Very early into Wonder Woman, it dawned on me that regardless of whether the movie I was about to see ended up being any good, it was already the most significant superhero movie of the last twenty years. One of the disappointing aspects of our current wave of cinematic superheroes is how banal the movies are. The heroes in these movies save the world over and over again, but do the movies themselves accomplish anything other than amuse the ticket-buying public for a couple hours? It was during the moment when young Diana, Princess of the Amazons, sneaks out to watch the older Amazons train for battle that it dawned on me. Countless real-life Dianas around the world will come to the movies seeking in Wonder Woman the strength to fight in a world that is consistently unkind to them. The parallel is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Judging a film by whether it enacts change in the world doesn’t make for great criticism, but credit where credit is due: Wonder Woman is the first superhero movie that I’ve found to be truly inspirational.
But what about the movie itself. Is it any good? The answer is yes… for the most part. The movie makes a truly terrible choice toward the end, building its final confrontation around an uninspired plot twist. There are also a couple of eyebrow-raising decisions made along the way regarding the depiction of the movie’s World War I setting. But for the big majority of its running time, the movie is a mighty fine piece of blockbuster entertainment. It’s undoubtedly the best “popcorn” movie of the sumer (which sounds like faint praise when you consider how disappointing the summer movie season has been so far, but that’s not the movie’s fault).
Because it’s a mostly good movie, let’s focus on the good things about it. First among them is Gal Gadot, who looks absolutely magnificent and badass as the adult Diana, and plays her as a fearless warrior with the moral compass of a righteous child who has just learned the concepts of right and wrong. It’s this heroic attitude that sends Diana on her quest, away from the island of Themyscira -paradisiac home of the Amazons- and into the trenches of “the war to end all wars”. This is after American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane on the island. Steve must return to London to deliver important intelligence. Having learned about the horrible war being fought out there in the “world of man”, Diana decides to tag along with a personal mission: kill Ares, the God of War who is surely pulling the strings behind this conflict.
From there, Steve and Diana make their way to London in what is the most entertaining part of the movie. There is a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy, as you might expect when you have the strongest of the Amazons walking the streets of London at a time before women were even allowed to vote. The jokes are good, and the fact that Gadot and Pine share tremendous chemistry doesn’t hurt. British actress Lucy Davis is also really funny as Steve’s secretary. This is the section in which the movie most closely resembles an old fashioned action adventure. It also works really well as a buddy comedy, a romantic comedy even. I’m just saying, it’s a lot of fun.
Finally, we get to the Western Front, and we get the scene that will most likely live on as the purest distillation of the movie’s power. Surrounded by wounded soldiers and mortified civilians who speak of the horrors going on at the other side of the trenches, Diana decides that she can’t continue her mission without first helping these people. And so, she climbs over the trench and makes one heroic walk across “no man’s land”. It’s one woman against a whole army, the bullets bounce off her bracelets without hurting her as she moves forward. Unbreakable. Unstoppable. It’s a magnificent sequence, that leads us into the movie’s final third. Sadly, it’s this last sections of the movie that contains the movie’s two biggest problems.
The first problem is the action. We get a couple of really effective set pieces earlier in the film (most notably a German invasion on the shores of Themyscira and a fistfight in a London alley), but this last section at the Front devolves into a big, messy blob of computer generated images. That, sadly, seems to be a requirement with current superhero movies, and movies based on DC Comics characters in particular. The finales of both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad featured incoherent battles against ugly looking CGI monsters, and so does Wonder Woman. What makes this finale particularly disappointing compared to the others is that the movie has been pretty great up to that point.
It’s not like the movie goes completely off the rails in its last fifteen minutes, but it comes really close. There are still a couple good things in this last section: the way the movie pays off the relationship between Diana and Steve is very effective, and the character arc for Diana, in which she is confronted with the possibility that her actions won’t be enough to change humanity’s flawed nature before deciding that humanity is worth fighting for, makes a lot of sense from a thematic perspective. The way the writers decide to get to it, however, involves one of the most underwhelming and tired trick in the current superhero manual, in which the real villain is revealed to be someone we didn’t know was the villain! The cheapness of the trick, combined with the underwhelming characterization and hideous design of the villain made it really hard for me to reconcile this last battle.
The thing is, this last confrontation isn’t particularly bad when compared to the final confrontation in your average superhero movie, and that’s the problem. Wonder Woman isn’t your average superhero movie. It is bound to become the most commercially successful movie directed by a woman. Director Patty Jenkins should be really proud of her work here. People have been waiting for a good movie starring a female superhero, and they finally have it. They have more than that, actually, since this movie isn’t merely good. There is one big flaw there toward the end, but that can be forgiven. Most of the movie is just wonderful.