It ain’t easy being the princess of Themyscira. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has to both stop humanity from tearing itself apart in the war to end all wars and save the DC Extended Universe from completely caving in on itself. In her corner is director Patty Jenkins (Monster), who aims to pipe down the machismo-fueled brooding of Zack Snyder and David Ayer in favor of a more optimistic, old-fashioned feel. Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a wartime Saturday afternoon serial heroine whose story often mirrors that of Captain America: The First Avenger’s Steve Rogers. However, Steve had to adapt both physically and mentally to the war he had to fight. However, World War One isn’t ready for Diana.
Astoundingly, it has been twelve years since a superhero movie has had a woman in the driver’s seat. That puts a great deal of pressure on Gadot, who had virtually no acting experience upon taking the role. However, from the moment she comes on screen, it becomes clear that her Diana is well worth the wait. Her transition from the woman-only warrior island of Themyscira to the urban jungles of London and Germany leads to some expected fish out of water moments. However, Diana’s fumbles come from genuine admiration and curiosity, as opposed to the arrogant buffoonery of say, Thor. That said, she is never afraid to put somebody on the money or run into battle, and when she does, she’s fighting to win. Gadot is absolutely magnetic, basking in the earnestness that may have made a lesser actresses’ performance come off as cheesy. In an age where cynical anti-heroes like Tony Stark and Wade Wilson reign supreme, Diana’s un-ironic heroism and love for the world around her is genuinely refreshing.
Chris Pine also does a wonderful job as Steve Trevor, an American spy who befriends Diana and helps her venture into Europe. His typically sardonic demeanor perfectly underscores Gadot’s unfiltered kindness. However, he’s not just a walking quip dispensary. This is a man who’s become a bit detached from the life and death stakes of war. Naturally, this creates some friction when he’s paired with somebody fueled by pure empathy, making for some extremely dynamic conversations. Gadot and Pine have palpable chemistry and Jenkins knows it. She dedicates a great deal of time to watching these two play off each other, with Allan Heinberg’s screenplay giving them some fantastic dialogue to work with. Whenever we’re hovering around these two characters, this movie is firing on all cylinders.
We find ourselves so in love with Diana and Steve, that by the time the actual superhero business comes into play, it’s a bit of a bore. Jenkins is clearly far more interested in the human elements of this story, making the spectacle more of a side show than anything. The action sequences here feel like they’re on autopilot, with the notable exception of a spectacular first battle in which a small army of Amazonians takes on a battalion of German soldiers. While Gadot certainly throws herself into the fight scenes, she’s let down by an extreme reliance on gimmicky ‘slow down/speed up’ editing and jarring CGI touch ups meant to bolster her superpowers. It doesn’t look like a warrior crushing her enemies, it looks like somebody playing a video game. The film does such a fantastic job of humanizing Diana that it becomes rather jarring when she just turns into another special effect.
We’re given absolutely nothing from our two villains, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). They’re just mustache-twirling evil folks who want to make mustard gas because it will win the war. Whenever the film remembers to come back to them, they’re still just maniacally killing people or talking about how deadly their weapons are. There aren’t even any subtle attempts to give these guys any depth, as they really only serve to keep the plot moving forward.
This becomes especially frustrating in the third act when the movie decides that it absolutely has to end in fireworks. After coming very close to using the underdeveloped villains to push a profound message about humanity, the film then throws that message out the window so we can have a proper action sequence. As a result, we’re treated to a solid twenty minutes of Diana and the film’s true baddie throwing down in a Dragonball Z esque smackdown that starts to get old very fast. Since the climax is so overblown, a few of the emotional payoffs don’t land like they should, which leaves the film on somewhat awkward ground as it ends. There’s also some pretty outright mimicry of other superhero films, with one key moment that is flat-out stolen from another movie.
When Wonder Woman is embracing the humanity of its title character and those around her, it really works. It feels like a vintage wartime action/romance film from a bygone era whenever Jenkins is allowed to spend time with Diana, Steve, and their friends. However, this is almost begrudgingly a superhero movie. Whenever the action enters the driver’s seat, things start to feel very empty, especially when it completely takes over in the third act. However, it will very likely sweep most people in through sheer charm alone and will make for many sold-out movie theaters full of empowered young girls. Sign me up for that.