Review: ‘Wonder Woman’ an Enjoyably Uneven High-Point of Warner’s Superhero Catalogue

Illustration: Manolo M. / @manolosomething

The third of Warner Bros.’ latest conjoined series of DC superhero efforts, Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the strongest entry, even as it’s equally an uneven patchwork of pastiches—some of which work much better than others.

Bookended by clandestine trade-offs and emails from Batman (already the most needless and immediately-dated carryover one could imagine), the film gives the backstory for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as first and last seen ham-fisted into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The first act is like a Game of Thrones spin-off pilot in its tedious set-up of mythology and overly-thorough establishing of where they’ll go with the character. In short, Diana (the title hero’s down-to-earth real name, and the only one she’s actually called here) is revealed as the daughter of Zeus—and is very heavily implied to be the only being capable of beating Zeus’s only other surviving scion, the war-loving Ares. She’s also the only deity in her all-woman community of amazonian, battle-ready women, who have trained her to become the best fighter of all of them. Despite the Russ Meyer-ready premise, it’s often a lot more dull than it sounds.

Diana eventually finds contact with the outside world through Chris Pine’s ever-charismatic Steve Trevor, a British-by-way-of-America spy who nearly drowns on her shores. After some lengthy scenes with her lengthy magic rope and his claimed-lengthy penis, she joins Trevor in going to World War I’s battlefront, where she hopes to battle Ares in the flesh—even while we don’t exactly know (or necessarily care) what that means.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose last theatrical feature was 2003’s acclaimed Monster, the film doesn’t reveal much rust in her talents. She finds a solid middle-ground between the tone-deaf, style-over-substance take of her Warner counterpart, Zack Snyder, and the high-key, willfully-interchangeable look of Marvel’s superhero lineup. She creates some iconic tableaus on par with Snyder’s most defensible work, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen lets several night scenes lurk almost worrisomely into a midnight-blue obscurity. Goofy red-and-blue costume removed, Wonder Woman looks more like a proper film than pretty much any peer since Christopher Nolan’s era of Batman.

Despite this distinction, Wonder Woman will inevitably draw comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger, another World War-set origin story introducing a star-spangled hero, their time-restricted love interest, and their jump to modern day with their awesome shield. That film was directed by The Rocketeer‘s Joe Johnston, and like him, Jenkins draws heavily from Steven Spielberg’s varied examinations of war. Like with Johnston, she draws chiefly of the jaunty Indiana Jones sense of adventure, and its pulp cover-ready, manicured embodiment of uniformed German villainy. To her benefit, though, she also draws from the Saving Private Ryan manual of horrifying depictions of the front lines, but that’s still nowhere near the end of Jenkins’ sometimes admirable nods to what’s come before.

Sadly, in aping the leaden mythology of Thor’s homeworld; the abruptly-powerful, glowing-faced villain of Iron Man 3; and the visually bombastic, schmaltzy finale of so many big-budget blockbusters, Wonder Woman falls flat. But in leaning on the screwball two-handers of yore (i.e. It Happened One Night), and supernaturally fish-out-of-water rom-coms like Splash and Kate & Leopold, the film finds an incredibly enjoyable second act that mixes war ensemble with the aforementioned genres. By way of that, its romance may be the most deserved and enjoyable of any single superhero film to date. If Spider-Man still has the most memorable kiss, then this has the most rooted-for.

At the same time, Wonder Woman fans may be upset to learn that her film belongs to her in name more than practice. Like The Fifth Element, Wonder Woman often lets the naïve, super-powered, loosely-titular star falls to the wayside, while the more down-to-earth, gun-toting blonde man becomes the lead. Even if Diana leaves the film an empowered, matured, thoroughly-likable character for the franchise’s future, she literally flies away from it as almost a supporting character, whose future as a protagonist feels almost like it belongs to a spin-off series. In the end, Wonder Woman is a decent-enough movie, but as far as a specifically Wonder Woman movie goes, it’s still lacking—and that’s without getting into its completely dismissible villain(s). (A better God-born superhero film than Thor shouldn’t have a villain far less likely to ever show up again.) This film does offer hope for future entries in the shaky DC Cinematic Universe, though. That may be the biggest wonder of all.

Grade: B-

Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 141 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

  • HalSolo

    So you managed a wonderfully balanced review while STILL dropping a Russ Meyers nod in there.

    Damn I love this site.

  • As someone who was underwhelmed by DC and only whelmed by most of Marvel recently… I gotta say I fucking loved this movie. I think I’d 100% agree that in a lot of cases they seemed to have WW in the background though. It felt like they were overplaying the “fish out of water” thing with her character meeting human men. It was interesting for a bit as part of her interaction and romance with Pine… but when it continued the whole movie it seemed like she just wasn’t very smart. I’m not as familiar with the source material, so maybe that’s completely on point, but it seemed like she was a massively powerful superhero, with a strong moral compass… but it seemed like she could be easily manipulated. Like if Chris Pines character was a nazi and the navy following him was all from the allies, would the story have just played out in reverse? She’d be working with the Germans kicking allied asses? She didn’t seem like she was driving a lot of the action until the very end, more just along for the ride.

    That being said, I still loved it. The action and the emotional punch ups were on point. I guess I could watch her knee a guy through a building on repeat for an hour and still enjoy that though.

    • Yeah, I’m curious (and a bit worried) how the sequel will play out, given the two-hander dynamic driving the first film.

    • Jolie Rogers

      A bit late to the party, but the Germans weren’t really the bad guys–which is fun for WWI but less so for the sequel. There were villainous folks amoungst them, but most of them wanted to peace talk, and the main villain was English sort of.
      I did dig the action pieces–except when she was completely computer animated–and her archetypal sidekicks were fun, but I walked away unimpressed by DC once again.

      • deucepickle

        I know you and I are in the minority here, but I have to agree. All the ass kicking was cool but when it was over, I was like, “That was pretty good I guess”. Not at all like when I walked out of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was super fun.
        I don’t get why everyone is going crazy this movie. It’s fine. That’s my review….”It’s fine”.

        • Jolie Rogers

          I wonder if I should be singing it’s praises so Hollywood doesn’t think it was right that no one will like a female superhero franchise. As Mark said, it’s the best mainstream post-Nolan DC movie.