Released: 15 May 2017
Director: Patty Jenkins
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $120 to 150 million
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Connie Nielsen, Lucy Davis, and David Thewlis
Before taking the mantle of Wonder Woman, Princess Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) was an Amazonian warrior raised in seclusion on an island paradise. However, when American pilot Steve Trevor (Pine) crashes on their shores and brings awareness of a worldwide conflict, Diana finds herself compelled to leave her home and take up arms in a bid to destroy the God she believes is responsible.
Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston to be a symbol of the superiority of the female gender, Princess Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman has been a firm staple of DC Comics since her debut appearance in All Star Comics #8. With her origins heavily drawing from Greek mythology, Wonder Woman has been portrayed as a warrior and an ambassador for peace and, alongside Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, makes up DC’s “Trinity” as a prominent figure on DC’s super teams, the Justice Society and Justice League of America. Wonder Woman’s popularity has spread outside of the comic books, too; Lynda Carter famously portrayed the character in the seventies television show, cementing Wonder Woman as a pop culture icon, and a big screen live-action adaptation had been wallowing in development hell for decades before Gal Gadot made her first surprise appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016). Following that dramatic debut, production of a solo film for the character that would act as a prequel to the larger DC Extended Universe (DCEU) finally got underway and released to widespread critical acclaim. The film was also a massive box office success and made over $820 million in worldwide revenue, which all-but-guaranteed the production of a sequel, and galvanised the character as a feminist icon for an entirely new generation. Since tomorrow is “Wonder Woman Day”, this seems like as good a time as any to shine a spotlight on one of DC Comics’ most popular and influential characters.
Wonder Woman begins in the present day, between the end of Batman v Superman and the start of Justice League (Whedon/Snyder, 2017), and is framed by Diana’s narration concerning her past after having a photograph of her time in the First World War sent back to her by Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). From there, the film flashes back over a hundred years into the past and to the secluded island paradise of Themyscira where we see a young Diana (Lilly Aspell), emulating the ways of her warrior sisters and yearning to begin her training as a warrior. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Nielsen) is vehemently against Diana becoming a fighter; instead she wishes that Diana would be better served learning the ways of peace and tolerance. To emphasise the foils of war and conflict, she tells Diana a harrowing story of Zeus’s son, the warmongering Areas, influencing the hearts and minds of man into bloodshed and his subsequent slaughter of the Greek pantheon. After defeating Ares, Zeus created Themyscira with his dying breath to shield them from the outside world so that their natural ways of peace and love could prosper far away from the easily manipulated ravages of Man.
Hippolyta also shows Diana the ancient sword, Godkiller, a weapon only the fiercest of Amazons could hope to wield. Despite her mother’s wishes, the young Diana (Emily Carey) is inspired by the stories of battle and glory and secretly trains with her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) in the ways of the warrior. Antiope is finally able to convince Hippolyta to train Diana “harder than any Amazon before her” to make her powerful enough to stand against Ares when he inevitably finds her. However, while Diana (now played by the gorgeous Gadot) becomes a fierce warrior thanks to this rigorous training, her powers (mainly tied to her magical gauntlets) make her unpredictable and dangerous. It is while lamenting these issues that Diana rescues Steve Trevor after his plane crash-lands in the waters around Themyscira; this action not only brings a man onto the hidden island for the first time since its creation (which is of immediate curiosity and interest to Diana) but also the greater worldwide conflict currently gripping the globe as German forces invade Themyscira in pursuit of Steve. Although the Amazonians fend off and defeat the invaders, they suffer heavy losses thanks to the German artillery and, in the battle, Diana’s beloved aunt Antiope is killed. It’s a great scene to showcase the warrior ways of the Amazons and their incredible prowess with swords, bows and arrows, and to give Diana a personal reason to leave the island and get involved in the War, while also showcasing that, as powerful and skilled as the Amazons and even Diana are, they are not invulnerable.
