Wonder Woman is, at its heart, a cheesy action film, a glorious throwback to the days of matinee adventures, Nazi-punching, cackling villains and virtuous heroes and heroines. It’s a telling reminder that before the industry got obsessed with introspection, character development and flawed morality, superhero movies were fun and is, for the most part, two hours of joyously uncomplicated escapism.
It’s essentially an origin story and, after a brief prologue, kicks off with a childhood Diana (in the film, she’s never actually referred to as Wonder Woman) running away from her studies on the impossibly picturesque island of Themyscira to watch the grown-up Amazons practice their fighting skills, the little girl punching and kicking on the cliff as she mimics those down below. She’s soon caught and sent to the palace, and upon her arrival, is forbidden by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, from training in combat, Hippolyta convinced that her daughter is bound for a more noble purpose and wanting to keep her from harm. While this sequence has a clear dramatic purpose, it sets up the disconnect between Diana’s desires and the wishes of her mother, and it also does a great job of showing off the dazzling beauty of Themyscira, some of the most stunning bits of Southern Italy augmented with CGI to produce a dramatic, arresting landscape of white cliffs and azures seas, with the Amazons living in buildings carved into the rock.
We then dive into Diana’s backstory, told by her mother as a bedtime story and illustrated by visuals that resemble mythic paintings brought to life. It’s a tale rooted in ancient mythology and portrays the Amazons as warriors fighting to restore goodness to a world that was created by Zeus and then corrupted by his son, Ares, the God of War. Ultimately, Ares kills all the other gods, but before he vanquishes Zeus, the Master of the Gods creates the hidden island of Themyscira to keep the Amazons safe. As part of the story, Hippolyta also recounts how she sculpted Diana out of clay, and her daughter was then brought to life by Zeus.
After some more plot stuff (Diana is trained in secret by her aunt Antiope, training that is ultimately endorsed by Hippolyta and eventually reveals a glimpse of her awesome power), the film really gets going when US spy Steve Trevor crashes into the ocean in front of Themyscira. In the process, he breaks through the perception filter that shrouds the island in deep fog and is pursued by a horde of Nazi gunboats. This sets the stage for what is not only the best bit of the film but will no doubt end up as one of the year’s best battle scenes, the swords and arrows of the Amazons vs the armour and rifles of the Nazis. It’s a thrilling, exhilarating sequence that is filmed perfectly, the slow motion deployed at just the right time to expertly showcase the flips and spins of the Amazons and every blow landing with thudding impact. It also fully takes advantage of the film’s 3D, with bullet time shots freezing projectiles for a moment before they zip towards their targets, and the acrobatic artistry on show lending a quite literal extra dimension. It’s an amazing display of kinetic filmmaking made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s overseen by a woman who’s never directed an action film before.
The Amazons win, but not without cost, Antiope loses her life protecting Diana and the secretive island community is exposed to the outside world for the first time. The Amazons interrogate their US captive and are shocked to learn about WWI and, within days, Diana has gone against the wishes of her mother, stolen the sword, shield and outfit that constitute her iconic look and left the island with Trevor. They’re headed for the front, Diana convinced that the only way to stop this war is to kill Ares.
More than anything, much of the film is defined by the relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor, which gradually evolves as they travel from the streets of Victorian London to the grim, grey battlefields of occupied Belgium. Both characters are essentially archetypes, and the casting works well, Gal Gadot’s Diana is all steely determination and blunt straight-talking, while Chris Pine’s Steve is the sort of cocky rogue that perfectly suits his matinee idol looks and easy charm. The two also display a genuine chemistry together, with much of the humour revolving around just how alien Diana finds the modern world (Victorian sexism obviously proving a particular bugbear).
The baddies of the piece are pleasantly OTT pantomime villains, Danny Huston’s General Ludendorff is a mix of maniacal laughter and sadism, while his right-hand woman is Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), a facially disfigured chemical weapons expert who develops a lethal new type of mustard gas and cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West.
The supporting cast are also effective, Lucy Davis (Dawn from The Office) provides great comic relief as Steve’s secretary, Etta, riffing off both Gadot and Pine effortlessly. In battle meanwhile, Diana and Steve are assisted by a motley crew of Sameer, an Arabic smuggler/con man (Said Taghmaoui); Charlie, a Scottish sniper suffering from PTSD (Ewen Bremner); and a Native American known only as The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Each fulfils a clearly defined role, Sameer can talk the hind legs off a donkey in a dozen languages, Charlie is a raucous Scottish alcoholic struggling with his demons, while The Chief is withdrawn and contemplative. Each offers a new perspective to the world to Diana, and one of the film’s most effective scenes is Charlie getting on the piano and singing after a Belgian village is liberated, Steve quietly noting that it’s been a long time since he heard him sing.
Ultimately though, an action film lives and dies on the quality of its fight scenes, and Wonder Woman has some of the best around, even if the confrontations on Belgian battlefields and Nazi military bases never quite match the majesty of that first showdown on the beach at Themyscira. Throughout, Wonder Woman does a fantastic job of showcasing its leading lady, hopefully laying to rest the ridiculous notion that a female-led superhero movie somehow doesn’t work, with highlights including Diana facing down machine guns in No Man’s Land with her shield, climbing a tower by smashing handholds into the rock, kicking her foes through windows and off buildings in the style of a Wild West brawl, and effortlessly leaping to the top of a church tower (with the aid of Steve, Sameer, Charlie, The Chief and a large sheet of corrugated metal) to dispatch a Nazi sniper in the most bombastic way imaginable. What stands out is that, despite her lack of experience, director Patty Jenkins (whose most notable previous work was the serial-killer drama Monster, a few episodes of the US Killing, and some Arrested Development) really knows how to film action scenes, the slow motion is timed perfectly, the camera swoops around for the perfect angle, and the visual style always enhances the athleticism and co-ordination on show rather than detracting from it. This last point sounds obvious but is a real skill, I’ve lost count of the number of films that ruin their action scenes (and completely obfuscate the talents of their stuntmen and women) by cutting so often that it’s hard to know what’s actually happening.
Having progressed so confidently for so long, it’s extremely disappointing that Wonder Woman fluffs its ending somewhat, making the unwise decision to go into full-blown superpowered CGI for Diana’s climactic battle with Ares. It’s a long, drawn-out slog that bears little relation to the rest of the film and, while it ramps up the destruction, it doesn’t have the same impact and feels generic and a little monotonous. It also relies on a twist that, while I won’t spoil, is not exactly difficult to see coming.
That it ends on such a deflating note is a real shame, but it doesn’t completely undermine the stellar work that led up to it, merely taking what could have been a great film of its type and demoting it to very good. Overall, Wonder Woman is an unexpected triumph and the film that the DC cinematic universe really needed, an old-fashioned adventure that revels in its ridiculousness and puts the fun back in the superhero movie.