DC’s latest works not only because it’s fine with being a superhero film, but because it is unashamedly so.
The most striking distinction, the one that separates Wonder Woman from the rest of the DC Extended Universe, is unusually that despite the film’s title, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is not referred to by that title within the film. Lest we forger that prior to their 2017 summer tent-pole, this was a universe that saw both Batman and Superman undergo periods of uncertainty, with the weight of the world thrown at them, in order to question if they ‘be worthy’ enough to protect their cities on opposite sides of the bay.
Not only that, but just ten months ago, this universe revealed itself to be one where the alleged supervillains (and believe me, we were told they were bad guys many times) appear to have been more willing to save a city, one that none of them come from, from an unquestionable evil. Wonder Woman does not trade on the moral queries of the previous entries or this franchise, or at least it doesn’t when it comes to its protagonist. Instead, Diana is Wonder Woman and this is not up for debate.
This simplicity can be seen in individual story beats, like when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) steals the notebook of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). He simply sees it and goes for it. As a whole, the movie trades on this kind of simplicity when it comes to plot –– It does not try to intertwine four/five plot-lines like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor does it appear to being going where the wind and mood takes it a la Suicide Squad. However, I don’t want to imply that this film is basic by any means.
It’s smart, not in a Whedon-kind of way where the words ‘mewling quim’ end up in the finished product, but in regards to gender roles and the subversion of those within a blockbuster. This should be clear from the fact that Steve Trevor, despite being the romantic interest, is granted a great deal more to do than his respective female counterparts, but it applies to other scenes. Written by Allan Heinberg, there are points, such as when Diana walks in on Steve exiting the bath or later when they depart for London and discuss sleeping, where you might anticipate where these scenes will go, based on similar versions across many other pieces of media. This is primarily due to the dialogue, leaning on low-hanging fruit for these scenarios which can be played as cutesy-awkward, but under the lens of Patty Jenkins, an air of earnestness comes across.
Andrew Sarris considered this to be ‘Interior Meaning’, or the conflict between the text the director works from, and the text that they create. As a result, the joke isn’t on Diana. It might be played as humorous, but not for laughs directed at her because Jenkins understands there’s difference between being a fish-out-of-water and naivety writ large. A similar notion applies to Sammy, Charlie and Chief, played by Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock respectively. They might be stereotypes, a symptom of the script adopting a brisker pace upon arriving in Man’s World, but the qualities that come with these rough character outlines aren’t why they’re funny.
This notion of ‘interior meaning’ was demonstrated last year in Batman v. Superman, when Gadot ad-libbed her smile during the Doomsday fight, before she rejoined the brawl. With the focus now on year, she shines even more brightly than she did there. Present in the actresses that portray a younger Diana, Gadot demonstrates a determination in all of her actions and decisions throughout the film, and as a fish-out-of-water, she plays confusion without an air of vapidity –– the moment in which she becomes enamoured by a baby sees her tap into the same compassion and care for life that takes across No Man’s Land in the second act, the film’s most inspiring and flowing sequence.
With Chris Pine, the pair demonstrate a chemistry that runs as an undercurrent in most if not all of their scenes even when it is not the focus and without either of them needing to say anything about it. Jenkins’ has a clear talent for non-verbal moments like this, the reason the wonders of the first act shine despite the heavy exposition about the mythology of the Amazons and gods. When dealing with scenes that are explicitly about the duo’s relationship, Jenkins focus on the pair and avoids cutting away to show reactions of others. This is about what they have together and that unity makes them best comic book pairing since Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, a comparison that would be made regardless, but is ultimately welcome.
If anything, this goes to show that a lot of the film’s problems exist on a script level. in fact the issues present in the film –– exposition, underwritten supporting cast, a third act that forgets some themes previously considered, bad CGI –– are ones present in most superhero films (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad to offer just one possible assortment to fit this particular bill). It’s to the credit of Jenkins that the first two acts, the second most of all, are so strong, that these issues don’t weigh the film down further. In this lead-up to Wonder Woman‘s release, there was a worry that it would seem to similar to Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, but instead it feels fresh, in the way that Deadpool captured the zeitgeist and that’s a matter of new perspective.
Of course a disconnect from the wider DCEU helps with that. In fact, we don’t receive a definitive answer as to why Diana left Man’s World and the film would be better served without a framing sequence possibly reminding reviews of that. As with those moments mentioned previously with regards to ‘Interior Meaning’, this sense of hopefulness hasn’t been seen in this universe before (even if select viewers found it in Man of Steel) and the sheer desire to do good is frankly awe-inspiring, hopefully a point of refocusing for this franchise.
With any luck this refocusing will shift away from fights set against green-screens involving all manner of flames and explosions. This is where the film becomes messiest, the bad CGI more noticeable now taking center stage, not helped by the editing. Despite this, Gadot remains a constant, continuing to show that she demonstrates this character in a way that even fans of her previous appearance likely couldn’t have anticipated. Through this it becomes clear that it’s never been Gadot’s acting that’s been flat, but instead that it seems this way when what’s around her, background and elements in the scene, are.
By and large, I think we’d like comic book movies to be something more, which is why so many latched onto Logan because it wasn’t a comic book movie played straight in its first half. At the same time, we have to also recognise that when one wants to be a comic book movie where good stops evil and then goes on to do that exceptionally well then that’s as equally deserving of praise.
Thankfully, Wonder Woman did not end up being a rehash of movies that Marvel made six years ago, but instead a refreshing and joyful experience because of how it subverts those, fighting against the traditions of the genre for as long as it can hold out, and at 140-minutes, it does so for near-two hours. It grants Steve an arc rather than relegating him to the role of romantic interest alone, a lesson which needs to be universally applied to the genre, blockbusters and film at large. When Jenkins is able to place the camera further back, a benefit of filming in real-world locations, and shoot action wide over the industry-standard proximity, the phenomenal blocking and choreography gets shown off, most prominently on Themyscira. It does not get lost in the weeds of what it means to be a hero, postulating if Diana can wield the lasso like they wondered if Steve could with the shield.
Instead, she simply does.