How long has it been since we’ve seen a brilliant, completely unironic superhero movie? 2011’s Captain America: First Avenger. Before that? Probably Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978)/Richard Lester & Donner’s Superman II (1980).
To that remarkable (and remarkably short) list we can add Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
There are more versions of Wonder Woman’s origin than any other superhero – this version appears to take one classic version and shift – at a crucial moment – to another equally intriguing version, seamlessly.
The first act introduces 7-year old Diana (Lily Aspell)- a surprisingly serious child who watches as the Amazon warriors train and imitates them. When her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator, The Following) forbids her to begin training, she sneaks off to learn from the greatest Amazon warrior in history, Antiope (Robin Wright, House of Cards, The Princess Bride).
Hippolyta eventually learns of Diana’s disobedience – but instead of punishing Diana, she orders Antiope to train her harder than any Amazon has been trained.
Not long after Diana Gal Godot (four Fast & Furious movies, Batman v Superman) proves herself to be the finest Amazon warrior, a strange thing happens – a German Fokker airplane crashes into the sea just off the shores of Themyscira. Diana saves the pilot – a Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Into the Woods, the rebooted Star Trek movies).
He is followed by German troops and a PG-13 bloody battle ensues. Several Amazons – including the greatest warrior in Amazon history – die from the invaders’ modern weaponry.
When Trevor refuses to divulge what brought him to the island paradise, Hippolyta uses the Lasso of Hestia to force him to tell all – and it ain’t pretty. In fact, it seems to point to the presence of Ares on Earth once more. A key element is a piece of stolen property that could possibly end the war.
Despite her mother’s orders (again), Diana sets out to leave with Steve. Hippolyta – who clearly knows her daughter well – shows up as Diana and Steve are about to set sail. Knowing that Diana is going to go regardless, she tells her that if she leaves, she may never return – then gives her the tiara previously worn by the greatest Amazon warrior.
Diana is not, to say the least, impressed with Man’s World. The duo’s arrival at London is hardly auspicious. There, though, we meet Trevor’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis, Shaun of the Dead) who could have stepped out of the classic ‘40s comics; a number of entitled politicians and war leaders – including Sir Patrick (David Thewlis, Fargo, five Harry Potter films), who is working on an armistice, and a group of German thugs who fail, spectacularly, to kill Trevor.
Despite orders to the contrary, Trevor sets out to form a team for a special mission to Belgium in hopes of destroying a potentially devastating weapon. He forms a group composed of a con man, Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui, The Missing); a sniper, Charlie (Ewen Bremner, Trainspotting, TI: Trainspotting 2), and a smuggler, The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock, The Revenant, Hell on Wheels).
Their work while on the way to their target leads to a very familiar photo.
The chief villains of the film appear to be Ludendorff (Danny Huston, Mob City, American Horror Story) and Dr. Mary aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In). It’s her weapon, under his direction, that leads Diana and Trevor’s team into Belgium.
Patty Jenkins (Monster) has taken the world’s most recognizable female superhero and given her a showcase that is worthy of her – and, in Godot, the perfect actor for the role.
Wonder Woman tells of the character’s origin in a different way – to wit, with a look at her growth from child to adult and how she becomes the best she can be in the cruelest forge of all, war. At the same time, she is heartbreakingly vulnerable – having to ignore the plight of the war’s victims in order to put an end to it has a sobering effect on her beliefs and motivations.
It’s only when she recognizes that love is the motivating force behind a huge sacrifice – and accepts that love has to be her prime motivation – that she comes fully into herself.
Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg (Party of Five, Grey’s Anatomy) have developed a story that features a character who is pure of heart and as vulnerable as she is powerful. The fact that she saves Trevor does make him the film’s version of a damsel in distress – he gets to be heroic and vulnerable, too. They make a great team.
On the villainous side, Ludendorff and Dr. Poison are also quite the team – she develops weapons that he uses, but there is a certain regard between them (not a particularly wholesome one, but definitely there). She even provides him with a gas that helps him keep up his prodigious strength.
You can’t talk about a superhero movie without mentioning the effects work and the stunt work. Both are superb here – the final manifestation of Ares is pretty scary stuff (for example).
As for the stunt work, it’s hard to imagine that ex-Israeli Defense Force veteran and martial artist Godot didn’t do the better part (say, 80-90%) of Diana’s stuntwork. The action sequences are all beautifully designed and shot – but even so, the action serves to illustrate who these characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
As an entertainment experience alone, Wonder Woman is a genuinely delightful superhero movie – and a brilliant film, period. It’s combination of wit, charm and general kick-assery are unequalled (except maybe by the films I mentioned above).
If a film this good can’t give a female superhero big box office I don’t know what will.
Final Grade: A+