The summer action blockbuster spectacular 75 years and multiple generations in the making has arrived at last, narrowly seeing the light of day before the end of the universe despite numerous prognosticators to the contrary! Wonder Woman is here and she’s brought the hopes and dreams of zillions of fans with her, from comics to Lynda Carter to animation to brightening Dawn of Justice to decades of products bearing her heroic image even in sadder times when she had no screen projects to promote. If you can name her five best stories, or if you drew inspiration merely from the bold visage of an unstoppable warrior woman unlike any of the super-dudes outnumbering her, either way director Patty Jenkins bids you welcome, because Wonder Woman is here for you.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time there was a distant island named Themyscira populated entirely by the Amazons, a legendary all-women’s society existent since the era of Greek gods, living in peace apart from the rest of the planet but staying honed and prepared daily in case of intruders. Connie Nielsen from Gladiator ruled them as the royal Queen Martha Hippolyta. Wary of the evils that lay beyond their boundaries, she governed Themyscira as a virtual Paradise Island in hopes that her daughter Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, 14/10 awesomely heroic) would never need to learn to fight, to risk wounds or dirt. Diana obeyed her overprotective mom and never touched a weapon and grew up spoiled rotten and played a lot of video games until she died of high cholesterol. Wait, no, she learned fighting skills behind Mom’s back anyway.
The queen’s isolationist ideal is shattered when the nastiness of World War I rushes past their defenses, threatens their complacency, ruins their day, and opens Diana’s eyes to a world contaminated by man’s inhumanity to man. Representing for the benevolent side of the very real struggle is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, more than just reprising Captain Kirk), a soldier and spy aiming to do the right thing and shut down the War to End All Wars in its final days. One problem: lingering madmen with sinister plans to prolong the war and tilt the scales back in their favor with a chilling new weapon of mass destruction, bent on proving wide-scale slaughter could be achieved well before the advent of the nuclear option.
Thus does Princess Diana find her calling, rise to the occasion, steal every unique weapon not nailed down, and insist her new friend Steve guide her toward Evil so she can stab it dead. Will this man, a coterie of misfit mercenaries, and this young woman of considerable wonder be up to the task?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Frequent film foe Danny Huston oversees Operation Not Agent Orange in the guise of General Erich Ludendorff, an actual figure from true WWI history, though his rendition here in many ways is as accurate as Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of Hitler. Elena Anaya (one of Dracula’s wives from Van Helsing) is his chief scientist Dr. Poison, which sums up her and her work altogether.
On the side of good, Lucy Davis (Dawn from the original The Office) is longtime comics cast member Etta Candy, promoted from scrappy sidekick to home-base liaison, who deserved triple screen time. David Thewlis (Professor Lupin!) is the British official who facilitates Our Heroes’ top-secret day-saving mission. Trevor’s eccentric recruits include Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting) and Saïd Taghmaoui (Breaker from the first GI Joe movie).
Meanwhile among the Amazons, Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup! Claire Underwood! Jenny!) is Antiope, the gruff senior trainer who teaches Diana everything she knows about combat and who thinks the Queen is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Lessons learned from Wonder Woman include but aren’t limited to:
* Love: generally good. A driving force for Diana.
* War is bad but often necessary in a world tainted by sinners who don’t get that.
* Peace is good. Anyone who says different has weapons for sale.
* Isolationism is selfish, the moral equivalent of standing still and watching Uncle Ben die times millions.
* Themyscira is not an American territory and it follows that Wonder Woman at her root is not American. Their veneration of the Greek pantheon is also a bit of a clue. WW has worn red-white-‘n’-blue on past costumes, but they were almost always leavened with generous amounts of non-American yellow/gold. Regardless: she’s not Ms. America. You’re thinking of the really earnest guy with the shield over at the other company.
* It’s unwise trying to shelter your kids from all pain and evil. Hiding them in your community’s plastic bubble is not a permanent solution. Sooner or later they’ll be exposed to the contagion that is Others and eventually negative emotions will occur. If you leave them unable to muster up even a minimal self-defense, they’ll be wrecked and you’ll be partly to blame. Conquering fear beats the safety of cowardice in any serious mature playbook.
* Demonstrating gender equality through actions, positions, teamwork, and mutual accomplishment rings more true and makes a more convincing case than paying it lip service or forcing characters to deliver ten-minute speeches about it to teach unschooled viewers the lessons they missed. The dynamic duo of Diana and Trevor excels at showing-not-telling.
* Men circa the 1910s: not yet grasping that last one.
