The maxim has endured in various forms for countless years: Women and minorities have to work twice as hard for half as much. It probably would not have been enough for director Patty Jenkins to make a good Wonder Woman movie, something that could merely establish a female superhero who was every bit as capable as the boys. She needed to make a great one, something fun and exciting and clever and beautiful and all those other superlatives that get tossed around whenever people discuss why they love the movies they love, as if a great movie was something you could just stuff at a Build-a-Bear Workshop.
This is the kind of pressure that I would have said separats the men from the boys…until Jenkins casually reminded me that the phrase should be “grown-ups from the children” before stepping up and delivering a possible instant classic. Wonder Woman is a nigh-perfect movie whose only crime is being straightforward, at least compared to some of the previous batshit offerings from DC Films.
No, Wonder Woman is not going to challenge you the way Zack Snyder’s Superman movies do. It doesn’t need to. It captures the moral complexity at the heart of those movies and distills it down to a simple fable: In a mythical world that’s obscured to the eyes of ordinary men and women, a child grows up with a romanticized view of humanity as peaceful, loving creatures whose hearts were poisoned by a rogue, jealous god. When a man washes upon the shores of this world and tells of a great war with no end in sight, the child, now grown into a fierce and gifted warrior, is sure that the god is behind this. Wielding what’s said to be the only weapon strong enough to kill a God, the warrior sets off with the man to put an end to him, thus stopping the war. But the warrior quickly learns that men aren’t as simple as the stories made them out to be, and goes through a personal apocalypse as the true horrors and tough realities of war reveal themselves to her.
That’s Diana’s story. The man is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the god is supposedly Ares. But the war is World War I, and we the audience know that we call it World War I for a reason. Diana’s quest is futile from the start; Steve knows it, her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) knows it…really the only person who doesn’t is Diana herself. But instead of being grating, it works because Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg (with assists on story from Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs) know how to make the dramatic irony work for them, and because Gal Gadot is tremendously appealing in the lead role.
It would have been so easy to get away with just making Diana a badass in a world where women aren’t supposed to be badasses and calling it a day. Indeed, that’s her defining feature; she’s never known a problem that she wasn’t supposed to solve by punching it, something Jenkins and the cast have a blast with in an early scene involving Diana shopping for clothes. But what strikes me is how much more Diana is than some unstoppable superhero; Gadot gives the character a sort of scholarly naïveté, building her as someone well-versed in the workings of the outside world through all the books she’s read, despite her lack of practical experience. She gets a couple of other scenes early in the movie with Pine’s Trevor that play to this brilliantly: one in a bath area that’s rife with hilariously casual double entendre, and another where she innocently turns Trevor into a babbling mess when she asks why he won’t sleep next to her. You’ve never seen a superhero character like this, man or woman, on the big screen before; it’s simply wonderful to watch Diana and her proficient innocence, just as it’s devastating to watch that innocence crack and then shatter in the face of reality, just as it’s downright life-affirming to see something stronger rebuilt from its shards. I simply cannot say enough good things about how thoroughly Gadot blew me away here.
As far as Chris Pine? Of course he kills it. Pine has always had a Clooney-esque awareness of his charms and relishes any opportunity to subvert them, whether by donning a crazy beard and a stuffed tiger backpack for Joe Carnahan’s Stretch or getting his ass kicked by dozens of tiny aliens in Star Trek Beyond. Playing a rougish hero who suddenly (and happily) finds himself playing second fiddle to a tall, mythical, and disarmingly beautiful warrior woman? No sweat. Pine builds Trevor up as Diana’s guide to humanity, to everything real and right about his kind, and he and Gadot fall into a charming rapport based on curiosity and powerful mutual respect.
Frankly, everyone in the cast is stellar. Saïd Taghmaoui is a particular delight as Steve’s friend Sammy—he gets a line when he first sees Diana in action that is fairly basic on paper and utterly aces in execution—but the whole ensemble clicks in such a way that you could almost remove the action scenes and you’d still have a halfway compelling talking-head drama. In fact, there’s a 30-minute stretch of movie that has barely any action in it, devoted almost entirely to characterization and buildup, and you barely notice because you’re caught up in the interplay between these characters.
In fact, you don’t even realize that Jenkins has been teasing the costume reveal until the moment Diana shrugs off the coat it’s been hiding under, steps out of a trench in Veld, and sparks what could very well be the set piece of the year. Considering that most of us, myself included, have yet to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, and Atomic Blonde, this is undoubtedly a bold statement to make. However, The Liberation of Veld is simply astonishing comic book filmmaking, mixing mythic imagery with verité-style war photography and packing it with beat after rousing beat of slam-bang action. Best of all, it matters in a way few of these sequences ever do. It’s not only the work Jenkins and her team put in on the way there; it’s the moment the film takes afterward, that moment of Diana and Steve dancing in the snow as the newly liberated town seems to just breathe around them. This is not the work of a glorious provocateur that uses familiar characters to raise interesting questions, but rather a confident dramatist telling a very human story about a goddess.
Gun to my head, Man of Steel remains my favorite DCEU film, and Batman v Superman has my undying respect for what it dared to do but could not finish, at least not in its theatrical form. But Wonder Woman represents the platonic ideal of the DCU; dark but not oppressive, challenging but still rollicking. After Warner Brothers overreacted to the failure of BvS by seemingly fucking over Suicide Squad, there’s no denying that the odds were against this movie being worth even half a shit. But in apparent defiance of the maxim, Wonder Woman has come out on top, and Jenkins and company made it look effortless.
Wonder Woman is in theaters now.