Ludendorff (Danny Huston) from unleashing a superweapon created by his muse, Doctor Poison (The Skin I Live In’s Elena Anaya).
With Gadot as impressive and charismatic as she was throwaway and flat in the middle Fast & Furious movies, and Pine turning the rogeuish movie star charm on full blast, the film already has a sizeable head start over its DCEU stablemates by having likeable leads. With her superhero credentials already established by somehow making Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice bearable in its final third, Gadot here smirks, slashes, high kicks and lassos her way through the film (carried over from her previous appearance is the Brian May-esque riffing of Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer’s Flash Gordon-goes-feral theme), and the feeling here is of a star being born through sheer force of personality. The curiosity she displays at the world around her is played for laughs, but never patronises the character as she asks seemingly naïve questions that subtly cut to the chase in criticising social mores and the barriers between the sexes (the gender politics of one hundred years ago seem shamefully contemporary; one gets the impression that Gadot’s eye rolling whenever Prince is treated as “just” a pretty face with no other qualities is actually the actress breaking character and recalling her modelling days).
It’s a relief to see Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg forging this more modern take on the character, and in a cinematic universe that has leaned heavily on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series, it’s an even bigger relief to see there’s no nod to the hyper sexual, bosom version that signalled the waning of Miller’s talent and contemporary relevance. Instead we have a more assured heroine, one who is powered by her own agency, knowing of her Godlike powers but who focusses on using them to right wrongs, and who never once takes an extended montage to sulk like a child about her place amongst mortals (sorry, fans of Kevin Costner: no moping about mountains having imaginary conversations with father figures). She still has time to plaufully banter with Pine’s spy, and the time spent on their relationship pays off in the finale.
It is at this climax, however, where the film missteps. Whilst it has a slimlined plot – thankfully avoiding the obvious reshoots that contributed to BvS‘ patchwork quilt worldbuilding – the last twenty minutes, as with almost all superhero films, is a blur of CGI, as our heroine ocasionally transforms into a set of pixels to punch another set of pixels right in the 3D model. If you were being picky, you could also say the resolution is muddied somewhat by the existence of WWII. Jenkins can’t fight City Hall, but at least her usual focus on character gives us two hours of sincere performances and the picking apart of male-dominated superhero tropes (“I can’t let you do this”, Steve says to Diana at a critical point in the film; “What I do is not up to you” comes the pointed reply).
Will this movie make female-led – in front of and behind the camera – films less of a gamble for studios? If there’s any justice, yes. After the failings of the execrable Catwoman and Elektra more than a decade ago that put PVC onto their lithe leads and hoped for the best, the script here reflects the questioning of male-centric action tropes (what a joy to hear a woman turn to the man and say “Stay here”, usually just before or after saving his life) in a way that seems to be an extension of Mad Max: Fury Road’s mission to show that strength and fortitude aren’t the sole domain of the male race. In the film’s centrepiece action scene, the narrative and thematic currents of the film merge as Diana charges headfirst into No Man’s Land (get it?), ignoring the men behind her who demand she stop, and those ahead of her blocking her way.
And yes, that is a buffed up Robin Wright as Amazon trainer Antiope, and Lucy Davis from The Office (wonderfully providing comic relief as Etta Candy, Steve’s associate) whose recognition of Wonder Woman’s strengths and values is immediate. They could have been sitting in the audience.
Wonder Woman is out on general release in the UK from 1st June 2017.