The stakes have never been higher. Billions are at risk. The Universe needs a hero.
No, this is not the plot of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Hollywood’s first ever female-directed Summer tentpole blockbuster. This is the state of Warner Bros’ DC and their Extended Universe as Gal Gadot brings to life the origins story of Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) as never realised before on the big screen. Thankfully, after three serious duds (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) for the anti-Marvel franchise builders, Wonder Woman is a delight. A thoroughly entertaining ride which may just prove to be the savour DC so desperately needs.
When Batman took on Superman last year, the pair’s turgid quarrels were left wholly in the dust by the debut of Gadot’s lasso-wielding Amazonian demigod, whilst an intriguing and impossible photo of the character taken in 1918 teased of a story as then untold. In relatively minimal screen time, Wonder Woman utterly stole the show from her Justice League cohorts in that film and now – finally – has a stage of her very own on which to shine. Girl, does she shine.
The film opens with the present day assured Diana that we’ve already met striding into le Musée du Louvre to receive the aforementioned photo from Bruce Wayne (delivered in a truck less Parcelforce, more brute-force) and find herself consumed by memories. ‘I used to want to save the world’ she narrates as we return to her childhood on the mythical island of Themyscira, born the daughter of Zeus and, Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. It’s an encouraging start and something of a literal and figurative lightbulb moment for DC. Figurative in the sense that it represents their first film in some time to substitute moody gloom for genuine charm and warmth. Literal in the sense that the production design is intensely brighter than before and you can actually see what’s happening on the screen for a change. The island itself is of a beautiful, painterly aesthetic, subtly realised as a believable world. Mythical creatures are incidentally present and locals have an air of three dimensionality that transcends potential pitfalls concerning an island of Amazonian women as envisioned through a male imagination. This is, of course, not least due to the dominant presence behind the camera of Jenkins, whose flair for action is always exciting and never exploitative.
Lilly Aspell plays a young Princess Diana in these early scenes, granting the later appearance of Gadot as the grown hero an adorable, mischievous, and splendidly twinkling beginning. The sight of her young warrior-to-be mimicking the older Amazonians in training melted my heart twofold. When Gadot takes the reins she does so with panache, bringing to the role a portrait of inexperienced naïvety as she is transformed into a fighter by Robin Wright’s Antiope, initially against the wishes of her mother (Connie Nielsen).
There’s still far too much exposition in the writing of this opening act, by television writer/producer Allan Heinberg in his first film, but Gadot has more charisma in her slightly cocked right eyebrow that Henry Cavill can muster through his entire ‘man of steel’ persona. In Wonder Woman, DC has – for the first time in eons – created a character with which spending over two hours with feels more like a welcome pleasure that cinematic obligation. When the inevitable, sadly generic, crashy crashy bang bang conclusion does come, it remains a bore to watch but one in which you do at least have some sense of emotional investment.
The story leaves Themyscira with the crash landing of Chris Pine’s US spy Steve Trevor into their haven. He’s rescued from his sinking plane by a stunned Diana (‘You’re a man!’) in the opening to a well balanced relationship that places gender front and centre whilst rendering it utterly irrelevant as a definitive feature of character. In one of numerous iconic sequences, Steve tells Diana to ‘Stand back’ in the face of German attack, before witnessing his ‘damsel’ save his life and demonstrate some mighty moves in the process. Jenkins utilises a quick-slow-quick momentum through action, of the Guy Ritchie fashion, which combines well with the gymnastic dynamism of the fighting itself. Such moments, replete with archery, shield vaulting and drop kicking, are both heaps of fun and hugely exhilarating.
Very much the supporting player here, Pine holds up well in what could have been a fairly bland role – even if he is the least convincing spy to have ever entered German barracks (spot the American anyone?) – playing well off Gadot to deliver some of the film’s funniest lines (‘I am…above average’). It’s a pleasing development indeed for the DCEU to note that Wonder Woman is as laugh-out-loud funny as the best of Marvel’s output. Lucy Davis is a particular joy as Steve’s secretary Etta (‘It doesn’t go with the outfit’ she says of Diana’s god-killer sword), whilst Ewan Bremner turns out on-form pathos to undercut his character’s comic ineptitude. As ever, the villains are nothing to write home about sure – Ares is as dull an opponent as you might expect from the god of war – but it hardly matters.
There’s a line in the Lynda Carter 1970s TV series when, after Wonder Woman has pirouetted into costume and thrown some real bad eggs around, a witness informs the police that ‘this wonderful woman in the bathing suit stopped them’. Forty years later and the character has come a long way. Wonder Woman isn’t perfect. On the other hand, emotionally intelligent and breezy, it is both a breath of fresh air and genre triumph of impressive gusto.