Agains all odds and templates, Wonder Woman approaches the superhero genre with no cynicism, thanks to its graceful lead and emotional credibility.
The year is 1918. The Allied army is held down in the Western Front; machine guns from the German side would mow down everything in sight. To the surprise of both sides, a young woman steps out of the squalid trench and drops her cowl to reveal her identity as Diana of Themyscira to the world—in full confidence and grace. I can’t stress how much I love this moment, especially with the emotive rhythm of “No Man’s Land” by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Here, director Patty Jenkins masterfully mingled theatrics and practicality, halfway into Wonder Woman, to elevate the scene to an iconic display of heroism. World War I is the first time humans face such a large-scale, disastrous yet socially constructive event, and also the first time Diana comes to know a world of moral ambivalence.
Wonder Woman is bookended with two scenes in present Paris. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receives the WWI photograph from Bruce Wayne and reminisces her experience as a novice in man’s world. Her flashback pulls us to ancient island of Themyscira, a haven endowed by the all-powerful Zeus to the Amazon tribe (comprising solely female warriors), offering a glance at the peaceful life in this sequestered paradise. Their mission was to help humankind, though these vanguards gave up long ago due to man’s corruption and betrayal. Much alike, there were corruption and betrayal on Mount Olympus. Through a series of fantastical paintings, viewers learn that Ares sparked the story’s conflict (of course, he’s the God of War anyway) by orchestrating the downfall of the Greek pantheon. Gods are no more.
In time, Diana is sculpted out of clay by the loving hands of Amazon queen Hippolyta (by a magnificent and gentle Connie Nielsen) and Zeus’ blessing. Or so she’s told. The young princess grows up curious about gods and war, but the overprotective Hippolyta, in denial herself, denies Diana access to training, lest her child would get involved in the most destructive phenomenon known to all worlds. Her sister/general Antiope—the fierce Robin Wright always kicks serious ass—convinces her to let Diana embrace the inherent warrior within to prepare for Ares’ return.
Inevitably, someone will disturb the magical membrane separating their mythical realm, both physically and culturally, with the world outside. That’s Steve Trevor (a dashingly rugged Chris Pine), an American flyboy crashing down on this paradise. Despite bringing bad news in many forms to Themyscira, this event piques Diana’s curiosity about the conflict of warring empires. With important information from behind the German line, Steve wants to stop World War I—dubbed “the war to end all war”.
Consequentially, the two leads are hooked on each other, just as the audiences become invested in Diana’s quest. This introduction is organic and convincing, which consolidates the thematic assurance and pairs a larger peril with a personal stake. We care about Diana’s well-being as much as the war’s outcome because the young warrior leaves behind her homeworld—not its conservative thinking.
When the movie spends time on Themyscira, the poetic landscape becomes a visual treat one can’t ignore. Set decorator Anna-Lynch Robinson (Les Misérables) and production designer Aline Bonetto (a long time Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborator) painted the opulence of unyielding life through blooming meadows, deep-blue waters, and magnificent cliffs. In Diana’s comfort zone live the affectionate and fearless female warriors in russet armors, portrayed by farmers and professional athletes, hence their admirable physiques. In her first fish-out-of-water encounter with men’s world, the color shifts to a muted, frigid palette as her first impression is not so great—“It’s hideous,” she describes London. This playfully represents her transition to a new environment of different social contexts. Still, the shimmering red on her armor always stands out in the dusty, drab battlefield. She becomes a symbol of hope guiding the adrift souls in this bleak world.
Wonder Woman casually strides on an energetic, probing narrative by the assiduous Jenkins, who has been working only on TV shows after the success of Monster. Apart from war politics—sometimes necessary and sometimes childishly preposterous—the director kept the story on a low scale, even when Wonder Woman is about a larger-than-life character in the grand narrative of World War I. The story is so lived-in; it doesn’t even need a parade of Easter Eggs hinting here and there for hardcore fans.
