Wonder Woman is easily the best of the current slate of DC films. It’s something of a backhanded compliment given the state of past DC films, but the sheer competence of Wonder Woman is such that it could stand head-to-head against most superhero films, Marvel, DC, or otherwise. Wonder Woman stars Israeli actress Gal Gadot as the eponymous heroine, princess Diana of Themyscira (aka Paradise Island), who gets drawn into the world of man to intervene in the dying days of World War I, the Great War. It’s of course noteworthy that Wonder Woman is the first big budget superhero film to be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, who struggles with some of the bigger action sequences, but overall does a fine job).
Early scenes in the film depict life on Themyscira, a secret island in the ocean habited by a sophisticated society of warrior women, the Amazons. It’s a charming and peaceful existence they have, filled with badass women like General Antiope (Robin Wright, looking super buff!), and it’s important for us to see this background in order to truly appreciate the contrast that faces Diana, the youngest of the Amazons, with the world at-large, after American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shatters the illusion of peace. It’s not the most subtle theme to look at this as a statement on the relationship between masculinity and violence, though the film doesn’t dwell on this idea.
As much as I like Chris Pine, as good as he is as Kirk in the Star Trek films, I’ve never felt that he quite had the charisma to carry these kinds of films as a lead, and Wonder Woman proves that he’s perhaps best suited to be a secondary player. He’s really good in this! Chris Pine is a really funny actor when he gets the opportunity to be, and Wonder Woman affords him multiple opportunities to showcase this skill. The film is really smart in how Steve Trevor is presented, particularly in context of a strong woman like Wonder Woman / Diana Prince – not intimidated, not afraid to let her protect him when push comes to shove, someone who can tether her to the world and help teach her about society.
Most of the film is competent, but rarely spectacular. There’s a capable supporting cast who join Diana and Steve on their mission, most notably including English actress Lucy Davis (from the original BBC version of The Office, as well as Shaun of the Dead), who is very funny in her limited moments. Overall, the story presented here is not breaking any sort of mold, and there’s a lot of predictable moments in the film – but that’s fine for a superhero origin story. The few standout moments happen early on in the film, particular a sequence in which Diana fearlessly leads her team into no-mans-land, a sequence that lands very strongly.
The competence of Wonder Woman goes nearly across the board, with one exception – the villains of Wonder Woman are problematic. Three villains are presented to us: Danny German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), a sneering war hawk who employs Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Doctor Poison, a disfigured evil scientist who concocts chemical weapons for the battlefield, and the secret villain behind it all, (spoiler!) Ares (David Thewlis). None of these villains are really fleshed out in any interesting ways – it would have been interesting, for instance, for Doctor Poison to be presented as a counterpoint to Wonder Woman, to give us a bit of insight into her motivation, why she invents these terrible weapons. We get none of that. We don’t always need villains to have a fully fleshed out backstory, and we don’t always need to understand their motivation – certainly, with the right performance, you don’t need either (see one Ledger, Heath), but without anything to grasp onto these villains just end up feeling kind of faceless.
Between Wonder Woman and Fargo, David Thewlis has taken a fascinating turn playing villains, and it seems like he’s having a lot of fun. Thewlis is a fantastic actor, but he’s not nearly as great a fit for Wonder Woman as he is for Fargo. A film like Wonder Woman demands a big villain, an unmodulated, over-the-top performance, and Thewlis is more suited for playing a kind of weasel-y, unsettling psychological villain like his character on Fargo.
Overall, Wonder Woman is a huge stride in the right direction for the DC films. Wonder Woman’s appearances in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice were some of the best moments of that film, and it’s encouraging to see DC capitalize on that success here.