“What do you know of the gods?” ~ General Ludendorff
“I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within. I learnt this the hard way, a long, long time ago.” ~ Hippolyta
“I can save today. You can save the world.” ~ Steve Trevor
“It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.” ~ Diana
Seven decades after the character first emerged into the world of comics, a solo film finally brings Wonder Woman to the big screen in a blockbuster directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster) and starring Gal Gadot as the title character. Having had appeared in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (and proving to be the best part of the movie), Gadot’s Diana gets a solo start that proves to be the best in the DC Cinematic Universe series of four films that started with Man Of Steel, and will carry on with other projects yet to come.
The film begins in the present day, with the immortal Diana looking back on her past. Raised on the island of Themyscira, she is the daughter of the queen of the Amazons, warrior women who stood against the Greek god of war, Ares, in the distant past. Her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) doesn’t want Diana to train as a warrior, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) trains the girl in secret. The idyllic island, mystically separated from the rest of the world, finds the modern world intruding when a pilot crashes off the coast and German soldiers are in pursuit. The pilot is American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the First World War is raging across Europe.
The film has been in development for a very long time. There had, of course, been the television series from the 1970s, and at one point or another, multiple directors, script concepts, and potential stars were tossed about. Eventually, screenwriter Allan Heinberg, who had written the character in the comics, brought forth the screenplay for the new film from a story worked out with others- Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs, and Geoff Johns, the last of whom is a major player at DC. While Wonder Woman was originally a legacy of the Second World War, this story takes things a generation back and brings her face to face with the horrors of the war to end all wars. It’s a creative take that ends up working well, and the story mixes in strong characterization based in where the characters come from, as well as rich humour where appropriate. The story raises interesting questions along the way- does it take a god of war to drive men into battle, or are men inherently violent all by themselves?
Patty Jenkins was brought on board in 2015 as a director for the solo project. Her work on Monster oversaw a dark film that got Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress, and her choice as director happens to be the first time a woman has helmed one of these super hero films. And it turned out to be the ideal choice. The resulting film shows that she has not only the right touch for working with actors and bringing out the best in their performances, but also that she can certainly handle epic action. That comes across throughout the film, which goes from paradise to hell, from the idyllic island that Diana calls home to the nightmare that is the trenches of the Great War. The director’s style deftly handles both the personal scale and the epic sweep of battle in turn. She proves to have an expert touch on the tension of battle- even if that battle is between men or between gods.
A good part of the film was shot on location in various spots around Europe, with special effects and work done on studio sets where needed. The rendering of Themyscira is particularly vivid, feeling very much like a paradise, and one that wouldn’t feel out of place with what we’ve seen in the comics. The Amazons are formidable- fierce women who have a proud history as warriors, now living in a place of peace. Vivid in a completely different way is the horror of the trenches. While the death toll of World War Two was higher, in some ways, the ferocity of the First World War could seem worse, and the film plays to that.
The casting behind the film is inspired. Danny Huston has a history of character roles, sometimes being sympathetic, other times being less so, but always interesting to watch on screen. Here he gets a bit of a challenge, playing a historical figure who finds a powerful woman among his adversaries. He brings ambition and an iron hand to the role of Erich Ludendorff, the real life German commander during the war. It’s a complicated character to play, and Huston gives him a suitably brooding quality.
Another character actor, David Thewlis, known for many a role, but perhaps most as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series, has a complicated role to play. Sir Patrick Morgan is a British official, high up in the War Cabinet, a man speaking for peace. And yet there’s more under the surface, which Thewlis keeps close to the vest. Soft spoken at first, his Morgan has a craftiness and another agenda all together.
Lucy Davis appears as a familiar face to comics readers, Etta Candy, who’s been a loyal friend to Wonder Woman from the beginning (though her status quo has often changed with continuity reboots or universes restarting). She gives the character a saucy, fun energy, while acting as Steve’s secretary. The actress makes the character a treat to watch. Less of a treat and more of a threat is Elena Anaya, who gets to chew the scenery as Isabel Maru, otherwise known as Doctor Poison. She’s a mad scientist with a specialty in poison (what else), and the actress gives her a menacing quality in her performance.
Robin Wright appears as the Amazon general Antiope, sister to the queen. A woman of principle, steadiness, and courage, she undertakes the training of her niece despite the objections of her sister because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Connie Nielsen gives the role of Hippolyta the sense of grace, majesty, and decisiveness that you’d expect out of the queen of a tribe of warrior women. There’s also a hint of melancholy, as she sees little in the outer world to be trusted. She must balance her instincts as a mother and her duties to her people as the story goes along, knowing the price that might be asked, and the actress strongly conveys that.
Chris Pine appears as Steve Trevor, another holdover from the comics (he was glimpsed in a photograph in Dawn Of Justice, so we knew this was coming). He’s both a military officer and a spy, a man capable of being resourceful and quick to think on his feet. Pine gives the character a cynical but charming quality- he’s already seen the worst that humanity has to offer, and yet as much as that mind grind him down, it doesn’t break him. I like the chemistry that slowly builds as he gets to know Diana- while he’s out of his element in her home, the tables turn when she’s out of her element in the world he calls home, a source of a good part of the film’s humour.
We’d already seen Gal Gadot’s first take as Diana in the present day- a woman taken to living in the shadows, reserved in her way, and yet bold and courageous when the occasion calls for it. This film serves as the character’s origins, and the actress has to play her in a different way that still makes sense for where she’ll end up. Diana is naive and innocent about the world at large- which provides for some levity and humour when she meets that world. And yet she’s brave, compassionate, and inherently decent, qualities that never fail her as she’s confronted by horrors that leave many men shattered. The actress plays strongly to these elements of the character throughout the film, and she’s mesmerizing to watch, totally owning the character, making her a compelling, inspiring protagonist. This is the payoff that’s been a long time coming.
Wonder Woman gets things right for the DC Cinematic Universe. While there have been good films based on DC characters before (most recently the Christopher Nolan directed trilogy of Batman films), the concept of a shared universe only really dates back to Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, and that film, along with Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad, did have their share of issues along the way. Part of that was the attempts of studio executives to play a desperate game of catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead of just letting the movies tell their own story. What we get here is a powerfully told tale of war and peace, of sacrifice and ambition, of horror and love. With a protagonist who brings vividly to life the integrity and goodness of the character, the film proves to be a rollicking success, grounded in good characterization and moving breathlessly along. And it’s about time.