Gal Gadot has the perfect eyes for Wonder Woman. They can be fierce, as they are when she’s wielding her sword and shield and lasso. They can also give off a childlike sense of curiosity, as they do when she sees a peacoat (or Chris Pine’s dick) for the first time. If only Patty Jenkins’ film as a whole was as good executing this duality as Gadot’s eyes are…
Wonder Woman is really two movies. One of those movies is an aptly handled fish-out-of-water story; a genuinely funny, romantic, and inspiring tale of a woman who wants nothing more than to save a world she doesn’t really understand yet. The film’s strongest moments all come courtesy of this premise. Whether it’s a young Diana punching air and practicing moves as she watches the Amazon warriors train, or a fully-grown Diana having what amounts to a grade school sex talk on a boat with her tour guide and eventual love interest Steve Trevor (Pine), the first half of Wonder Woman is some of the best and most refreshing blockbuster filmmaking in years. And not just because it’s a female-driven work in an industry dominated by old white dudes. By any standard, regardless of what rests between the director’s legs, a lot of Wonder Woman is a damn fine movie.
Unfortunately, when this superhero film actually acts like a superhero film, it’s an unimaginative mess akin to what the reasonable amongst us have come to expect with the D.C. Extended Universe. The actual plot, and the various cardboard cutout villains who drive that plot, is never interesting. From the second Gadot & Pine share the screen to the second they no longer can, all story becomes just a lame distraction from their relationship. The scenes where Diana fights are frustrating. Jenkins shoots these scenes with such over-reliance on slow-motion that the few moments when Diana kicks butt in real time feel like godsends. The finale is a bland clusterfuck of surprisingly awful CGI that looks dated when compared to similar moments in recent films like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film’s aforementioned strengths only make these offenses seem even more egregious.
Jenkins is an undeniably gifted filmmaker. Anyone who’s seen Monster -a legit masterwork and one of the finest films of the century- can tell you that. She certainly flexes her directorial chops here. All the early moments set on Themyscira, the no-boys-allowed island from which Diana hails, are stunning. Jenkins and DoP Matthew Jensen create these gorgeous sun-drenched images that appear otherworldly, as intended. The dialogue scenes are given a perfect improvisational tone. Jenkins’ WW1 set pieces later in the film look awesome.
But everything comes back to Diana and Steve’s relationship. It’s an interesting dynamic. They both babysit one another in different ways. Diana literally saves Steve’s life early in the film and continues to do so throughout. Steve helps Diana navigate the social and systematic aspects of a world she’s completely foreign to. Both are good people who want to save lives and end the war, but theyhave very different ways of going about it. Hilarity ensues, organic romantic chemistry develops, and, in a bold move that’s not being talked about as much as it should, it’s implied that the two have sex. They need each other. Diana needs Steve’s grounded understanding of the world and the war as she learns the ropes. Steve needs Diana’s optimism and can-do wherewithal to combat some of his cynicism. Gadot and Pine are so, so good together. It’s a shame we won’t get to see these two more.
Wonder Woman is self-aware without ever becoming meta. It wisely avoids heavy-handed feminism with the exception of one brief moment (the awful “We call that a slave” line when Diana learns what a secretary is). I cannot speak to the minds of young girls, but it’s easy to imagine this film being inspiring, and it pulling that off while leaving its feminism as subtext is a pleasant surprise. Jenkins is a smart filmmaker. She knows how gorgeous Gal Gadot is, and she knows we know it. She doesn’t treat the audience like dummies and hide Gadot’s sexiness, nor does she obnoxiously flaunt it like Suicide Squad did with Margot Robbie. Gadot looks great. Men briefly ogle her. But that’s it.
Gadot’s actual performance erases all the doubts fans had, given her relative lack of experience, years ago when she was cast. She’s a gifted actress and her turn reminds me a lot of Chris Hemsworth’s strong work as Thor. She can play dumb when the script asks Diana to react to all the new things she’s discovering. And she can play tough when shit gets real. I sincerely hope she is featured prominently in the DCEU moving forward. Her Diana is certainly more interesting than Ben Affleck’s Batman or Henry Cavill’s Superman.
Chris Pine shines as Steve Trevor, and the script makes Trevor one of the best love interests in any comic-book movie. He has a real arc, while serving a purpose in both the larger story and Diana’s development. It’s another fantastic performance from Pine, and a very vulnerable one, that sees him willingly play second fiddle for the majority of the film while never allowing the character -a throwback heroic military man- to seem anything less than classically masculine, a natural archetype given the setting of the film. Pine has quickly become one of our finest working actors, a versatile performer seemingly capable of anything.
Perhaps the most refreshing element of Wonder Woman, and what’s caused people to overlook its obvious problems, is the overall enthusiasm the film has. In a world filled with brooding superheroes, it’s a lot of fun to see someone excited about being a superhero like Diana is. Her presence in this franchise is crucial. So in a way, despite not being a particularly great film, Wonder Women did save the DCEU from itself. The absurd box office figures and overall acclaim suggest so.