Angered at Steve’s presence and the invasion of men, Hippolyta interrogates him using the magical Lasso of Hestia, which compels him to reveal the truth; in the process, and despite attempting to resist, he reveals that he is a spy for the Allied Forces who discovered a plot by General Erich Ludendorff (Huston) to develop a potent and deadly new strain of mustard gas using the research of the disfigured Doctor Isabel Maru/Doctor Poison (Anaya). This story not only establishes the film’s two main antagonist but also Steve’s conviction and bravery as he goes against his orders to steal Maru’s notebook to warn the Allies of Maru’s weapons. Convinced that this World War is the product of Ares’ return, Diana defies her mother’s wishes once more and arms herself with the Godkiller sword, ceremonial armour, and the magical lasso to accompany Steve back to London. This gives the film a chance to be a bit more playful as Diana is a fish out of water in the modern world; confused and intrigued by men, their society and their ways, she’s puzzled by the simplest of things (watches, ice creams, consumerism, romance, vehicles, revolving doors, and the like) and her interactions with Etta Candy (Davis) really give Gadot a chance to shine and add some depth and personality to Diana’s character. She’s a character of great love, curiosity, and conviction but also naivety; even on Themyscira she is something of an outsider, believing fully in the Amazons’ destiny to defend the world from evil and stop Areas, and her character development includes not just becoming wiser in the world of man but also in the ways of her own world and she is forced to learn, the hard way, that the world’s conflicts are far more complicated than the machinations of one singular being, even a God like Ares.
Steve is similarly intrigued by Diana; obviously, he has a near-instant attraction to her (and, truth be told, she to him) and marvels at her island and her convictions but, as charming and charismatic as he is, he is also somewhat world-weary. Having witnessed first-hand the atrocities of war and the folly of man, he believes that all people are capable of unspeakable acts out of their pure nature rather than the influence of a supernatural being, which is a harsh lesson he is forced to teach Diana. Similarly, Diana is disturbed by Steve’s focus on the big picture and adherence to staying on mission, which leaves innocents suffering the cost of the war, but his reasons are perfectly valid and believable: the War is horrendous and brutal and his focus cannot be on saving every single person, only trying to stop the most direct threat and he remains a likable and appealing character thanks to Pine’s fantastic charisma and onscreen chemistry with Gadot and, even in the face of Diana’s amazing abilities he is able to hold his own as a soldier and a hero.
Similarly, Huston is as captivating as always in the role of Ludendorff, a brutal German general who enforces his will through strict corporal punishment and high expectations. Thanks to Mau’s potions and elixirs, he is granted a degree of superhuman strength and heightened aggression and Maru herself is a sadistic and hideously alluring villain whose experiments with chemistry produce a gas capable not just of choking the life out of those exposed to it but also eating through protective gear like gas masks. As real and credible as their combined threat is, however, it is the politics of war and society that prove the greatest hurdle in the early going as Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis) and others in the upper echelon are more concerned with agreeing an armistice with the Germans than proactively moving against them. Interestingly, the German forces are depicted as desperate, running low on resources, and on the verge of agreeing to the armistice and, disgusted by their weakness and unable to simply give up on the conflict, Ludendorff assassinates them in order to strike his decisive blow against the Allies.
This leads to Steve recruiting a rag-tag team of misfits to head to the Front Line and take out Ludendorff’s chemical facilities; despite them being a little rough around the edges, his group is made up of some colourful characters: Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a smooth-talking French spy; Charlie (Ewen Bremner), an expert sharpshooter with a drinking problem and traumatised by his experiences in war; and the Native American smuggler Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock), who initially refuses to take sides in the War given everything his people lost colonisers. With these allies, and surreptitious assistance from Morgan, they are able to reach the Western Front for one of the film’s breakout sequences: with the Allies pinned down by gunfire, Diana boldly steps into No Man’s Land to deflect the gunfire and take the enemy trench and, in the process, not only liberate a village from the Germans but also share an intimate moment with Steve.
