I was treating Wonder Women as Warner Bros and DC’s last chance. I quite liked their first outing, Man of Steel, and complained that it was “a shame so many people were unprepared to forgive it for not being the Christopher Reeve films.” Nonetheless, it was ok rather than stellar, so it only generate a modest amount of good will on my part. Batman v Superman exhausted all of that in one go. When I reviewed it I said it was ‘passable’ and defended it against charges that it was a ‘disaster’, I did also concede that it was a disappointment. The plot made no sense, the villain was lame and the tone ponderous. Then came Suicide Squad, which really should have been great. ‘The Dirty Dozen with Batman villains’ is a great premise. It gave cool characters to talented actors. However, once again the plot and themes were a mess and that made the whole film unsatisfying at best, and aggravating at worst. So in my mind, B v S and Suicide Squad were two strikes against the DCEU. If Wonder Women was a third, then I was out.
So it is with great relief that I can report that it is good. Very good indeed.
Gal Godot is just right for the central character. Her acting is lot subtler than you would expect from someone who came to acting via modelling. For example, there’s a perceptible but hard to define difference between how she plays Dianna Prince when she’s a young women new to the world, and the older and more battle hardened version of the character. You can see in how she walks that optimism has been replaced by hard won resolution. Equally importantly, for someone playing the greatest warrior amongst a race of warriors, when she’s taking out whole battalions of the Kaiser’s forces it looks damn convincing.
Chris Pine does a standard Chris Pine performance as her love interest, which is pretty much exactly what is needed.
Wonder Woman also sustains a more thoughtful and coherent investigation of its themes than the average action film can manage. Indeed, it is so well integrated into the story that I cannot elaborate without spoilers. However, I could easily see it being fruitfully used to start a discussion in an RE class or youth group.
I would also commend the World War I setting. While literature and especially poetry have covered the conflict extensively, cinema and especially genre cinema have been less interested. The grandiose evil of the Nazis and their allies has made the Second World War a more appealing canvas for filmakers. Nonetheless, the trenches work as a backdrop to a superhero film for the same reason they work for a poem: They offer a filthy, nasty physical representation of the hell of war that familiarity seems powerless to dull.
What is less good
However, that setting does set up – ahem! – my two main complaints about the film. Firstly, it sticks with the odd, credibility sapping convention of depicting Germans speaking German by having British and American actors speak English with cod German accents. Would it really have been so hard to hire German actors? And is it really too much to expect Anglophone audiences to read subtitles for what are mostly very short scenes.
I also felt the depiction of German characters was rather harsh. I agree with what is now the academic consensus that the German led alliance was the aggressor in 1914. Nonetheless, the moral calculus of the conflict is far less lopsided than that of World War II or the Cold War. So it seems inappropriate, for example, that Wonder Women, makes the German use of chemical weapons a major plot point, without acknowledging that Britain and France also deployed them and that upon its entry into the war, the US hastily began developing its own arsenal.
The inevitable Marvel comparison
However, those are quite narrow issues and they do not take away all that much from the broad success of the film.
That was sort of what I was expecting even before I saw the film. Not only had the trailers been impressive but the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. However, I did wonder if the way DC had achieved this was by essentially learning to make Marvel movies. There were some indications that this might be the case, notably the apparently jokier tone. Oh and DC had recently hired Joss Whedon the director of the Avengers, to work on the DCEU.
Fortunately, that isn’t really what happened. There are definite similarities but Wonder Women doesn’t feel derivative. It may have abandoned the almost obsessively gloomy tone of its predecessors but it still doesn’t replicate the zaniness of a typical Marvel film. Indeed it feels a tad old-fashioned. That is actually rather commendable because it means that the pacing is measured, the humour relies less on quips and the visual style is more cinematic.
Indeed, for the first time the DCEU can compare itself favourably to the MCU. Wonder Woman is only the fourth film in the DCEU and it is a genuine gem. By contrast, it wasn’t until the Avengers – the MCU’s sixth film – that Marvel delivered an undeniably great film. Most of the entries that preceded it, had plenty of pleasing elements, but taken as a whole were little more than passable. Compare Wonder Woman with the MCU’s fourth film, the rather mediocre Thor. I mean Thor has its moments but it is in the main rather flat. The script is rather odd, it doesn’t feel like it has real stakes, none of the action scenes are memorable and the central romance is a bit off. By contrast, Wonder Woman is assured and impressive from beginning to end.
I am sceptical that DC can keep up this quality in its future films, but besides being entertaining in its own right, Wonder Woman also gives us evidence that we need not despair of the DCEU just yet.