Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a terrific 75 percent of a film. For the first 90 minutes, I was sold on the Amazon wonder’s origin. It’s told in a refreshingly confident and competent way (for a DC film), which is damning with faint praise. But the majority of it is a compelling action-adventure with excellent performances and a powerful love story. Then it had to become a superhero movie.
That’s not to say that all people-in-capes movies are bad; Marvel has been pounding out great entries like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy in-between mundane Avengers team-ups. But the reason why the stand-alone films are so much better is because they treat their stories like films with their own tone and story, not episodes of a TV show. Wonder Woman has so much of the former that I was about to say it’s one of the best films of the year; that’s what makes the climax so disappointing.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is raised by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) on the island of Themyscira. It’s a land of glamorous Amazonian women, most of whom are training to defend the island from the eventual return of Ares, the God of War. Diana wants to be a warrior, but her mother forbids it. She’s endearingly consistent (and likable), so her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) agrees to train her.
The subsequent montage where Diana grows older and stronger doesn't feel cliched, and that’s because director Jenkins (Monster) approaches the story with an earnest take. Whereas Zack Snyder pumped garbage like Batman v Superman with frequent embarrassing slow-mo (which shows up a lot less here), strange direction, awful heavy metal music and baffling story-telling, Jenkins feels the need to tell Diana’s story without all of that. Snyder helped write the story, but I have a feeling that screenwriter Allan Heinberg (who also wrote for the Wonder Woman comic book) filtered out the bad ones. At least most of them.
Then an American man named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plan by the island, being chased by Germans. Diana rescues him, and the Amazons defeat the Germans, although not without casualties.
Trevor convinces Diana to come to London with him, where he must drop off a document revealing a fatal gas being developed by the Germans. Kinda sorta lying to her by saying she’ll find Ares there, Steve gets Diana to leave.
At this point, Wonder Woman becomes the Gal Gadot/Chris Pine show, which is to say it goes from being solid to excellent. The two have an easygoing chemistry that bridges two very different characters. Trevor tutors Diana in the norms of civilized society, and she sees everything in a wide-eyed view.
Take a scene at the half-way point of the movie. Steve takes Diana and a group of soldiers to the front lines of Germany, where she sees numerous people suffering. He tells her to keep going and not go over “No Man’s Land” to fight the enemy. She wonders (heh) why not, decides to do it. I don’t think it’s an accident that Jenkins had a woman successfully make it across “No Man’s Land”.
There’s a lot of scenes like that, and they always work. Diana confronts the sexist, ignorant attitudes of the 1910s and stands strong against them. It helps that Gadot is such a likable actress, no matter if she’s playing happy, sad, wronged or angry. Jenkins also knows how to work around her leading lady’s accent and limited ability, never sticking her in situations that would require an actress of a better range.
The other smart move was to surround her with better actors. It’s the same thing that directors did with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his early roles, by having him share screen time with veterans like James Earl Jones, Richard Crenna and Danny DeVito. This makes Gadot act up to their level, and takes the pressure off of her to make the scene work. Jenkins knows Gadot doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a two-hour plus film, so he gives most of the heavy-duty stuff to Pine (who’s very good here) and lets Gadot react of that. It’s simple, but effective.
So much of what makes Wonder Woman relies off of that. Jenkins tells a simple story, and keeps much of the tics that made other DC films annoying and/or horrible at bay. That’s why the climax was such a disappointment.
You see, that’s when Wonder Woman remembers that it is a superhero movie, and needs to have the BIG BANG CLIMAX FIGHT that these films require. A British cabinet member named Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) reveals himself to be Ares, eventually turning into the God of War and engaging inn a blow-stuff-up battle that gets old quick. Meanwhile, Steve boards a plane filled with gas bombs to blow it up, which will inevitably lead to his death.
One of these scenes is compelling and the other is not. Guess what Wonder Woman spends more time on. You see, part of the problem is that Ares, whose story is told in the beginning before being promptly forgotten, isn’t treated like the main villain. Yes, Diana frequently remarks that she wants to find Ares, but her statement is treated as a delusion by everyone around her, like Buzz Lightyear saying he can fly.
Instead, we get to know and fear Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Isabel (Elena Anaya), two Germans working on a poison gas so strong masks cannot fight it. The film does a good job making you hate these ruthless Germans out to ruin peace. So much so that you start to view them as main villains.
This whip-lashing between baddies and stories creates a fascinating climax where you’re seeing different plots happen that don’t mesh. Steve is making the ultimate sacrifice to stop the gas, while Ares tries to convince Diana to kill Isabel and reject humanity. Seeing the man she loves die in the name of war would make her hate humanity, yet she decides to not murder one of the main villains, which would mean she doesn’t hate the human race. Even if she doesn’t, what’s killing another German to her? By this point, Diana has already racked up a decent body count.
Don’t get me started on the Dragon-Ball-Z-like fight mixed with metal music either. That was laughable.
The point of Wonder Woman seems to be showing how an Amazon goddess renewed her faith in humanity after watching the man she loved die. I’d argue a more fascinating ending would be watching Diana become jaded after seeing Steve perish. There was a more subtle way to get to that, one that probably involved Ludendorff and Isabel instead of Ares and Isabel. I’m reminded of the first Captain America movie, where Steve Rogers sacrificed himself to save his country, leaving the woman he loved behind.
Given how that was also a superhero origin story set to the backdrop of a historical war, I can’t help but compare the two. If DC wants to become Marvel, they might want to keep learning from their example.
For the first 90 minutes of Wonder Woman, they did.
Published by Jagger Czajka