One of the most memorable aspects of Wonder Woman’s debut in Batman v Superman was her stirring orchestral theme, which her solo movie beautifully expands upon to turn it from a bad-ass battle theme into a rousing, heroic melody that punctuates Diana’s evolution as a character and her actions throughout the film. Given the film’s period setting, there is also a great deal of commentary on the role of women in society at the time; Diana is confused and insulted by man’s opinions and treatment of women, having grown up in a warrior society where woman are strong and independent, and brings (through her words but also simply by her appearance and actions) these principals to the wider world long before they really became a talking point.
Wonder Woman shines in its visual aesthetic and costume design; Themyscira is a beautiful environment and full of interesting little elements and a rich lore that is only hinted at in the film. This is, however, largely for the best as Wonder Woman is more focused on the greater conflict of the First World War, meaning it is full of period-accurate costumes, technology, and bleak depictions of the folly and futility of warfare. Amongst these drab and depressing elements, and against the smoke-filled hustle and bustle of London, Diana stands out wonderfully in her amazingly realised and faithful costume. Wonder Woman’s outfit is often one of contention but the DCEU version of the character brought her classic look to screen in the best way possible by infusing it with realistic elements of Greek armour and it’s honestly one of the best and most accurate comic book costumes ever made.
The film’s themes of warfare and suffering are potent thanks to its setting; while there are obvious comparisons to be made to Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), Wonder Woman is a very different film to that one and these comparisons are superficial, at best. Instead the focus is on Diana trying to acclimatise to man’s world and her total dedication to ending Ares’ threat; initially, she believes that Ares has taken Ludendorff’s form in order to spread chaos and devastation and is horrified to learn that her mother and Steve were both accurate in how easily men can be corrupted by their own evils and destructive impulses. This by itself would have made for a striking theme about the inherent evil that we are all capable of but, of course, Wonder Woman is a blockbuster superhero film that needs to end with Diana realising her destiny as the “Godkiller” and battling Ares (revealed to have been Morgan all along).
As exciting and thrilling as this conclusion is, since it finally allows Diana the chance to showcase the full extent of her powers, it is kind of a shame that Ares is a vague and ominous threat for the majority of the film rather than actually being a tangible antagonist for us to learn about. In fact, we learn very little about Ludendorff or Maru, who are both criminally underused despite giving really good performances. However, it does serve the overall message of the film and the harsh lesson that Diana is forced to learn about human nature; when Ares finally reveals himself to Diana, it is at her lowest moment and he tempts her into joining his cause and destroying humanity but Diana’s convictions to her cause remain steadfast and are further emboldened when Steve comes to exemplify man’s capacity for good by sacrificing himself to end Maru’s threat just as Diana kills Ares once and for all.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to like Wonder Woman as much as I did; I like the character and enjoy her involvement in team-up comics but have never been a massive Wonder Woman fan but the film won me over with its fantastically realised themes of war, and, sacrifice. The First World War setting was an inspired choice and really gave Diana a chance to see first-hand the atrocities of man and the complexities of human nature. Obviously, both her world and Steve’s world came to be true to a degree, with Ares ultimately revealed to have been influenced the human antagonists and inspiring the tools necessary for war, and this merging of these two separate worlds was wonderfully realised in the characterisations of Steve and Diana and their growing relationship over the course of the film. While I would have preferred Ares to be a more tangible threat throughout the film rather than a surprise twist at the end, I cannot fault the movie for its direction, cinematography, or presentation; there’s just as much heart and humour at work in the film alongside some stunningly realised action sequences that portray Wonder Woman as both beautiful and formidable and Gadot does an impressive job of giving some real depth and tragedy to Diana’s character that help to inform her portrayal and overall character arc in Batman v Superman and subsequent DCEU films.
What did you think to Wonder Woman? Do you feel it deserved all the praise that it got? What did you think to Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s performances, the characterisations of Diana and Steve, and their relationship? Did you enjoy the themes at work in the film and the “fish out of water” aspects? Did you see the Ares reveal coming and would you have preferred that the antagonists got a bit more time to shine or were you satisfied with the film overall? What are some of your favourite Wonder Woman stories, characters, and moments? How are you celebrating Wonder Woman Day tomorrow? Whatever your thoughts on Wonder Woman, leave a comment below and check out my review of the sequel.