WONDER WOMAN review by Mark Walters – Gal Gadot fully becomes the DC Comics legend

WONDER WOMAN review by Mark Walters – Gal Gadot fully becomes the DC Comics legend

Superhero movies have been dominating the box office for the past decade, thanks largely to Marvel Studios and their smart world building that began with IRON MAN in 2008. DC Comics and Warner Brothers saw big success with Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy, but many wondered if that was their only cinematic ace in the hole. Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL (2013) reinvented the way folks looked at Superman, and that darker tone continued in last year’s BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, which introduced a new Batman in Ben Affleck and acted as a lead-in to the company’s big JUSTICE LEAGUE movie (hitting theaters this November). Regardless of how fans felt about BvS, almost everyone seemed to agree one of the biggest highlights was Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, who isn’t even in the movie that much but makes a big impression when she is. This surely gave WB confidence to move forward with their WONDER WOMAN movie, which hits theaters this weekend. And it’s a rather important release, not just for the fact that it’s the first female DC superhero to get her own film, but it could very well open the doors for more female superhero movies to get the greenlight should it perform well… and in many ways, there’s no better character to take on that particular challenge.

The story opens in present day Paris at the Lourve Museum, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is receiving a package from Bruce Wayne. Inside the package is a photograph almost 100 years old, which features her standing with four soldiers in the middle of World War I. From here we’re transported through flashback to that just before that era, but on the mythical island of Themyscira. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tries to keep her precocious daughter Diana from jumping into battle training with the older Amazons, though her sister Antiope (Robin Wright) seems happy to train her, even at Diana’s youthful age. Eventually Hippolyta gives in and tells Antiope to hone her skills, only with the added instruction of training her extra hard. As the years pass, it soon becomes apparent that Diana possesses power that her fellow islanders do not, but before she can understand these abilities the island is met with a surprise ambush from the outside world. American spy Steve Trevor crashes a German plane into the surrounding water, prompting Diana to save him, but he brings with him an army of ruthless German soldiers. After a fierce battle with the Amazons, certain events solidify why this island wants to stay hidden from the men of the outside world. As Steve tells Diana of the war going on, she believes Ares (the God of War) is responsible and insists on following Trevor back to the front lines. Along the way Steve recruits a few men to help them, but they all quickly realize the bravest (and strongest) warrior among them is in fact a woman.

While WONDER WOMAN gets a lot of things right for a superhero story on the big screen, it also feels rather familiar and at times like it’s playing it safe. There are no huge surprises to be had, just a fairly entertaining narrative with enjoyable characters that benefits from a much heavier female perspective than what we’re used to seeing in these kinds of movies. But the real strength of the production is actually Gal Gadot as Diana, who is so likable and perfectly cast that she makes up for the film’s shortcomings. Certain things work extremely well, such as the island of Themyscira, which is fascinating and rich in its presentation. I actually thought the scenes on the island were so interesting that I could have watched an entire movie in just that setting, perhaps ending with Steve Trevor’s plane crash, and only then leading into the concept of her leaving to explore the outside world. Gadot finds the right balance of playing this warrior amazon, but also appropriately playing the naivete and emotional beats of the role with strong sincerity. We fall in love with her for both her strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a fantastic introduction for the character – yes, I realize she was already “introduced” in BATMAN v SUPERMAN, but this is more of a proper reveal… I actually think in an ideal world this film would have preceded BvS, but I suppose things had to happen in the order they did for various reasons.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag, some performing quite well while others seem a little out of place. Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor more as an everyman and the voice of reason from the outside world, rather than a smitten love interest. It’s a bit refreshing, but also takes away some of the potential spark from the story. I imagine this characterization was done this way intentionally, so as not to make Diana seem weak around a man’s charms, but it kind of sabotages the little bit of romance that comes late in the film, as at that point it almost seems unnecessary and just tacked on. Lucy Davis plays Etta, Trevor’s bubbly secretary who is clearly added for comic relief, but she’s never given much to do outside of look shocked at Diana’s behavior. There’s just not much to the character, and she’s left feeling like an afterthought. David Thewlis also appears briefly as Steve’s British military boss, and he’s always a welcome face on the big screen, especially in giant movies like this. Connie Neilsen and Robin Wright are both excellent as Diana’s Themyscira family, I just wish we could have stayed with them a little longer in the story.

Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock are appropriately fun and funny as Steve’s assisting soldiers, but all of them could have used a little more back story. Danny Huston plays Ludendorff, the apparent villain of the piece, with Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru aka “Dr. Poison” (a facially-scarred woman who makes deadly gas bombs). These two flirt with what feels like a twisted love affair that is never expanded on. I actually thought it could have been interesting to see an high-ranking general and his sadistic scientist having some sordid passion while they plan the destruction of their enemies, but it’s only ever hinted at and not truly explored – it also could have been utilized as a disturbing metaphor for a man of power controlling a woman of intellect, sort of a role reversal from the Steve/Diana relationship, but it never goes there. Like a lot of comic book movies, the villain (or in this case villains) is the weaker element here. Granted, this is meant to be Diana’s first real adventure as Wonder Woman, so I suppose they needed to play it safe and not try to go too big, not to mention we’re still going to see Wonder Woman again this year when JUSTICE LEAGUE hits theaters.

Director Patty Jenkins does a great job of keeping this film feeling like a story of female empowerment, while never feeling like it has an overly feminist agenda. It’s a tricky feat, but she pulls it off beautifully. Diana becomes a strong character who just happens to be a woman, rather than being a woman who feels forced into being a strong character. In the hands of another director, this could have been tragically mishandled, but here it’s executed quite well. Some of the action scenes feel like they’re from the Zack Snyder school of style over substance, but most of the excitement is well done. I particularly enjoyed the look and feel of Diana’s lasso of truth, which at times appears like an whip of magical power that smacks around any bad guys in its wake. Another aspect that’s handled rather nicely is Diana’s exposure to what the war actually is, seeing soldiers painfully taken down, or families ripped apart, even the deaths of children and how that emotionally compromises her… the horrors of war are never forgotten or downplayed, and the honesty of that aspect is one of the more impressive parts of the storytelling.

Again, this is not breaking any revolutionary ground in the world of superpowered cinema, but as a female-driven comic book tale, WONDER WOMAN is a solid breath of fresh air in an age where we’re getting dangerously close to superhero fatigue. I predict this will do quite well, especially with women who have been denied this sort of representation for too long in pop culture on the big screen. I’m most interested to see where things go from here, as it would be fascinating to see sequels explore Diana through the ages and how she interacts with them… such a Wonder Woman in World War II, or Wonder Woman in the 1950s, or 60s, or even the Vietnam era. That’s the great thing about this character, as now we know she’s been around for over a century, and there’s a lot to explore with that. Or perhaps she could just return to Themyscira, as there’s still plenty to delve into in that setting. No matter where they take it, this is a satisfying start to the intended franchise.

Wonder Woman hits theaters on June 2, 2017

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.