Nitpicking? The first 30-40 minutes of the film felt very familiar to me. A uniquely talented, naive, optimistic outsider deeply rooted in seemingly mythical belief departs their faraway magical homeland on a mission borne of love. A boat carries them thousands of miles to reach our “normal” harsh realm, where they prefer their own weird clothes to ours. Their eyes grow wide with whimsy and awe at each new sight, after each silly mistake, and whenever they sample a sugary treat that overwhelms their senses. Everyone scoffs at their actions and words until they realize the central myth is real. Once everyone around them is convinced, then they can all work together in harmony for the sake of the world in general and the people they love in particular. Broadly speaking, they’ve partly remade Elf.
Each act has its own series of dynamic set pieces. Act Two is the most stunning, an extended skirmish that leads from the trenches of Paths of Glory to a war-ravaged small town that needs someone to stand up and say “Enough.” Act Three has your mandatory final boss battle, which contains several unforgettable images (and Gadot at her finest) but tosses in a fake new superpower or two like it’s Superman II and ultimately concludes in the same sort of vague, razed wasteland that ended Dawn of Justice. Act One is all about Amazons being Amazons, whose combat bylaws state that no single action can be performed unless it’s either amplified through Zack Snyder speed-ramping or prefaced with a 270-degree midair spin. I’m reminded of the typical Robert Rodriguez shoot-’em-up in which no one merely picks up guns and fires; they have to grab them, toss them in the air, catch them, and then they can open fire. Cool visual effects are cooler when you don’t notice how much time they’re wasting on superfluous dance moves.
If your primary objective as a viewer is the hope of catching salacious shots of Gal Gadot or any other Amazons frolicking in the buff, this film is not intended for you. At all. But one scene will be sheer bliss for anyone who has the phrase “Chris Pine nude” bookmarked in their search browser. In this area the film presents a spot of imbalance to add to the small stack that’s leaning against 100+ years of Hollywood nekkid-chicks imbalance.
So what’s to like? Moving the setting back to WWI seemed an odd choice at first for a character who didn’t exist back then, but ultimately it works out. The Diana of this period is innocent and still learning the ropes of heroism, but the wartime backdrop provides an opportunity for her to demonstrate the warrior spirit that differentiates her from Batman and Superman, by which I mean Wonder Woman kills. But it’s wartime and therefore part-‘n’-parcel of the unfortunate experience, if not ingrained in her heritage. If we get to Justice League and she’s stabbing bank robbers through the heart, some rethinking will need to be done.
But through the chaos and the sunny times alike, Gal Gadot is the absolute best reason to watch. She often smiles. That word again: SMILES! Honest! Remember when Christopher Reeve used to do that and all the best generations stood up and cheered for it? Gal Gadot is the new Christopher Reeve. In the early scenes even li’l kiddo Diana is a role model to behold as she keenly watches the adults carry on with their training. She stands firm and tries duplicating their exercises — striking the air with her tiny arms, punching and elbowing with such emphatic determination that I admired her steel nerves in the making and died from cuteness overload.
Despite my minor quibbles, Wonder Woman is a valiant return to the bygone age of the hopeful super-hero film, soaring into our hearts on the wings of composer Rupert Gregson-Williams’s volume-11 string section and martial-metal battle hymns, all while Jenkins and screenwriter Allen Heinberg guide Gadot and Pine through fighting the good fight, doing a little dance, and reminding a jaded 21st-century audience that truly Good Guys done well aren’t remotely boring. And they’re what the self-absorbed, spiteful, misguided little kids inside us need now more than ever.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Wonder Woman end credits, though comics fans will appreciate the Special Thanks section that leads off with the names of several writers and artists who’ve steered Diana’s fortunes throughout her past fifty years of DC Comics: Robert Kanigher (’60s and ’70s) Len Wein and Ross Andru (those swingin’ ’70s); George Perez with Greg Potter (post-Crisis ’80s, a.k.a. “my” version of WW); Phil Jimenez (Perez’ successor); William Messner-Loebs and Mike Deodato Jr. (’90s); Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang (New 52); and Greg Rucka (early 2000s and the recent “Rebirth”).
I remember quite a few other regular WW contributors from my lifetime (Byrne, Simone, Busiek, Robbins, Newell, Houser, any number of additional artists…), but they’re omitted in favor of Special Thanks for three additional gents: DC VP Jim Lee, who drew Diana a few times in Justice League and who is a DC VP; and James Bonny and Tony Daniel, creators of the sword she uses in the film. If you’re a longtime comics reader whose favorite WW arc was the work of someone not listed above, I’m afraid they’re just not as important as the big shiny stabby thing. Dreadful sorry.
But on the brighter side, Lynda Carter absolutely gets acknowledged. Anyone who knows anything about Wonder Woman knows better than to snub her.