In London, Diana and Steve are under pressure by the war council and the antagonists alike, but comedic commentaries still find a proper way to mesh with social realism. I was afraid that the movie can only crest one emotional culmination before getting thrown under the bus by inappropriate humor barging in, but no, that wasn’t the case. Lucy Davis’ portrayal as Steve’s assistant Etta Candy is full of joy, adding to the depiction of male-female dynamics and Diana’s maturing perception. In contrast, the war council’s disrespectful remarks is a callback to the pre-Suffrage era. Writers Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs tackled the institutional and casual sexism with accuracy and a pure, good-intentioned spirit.
Likewise, snarks are on point and commend the movie’s societal and gender undercurrents without demeaning males or females. Steve “Above-Average” Trevor is a well-rounded love interest, who complements Diana’s character arc by guiding her with affection—his steadfastness balances her impulsive naivete. He’s also devoted to his task and capable of solving sticky situations like a diplomatic military man. For the assignment supported by Sir Morgan (David Thewlis), French-Moroccan agent Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Scottish marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and Native American smuggler Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock) are just provisional companions. Their personalities furnish the quest with enjoyable comic relief, especially subtle throwaway gags regarding racial issues by Sameer and Chief Napi. They are, however, not integral to the story; for example, the story hangs a Chekhov’s gun on Charlie’s PTSD then never fires.
At the spotlight, Gadot’s turn as the leading lady shattered the wall of skepticism about her casting. We see a character driven by the Amazon creed, which upholds gods’ influence on humankind, and also by her youthful curiosity when she adores a baby or compliments on the ice-cream maker. Her heavenly innocence lights up the world because she sees people as their substantial values, and her wish to help and protect is earnest. After crossing No Man’s Land, Diana reaches the village of Veld, where she has her first intimate experience in the new world and becomes more emotionally attached. This becomes a crucial push in her foolhardy rush to the final act. With both grace and vivacious ferocity, Gadot’s acting impressed far more than just her raising eyebrows in Batman v Superman. For all that, I can’t see the invisible jet anywhere, such a disappointment!
As villains, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) make Diana’s ideals firm and righteous because they interfere with military decisions when Germany is about to surrender. The scheme indicates the grayness of war, not painting the Allied as saviors and the German as monsters. Being embodiments of jingoism and chemical weapons, Ludendorff and Dr. Poison respectively fit into the grand narrative of The (not so) Great War, but the latter’s pitiful situation is also a chance for Diana to re-evaluate humanity.
Speaking of humanity, Steve has an enormous impact on Diana’s arc in the climax. Pine exuded a feeling of confusion and certainty—so human and god-like, so tragic and inspiring—to propel Diana to her profound realization. Yet the final act, which should be the pinnacle of an action movie, is the most disappointing part of Wonder Woman. Direction-wise, this fight has an incongruous different texture because the script wants to tie Diana’s war story with her divination. Ares works well before this scene as a target and an idea Diana fights against. If their enmity gets physical, it’s best to have a more grounded style like earlier action sequences.
Most of the melee fights were executed in a scrappy fashion with a touch of balletic choreography, and Gadot’s lean figure perfected Diana’s agility as an artisan of war. As expected, the use of slow motion is noteworthy, but the technique is pervasive amongst action movies anyway. Besides, they’re reasonable and well edited for aesthetic effects. Each of the action scenes builds upon each other while varying in setting and combat style—Diana gets to know the advanced weaponry of German soldiers on Themyscira before going against the gatling guns in Western Front.
Against all odds and genre templates, Wonder Woman sends out a timelessly powerful message that doesn’t sound cliche or preachy—it’s in human nature to soldier on and keep the faith in our capability for goodness. Diana’s struggle is painful and relevant, and the story approaches its subject-matter with zero percent cynicism and full practical hope. Wonder Woman’s accumulative significance in the current political climate and film industry is undeniably positive, but also let’s just take a moment to appreciate its inherent beauty without having to tie it to any superhero universe.
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