Diana of the Amazons gets the royal treatment in Patty Jenkins’s spectacular ‘Wonder Woman’

August 12, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 12, 2017

Previously, I wrote about the movie rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics. Left unmentioned in my screed was the iconic comic-book character of Wonder Woman, who — at least for my generation — is probably the foremost female superhero.

There was a very good reason for that omission; actually, there were two of them. One was that I’d planned to compose this review. (Well, to be honest, I’d intended for my DC-Marvel movie rivalry recap to be an introduction to this review, but it took on a life of its own in the writing.) The other was that Wonder Woman hadn’t had a proper live-action movie until this June, although her appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was hailed as perhaps that 2016 film’s only bright spot.

Previously, the character’s main live-action incarnation had been in the television series Wonder Woman, which spanned three seasons from 1975 through 1979. I have very vague memories of the program; they mainly center around Wonder Woman fighting Russians and my having a huge crush on the show’s star, Lynda Carter. The current obscurity of the series speaks to what I presume was its dearth of progressive gender politics, convincing special effects and overall quality. The same could probably be said of 1974 and 2011 TV movies respectively starring Cathy Lee Crosby and Adrianne Palicki and of the (rogue?) 2014 micro-budgeted movie fronted by Veronica Pierce.

Thankfully, the spectacular cinematic staging of the warrior Diana’s origin story in the new Wonder Woman is everything that the previous versions evidently were not. Moreover, this thoroughly impressive production could mark a turning of the tide in DC and Marvel’s movie feud.

The story — scripted by Allan Heinberg in conjunction with Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs — begins with Diana Prince (Israeli actress Gal Gadot, reprising her role from Batman v Superman) narrating some wistful thoughts about her desire to save the world as she gazes upon a print of a World War I–era photograph sent to her by (an unseen and unnamed, but heavily implied) Bruce Wayne.

This brief segment, set in the present-day in Diana’s office in the Louvre, is strictly a framing device to bracket the start and end of the real story. The narrative then rockets back several decades to show us a young Diana running wild on her home island of Themyscira, where she is the only child.

The queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), has forbidden Diana, her daughter, from learning martial arts, but the determined youngster is dead set on becoming one of the fierce warriors who train under the watchful eye of General Antiope (Robin Wright). The queen fears that this pursuit will only draw the wrathful attention of Ares, the god of war whom the Amazons are sworn to destroy. Diana and Antiope defy the queen, meeting in secret. When Hippolyta discovers their perfidy years later, she relents, although still with great reluctance.

The plot kicks into gear a few scenes later when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands a stolen German war plane several hundred yards off the shore of the Amazons’ paradise. Upon rescuing him, Diana is amused to discover that he is a man, the first whom she’s ever encountered; their meet-cute is interrupted, however, by a landing party of Germans who are furious at Trevor for having destroyed their secret weapons factory.

After the Amazons fight off the Germans, Trevor explains to his female captors what’s happening in the rest of the world, from which they are protected thanks to the power of the long-ago vanquished god Zeus. It is the late stages of a great global conflict, and while Germany is on the brink of signing the armistice, one Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) refuses to capitulate. He and his pet mad scientist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya, in an amusingly deranged performance that flirts with cliché but never quite goes overboard), believe they are on the brink of concocting a chemical weapon that will doom the Allies. Trevor has thwarted their plans, but only temporarily; he’s determined to report to his superiors in the British war ministry in hopes of persuading them to crush Ludendorff and Maru’s operation once and for all.

The fierce but naïve Diana thinks that Ludendorff may be an incarnation of Ares. But the queen, still reluctant to engage in the affairs of corrupt, untrustworthy men, forbids her to go. Since the German landing party has slain Antiope, none of Themyscira’s leaders are willing to countermand her.

Nonetheless, Diana defies her mother and sets sail with Trevor for London. Diana’s brash nature amuses and appalls the stuffy Brits but inspires Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Trevor’s secretary. The Amazon also attracts the interest of one Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who encourages Diana Prince and Trevor to seek out Ludendorff and Maru’s new base near the stalemated front lines of the warring armies. The duo set off in the company of Sameer or Sammy (Saïd Taghmaoui), apparently a cosmopolitan fixer of Moroccan origins; Charlie (Ewen Bremner), a Scottish sniper who’s become rather gun-shy after some terrible experiences in battle; and “the Chief” (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American smuggler whose stoicism is matched only by his cynicism.

Wonder Woman turns rather harrowing here as the party enters the trenches and surveys blasted, barren territory that has seen the death of thousands of men. Diana’s conversation with a distraught refugee makes her decide to liberate an occupied (French? Belgian?) town regardless of whether any man dares follow her. Trevor, Sammy and a few others back up the warrior princess in the movie’s most exciting sequence, as Diana deflects bullets with her gauntlets and scales a tall building — and destroys its belfry, which serves as a sniper’s nest — in a single bound.

The feature proceeds at breakneck pace through the rest of the story. Trevor and Diana separately infiltrate a castle where Ludendorff is hosting a summit of German leaders; Maru’s new weapon is demonstrated, to devastating effect; and our heroes raid an air base that is about to dispense toxic death. Matters build to an impressive climax, even if nothing manages to surpass the emancipation of the village.

Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) handles the action with aplomb, and Gadot is persuasive as an other-worldy warrior who is unschooled in the ways of man. (An early moment where she makes an improbable leap onto the side of a Themysciran fortress and then smiles in satisfaction is practically worth the price of admission all by itself.) The supporting cast is generally excellent, and the story is pretty gripping.

There are a few missteps, chief among them the performance of the male lead. Pine has movie-star looks and charisma and an obvious love of comedy, but he’s less convincing as an inhabitant of the early 20th century than he is as a starship captain in the 23rd century; when paired with Gadot’s restrained acting, he seems unnecessarily hammy. Less importantly, Candy’s character seems to have been shoehorned in to provide unnecessary comic relief.

Still, Wonder Woman ranks as one of the finest superhero movies I’ve ever seen. I would argue that it surpasses all of the Batman movies; it may even be more thrilling than Christopher Reeve’s first two outings as Superman and more entertaining than director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, my favorite entries in this subgenre. Diana is a genuinely honorable and inspiring heroine, and it’s gratifying to see her finally get her due.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: