“Wonder Woman” feels like a natural, iterative next step in the DC Extended Universe in all the ways that “Suicide Squad” didn’t. Director Patty Jenkins organically builds off the tone and style that Zack Snyder, director of “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, set up in those first two movies, as well putting her own unique spin on the pet themes of the series (the extent to which humanity actually deserves superheroes, the complications of individuals holding superheroic amounts of power, debates over passivity versus activity, etc.). David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” barely had any coherent thematics at all, and they certainly didn’t build off the preceding films the way “Wonder Woman” did to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, and the visual and editing style of “Suicide Squad” bared no resemblance to Snyder’s films, whereas Jenkins does great work in making her film feel like a very natural evolution out of those films, while still having a unique identity.
[This review contains spoilers for the film, as well as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.]
I was struck by just how much Jenkins revelled in, and built off, Snyder’s unique style. I expected some unavoidable similarities to Snyder’s “300”, which also deals with a semi-fictionalised ancient Greek setting, but Jenkins went all out and emulated Snyder’s iconic speed-ramping usage in action scenes, giving the film’s combat an exciting sense of kineticism. I love that Jenkins did this, as not only did it give the film a strong sense of style and helped emphasise the sense of motion in action scenes, it also tied the film to the earlier DCEU films in a way that made it feel like a very cohesive next step in the franchise. This did not feel like a director trying to shake off the poor reception “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” brought to the franchise, this felt like a director doing a good job of melding their vision with the style of another filmmaker to make her film work both as her own work as well as an entry in a larger series, with no noticeable pandering to audiences one way or the other.
The film’s sense of humour would have been a fine line to walk, with the ridiculous controversy over the apparent “no jokes” policy for the series, but Jenkins gives the film a wonderful sense of heart and humour that never feels glib or cynical, but just human. She never takes the easy, hackneyed option (like inserting a “I am no man” type line to the No Man’s Land sequence, or inserting some camp usage of the term “Wonder Woman” just to fit it into the story), but just uses the humour naturally to build character.
And what a good job of building character she does, directing a lovely chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, which comes across beautifully in the many times the film takes to slow down and just have quiet character-building moments – the sleeping scene on the boat, the talk by the campfire, the dance and snow sequence, and so on. Gal Gadot brings a lovely warmth and energy to the titular character, and plays so many scenes in a strikingly endearing way (I particularly loved her delight the first time she saw a baby). Like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, the film is in no hurry to get to its pyrotechnics and CGI-heavy finale, and instead takes its time examining its characters and themes, but unlike that film, instead of slowly building up a sense of dread, “Wonder Woman” builds up a sense of love, culminating in Diana’s rejection of Ares through coming to a nuanced understanding of humanity’s capacity for love as well as violence.
Jenkins’ careful, deliberate handle on the movie’s tone is what makes the two German villains of Ludendorff and “Dr. Poison” such a disappointing misstep. The moment where they laugh after tossing a gas mask into a room full of poisoned Germans trying to negotiate peace is positively bizarre, with the pair of them acting as if they’re in a skit on Adam West’s very camp 1960s Batman show, instead of in the actual film. The energising gas Dr. Poison gives Ludendorff also feels very at odds with the general tone of the film, perhaps there simply to justify an action scene between Ludendorff and Diana that works in service of the Ares misdirect but surely could have been accomplished without that plot device that feels so much more camp and less grounded than the rest of the film. Wouldn’t that gas be of greater benefit to motivating the German war effort instead of murdering important generals and politicians anyway? It’s such a disruptive element to the film in more ways than one. The film does so much to differentiate it from other popular superhero films of the time – no climax centred around some sort of devastating sky beam, no plot centred around a macguffin, the humour being based around genuine interplay between characters instead of interchangeable quips, visuals that looked like that belonged in a realm film and not on television, an attempt at some moral ambiguity, and an ending that felt in some ways like a response to the climax of “Captain America: The First Avenger” where another Steve flying a plane improbably survives a likely fatal incident his love thought he’d perish in – that that pair of villains and their super-soldier gas really disappointed me.
Perhaps the only other real issue I have with the film is something I’m still not sure whether I even really take umbrage with or not, and that’s the areas where Jenkins leaves story elements implied rather than making them explicit. I actually liked how “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” kept so many story elements implied and never actually stated them, as I felt it works cohesively with a film so much about distrust, conspiracy, and keeping things hidden from others. But “Wonder Woman” is in many ways about the triumphs of openness, earnestness, and communication, so scenes like Germans and some of the film’s heroes embracing after Diana defeats Ares (ostensibly just an indication of shared camaraderie and relief in the wake of a godly battle and the destruction of Ludendorff’s lingering war effort, but a scene that could easily be read as accidentally confirming Diana’s naieve thought that Ares was entirely the one responsible for man’s warlike impulses, as the scene is staged as if the Germans are waking out of a trance then embracing their enemies) bothered me to a degree.
I also have some misgivings over how much of Ares’ involvement was actually needed in the film. I enjoyed David Thewlis’ performance (although it was understandably dampened somewhat in the superheroics of the finale battle), and some of the mythic touches like him forming his armour literally out of metal from tanks and other instruments of the war effort, but his subtle involvement in motivating and assisting Ludendorff and Dr. Poison seemed to me at best a fairly unnecessary way to cram more obvious supervillainy into the film, and at worst a clouding of the entire point of his involvement in the story as demonstrating humanity’s innate compulsion to conflict and violence wasn’t caused by him at all. His insistence on solidifying the armistice, which we know would eventually lead to greater troubles in Germany and greater horrors and violence, worked for me very well both as an indicator of him trying to prove humans would be drawn to violence even after crafting a peace accord after the worse war of their history, and as a motivating element to bring Germany to even greater war. But it felt somewhat muted by giving Ares more direct villainous work in the story that dulled some of those more interesting motivations.
That said, I thought making Ares a politician instead of a soldier was a canny story choice, and that the film’s general treatment of the war was more nuanced than I’d expect from a superhero film. Setting the film in World War One instead of World War Two invited a more complex outlook since there was less of an easy “good guy / bad guy” duality, and the film capitalised on that with its thematics, as Diana struggled with learning the heroic Chief’s character’s people were previously greatly harmed by heroic Steve’s people, the majority of the “villainous” Germans trying to broker for peace instead of revel in war, and the general meaninglessness and horrors of the war taking precedence over any sort of “noble fight”. The film’s heroes wanted the war to end, rather than to triumph over their enemies, and I think that was an important distinction that the film made.
It’s interesting that Superman mantles the directly theological elements of the series, notably in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and presumably in upcoming “Justice League”, when Diana is literally godly. I enjoyed the way the film explored some parallels and contrasts between the characters without being particularly on-the-nose about it. Both Superman and Wonder Woman, non-humans, are shown mental projections of reality without humans (Zod showing Clark a terraformed Krypton-esque Earth, Ares showing Diana an Eden-like paradise Earth). Both Clark and Diana struggle with the best way to use their powers to help people, but Clark’s issues are largely internal (his angst from the conflicting views of his two fathers, his depression over the public outlook on him, his concern over the legitimate issues raised about the politics of his actions), whereas Diana’s are more external (where best to deploy her in the war effort, where to find Ares), fitting given that war in some ways brings more of a simplicity to conflict. Shadowy terrorism in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a lot different than outright warfare in “Wonder Woman”. The No Man’s Land sequence, the highpoint of “Wonder Woman”, sees Diana utterly free of any of the reluctance that’s such a huge part of Superman’s character in the series, as she simply saves lives with no thought or angst beyond that. It’s interesting how the character that’s literally a god doesn’t wrestle with theological concerns the way the alien character does.
I appreciated that the film didn’t try to “rationalise” any of its mythological elements, instead simply stating them as they are, without any need for justification. The first act of the film, set in Themyscira, lays out the film’s mythological backdrop clearly, and I think bringing myth to the fore in such a way works splendidly for the series. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” ends by escalating its mythological concerns to literal devils (the demonic figure Lex Luthor communicates with, the implication that the demons Bruce fought in his “dream” are being drawn to Earth) and deification (Clark’s implied coming resurrection), and for “Wonder Woman” – a prequel, certainly, but still one coming after that film – to expand that outlook even further to include genuine mythological figures like Zeus and Ares felt very appropriate to me, and a natural place for the series to go. That first act in Themyscira also contrasted with the rest of the film very well, particularly in terms of colour and visuals, with Themyscira so bright and tropical-coloured, whereas the war front was so dim and muted. All the inhabitants of Themyscira emulating Gal Gadot’s actual Israeli accent was an amusing bit of worldbuilding that made sure Diana felt like a cohesive part of her own film.
It lacks the ambition of some other entries in the series, and has a few unfortunately mangled story elements, but for the most part “Wonder Woman” is a great success, a genuinely fitting and iterative entry into a greater series as well as a heartfelt and well-made film in its own right. I give it three and a half bracers, and a wristwatch.