Did the run up to Wonder Woman's release feel biblical to you? You could be excused for thinking that. Between internet outrage over the lack of advertising, to the woman-only screening debacle, to the frantic Facebook posts on both sides demanding boycotts or mandatory viewership… it seemed like the fate of feminism, and history in general, rested solely on this film. Of course, this is hyperbole, but no one can deny that the film has become a vital talking point for female representation in film. Particularly with regards to female-led summer blockbusters. It will then be a huge relief to most people that Wonder Woman is a good movie. Not only that, it has opened big at the box office, meaning that the future for female directed, female led filmmaking now has some great statistical and critical leverage going forward. This is fantastic.
This is not, however, the second coming of Mary, and we need to acknowledge this. Wonder Woman has flaws. A couple of them fairly major. It succeeds in spite of them, and that is to be admired, but we cannot start viewing this as the epitome of the female superhero motion picture. We will accomplish more, and faster, if we view this film as the starting point for muliebrity in the comic-book blockbuster. Think the first Iron Man movie, rather than the first Avengers movie, and you will be closer to the mark.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is princess of the Amazons. They are an all-female tribe living on Themyscira, a tropical paradise sealed off from the rest of the world by a magical cloaking field. The Amazons train regularly, maintaining their status as fearsome warriors, in case they are ever called upon to fight the Greek god of war, Ares, again. One day a World War One pilot called Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on their island. Diana, on hearing his description of the war, decides that it must be the doing of Ares. She takes the Amazonian weapons that will allow her to destroy Ares, and sets off with Steve to set the world to rights. Their journey takes them to London, and then through the trenches of the Western front. They team up with a band of misfits to take on the sinister Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) and her commander Ludendorff (Danny Huston), but the truth about the war may be more complicated than Diana was bargaining for…
Gal Gadot is fantastic in this, there's no bones about it. It's hard to tell if she's an incredible actress, or if she just suits this part perfectly, either way, her performance sells the movie. She is Wonder Woman. Chris Pine is Chris Pine, as you know and (hopefully) love him. Cocky and slightly arrogant, but undeniably charming, and, when the moment calls for it, sincere. He works as a good foil for Gadot, grounding the movie in reality while she elevates it into fantasy.
The first two acts are solid and fun. The world building is enjoyable and unlaborious, and when the action happens, dammit, it looks good. The Amazonian fight scenes are badass, and when we start getting to see Wonder Woman going full-throttle, it's fist-pumpingly good. Huston and Anaya's villains are a little cartoony, but make for great viewing. The depiction of first world war trench life is also pretty grimly spot-on. A bullseye this film didn't need to hit. There's even a really lovely moment with supporting cast member Saïd Taghmaoui which comes clean out of the blue. Barely a minute of the story, but a wonderful wave of the conscience. Two thirds of this film is pretty much exactly what you want it to be.
However, when the third act swings into gear, things gets shaky. We suddenly hit Diana with a moral quandary that really should have come up earlier in the film, and so its effects feel rushed. The exact endgame of the heroes' plan suddenly seems nebulous and ill-defined. Chris Pine does a dodgy and unexplained German accent. Most importantly, however, the third-act villain reveal just does not work. We'll keep this review spoiler-free, but, suffice to say, when we find out the bad guy's true identity and motivation it's a real let-down. It feels like it was done to make the film more grey and morally ambiguous, but in fact it does the opposite. It feels like a last minute script re-write that wasn't planned all the way through, and it really throws off the ending of the film.
"Cheer for Wonder Woman, not necessarily for what it is, but for what it will lead to"
Moreover, the action in the final boss-fight is nowhere near as good as everything that came before it. It ramps up the scale of combat far too quickly. Whereas in the second act the fighting was awesome because it felt like it was grounded in the skill of the people fighting and enhanced with magic, in the final showdown we see two people fighting with magic that skill has almost no bearing on whatsoever. Diana is outclassed by a magical being, and the film's solution is to give her more magic. This feels unearned, and so the whole fight feels weightless and pointless. Particularly since, as this is set in the past, we know that she survives.
So the last thirty or forty minutes of the movie is problematic. Does that mean that this is a failure? Absolutely not. Remember what I said earlier: think Iron Man, not Avengers. The first Iron Man was pretty universally loved when it came out. However, in retrospect we can look back and say, actually, the third act was pretty weak. The Iron Monger was a forgettable villain that added little to the story, and the stuff that we liked was mostly Robert Downey Jr. being cool and building robot suits. That's what Wonder Woman is for female-led superhero films, and, probably, for the DCEU as well. Director Patty Jenkins has laid the groundwork for us to have more and better lady-oriented comic book movies. So yes, cheer for Wonder Woman, not necessarily for what it is, but for what it will lead to.