The new Wonder Woman movie is the kind of good that the criticism I level at it are the type that other superhero movies (heck, most other movies) only wish they could have. Which also means Wonder Woman is a really good movie, bordering on great… but not quite getting there.
You see, Wonder Woman is a movie about something and it takes its time to be about it. It has a message and theme that isn’t heavy-handed or political while also having kick-ass action scenes, solid humor, a good romantic angle, and quiet, thoughtful moments. The movie tries to be something smart and largely achieves its goals.
Generally speaking, this is a movie that has something to say about humanity and war. The violence we do to each other and the beauty that can exist at the same time. This theme plays well throughout the movie and it allows moments of character development and introspection that fulfills that theme. But it’s not perfect and this is the rare problem the movie has. It’s 2 hrs 20 min and I kept wishing it had just a few more scenes of brightness, of humanity. And, ironically, a few more scenes of horror.
The film is set during WW1 and does a good, but not great, job of depicting the horrors of that war. Its trench and no-man’s-land scenes look and feel great but, for the film’s themes to work, I think we needed more of them. However, the movie has to keep its family-friendly rating and its skirts right up to the edge (and maybe goes over a little).
That said, the movie is in the DC movie universe and maintains the grim, grimy murk-saturated look of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman (less so Suicide Squad). This is good in that it fits the universe without wallowing in misery and anger. However, the film’s theme also wants to express the joy and wonder that is being human. But once the film leaves Themyscura (Paradise Island), it lands in grimy industrial London which just looks like the valley of ashes. The film does earn a number of human moments but it is covered in so much dirt that it needed just a few more. Just a little more sunshine to remind us what Wonder Woman is fighting for.
Now that doesn’t mean Wonder Woman is taking after the brooding angry Batman or brooding even angrier Superman from the previous movies. This is the first DC movie (counting the Christopher Nolan Batman films) that has a sense of optimism, greatness, and wonder in its superhero. Wonder Woman is the only character in all these movies who feels like someone you might like or admire. Except for the relentlessly bleak look of the film, this movie reminds us why we wanted to be superheros as kids.
Credit due to both the writers and Gal Gadot for this (and her costume designer). The script is really good, funny when it needs to be, says something, and is structured like a real movie (not something other movies in the series could be accused of). Gal Gadot might still be a bit of a novice at the big screen dramatics, but her performance here works. She’s a fish-out-of-water in Europe and that is funny but it never devolves into caricature. She is naive, but not stupid and the script doesn’t treat her stupid. And when Gadot needs to go full Wonder Woman, she (and her stunt and/or CGI double) are great.
Which suggests the action scenes in the film are very well done. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a bunch of the set piece moments in the trailers and that annoyed me since it defanged the cool moments for me (but that’s not the film’s fault). The action usually makes sense and uses speed ramping to switch back and forth into slow-mo in a way that doesn’t get annoying (because it seems to know exactly the right moments to slow down). The big end action scene sometimes started to feel a little Batman v. Superman with the explosions but I guess I’ll forgive it.
Surprisingly, there aren’t that many big action scenes in the film because, as I previously mentioned, the film takes its time with slower, more thoughtful moments. It isn’t afraid to get funny, charming, and even romantic.
Speaking of romance, Chris Pine playing Steve Trevor is pretty great in this film. One of his best performances and his script doesn’t let him down. He is part romance-guy and he is part comic relief, but these roles don’t define his character. He’s not in charge of his team-up with Wonder Woman but he’s also not her side-kick. This movie gives us a budding romance between two equals. Well, as equal as a guy can be against Wonder Woman…
That’s a lot of words without much story overview. Basic premise is that Dianna grows up on the Amazon island of Themyscura where they train for the day they will confront the Greek god Ares (God of War). Into their idyllic paradise, Steve Trevor crashes and brings news of The Great War to them… the War to End All Wars. Diana travels with him to Europe in order to confront the only man who could be responsible for the nightmare: Ares. Steve Trevor doesn’t quite believe this whole story… but he doubts it in a way that gently pokes fun at the Paradise Island setup. But the important thing is, it doesn’t hate that setup. This isn’t one of those movies that detests its own characters and back story (looking at you, Lone Ranger).
And, finally, the movie manages to tell its own story with only bookends to tie it into the other DC movies. It appears they learned their lesson of not shoehorning in a bunch of connections and tie-ins to future films. The intro sequence does give us a reminder of Batman v Superman but otherwise it is allowed to stand on its own.
OK, so this is a strong recommendation. My only major complaint is that the film doesn’t go from really good to great over things it didn’t quite hit out of the park. Thing is, I can completely agree with someone who disagrees with me and thinks it all works. I suspect I might enjoy the movie better on second viewing. I look forward to it.