6 June 2017

Wonder Woman review

There's a lot riding on Wonder Woman, the latest DC superhero film from Warner Bros, and not just because it's the first female led, female directed superhero film of the modern era. The previous three films in the DC Extended Universe have all underwhelmed to various degrees, either critically, financially, or both - all eyes are on Wonder Woman to prove that there is value to be found in this franchise yet, and while obviously imperfect at times, I'm pleased to say that it manages to do just that. It's taken far longer than it should have, but the DCEU has finally delivered a film that is genuinely worth seeing, flaws and all.

Told as an extended flashback framed around the photograph she was trying to reclaim in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman sees Diana Prince getting involved in the First World War after learning of its existence when American spy/pilot Steve Trevor crashes his plane into the sea surrounding her home, the island of Themyscira. Concluding that only Ares, the God of War, could be behind this madness, Diana travels to London and later the Front with Steve to kill Ares and put an end to the war once and for all.

It's a fairly simple story that borrows more than just a little from Captain America: The First Avenger, but by no means is that intended to be a criticism of Wonder Woman. By taking a step back and choosing to tell a lean, character-focused origin story, Wonder Woman has plenty of time to build Diana as a character and endear us to her, and from that perspective it's hard to fault. Diana is everything that previous DCEU protagonists haven't been - likeable, for a start, but also truly heroic, a genuinely good person not just deep down but outwardly too. Her compassion for others and deeply held belief that humanity is worth fighting for is the driving force not just of the character but the film as a whole - what we have in Diana Prince is DC's version of Captain America, and as with Chris Evans, it's almost as if Gal Gadot was born to play her. Regardless of the reservations some may have had about her casting, she's brilliant in the role, and I really can't imagine anyone else playing her.

Also worthy of a mention here is Lucy Davis as secretary Etta Candy, who manages to leave quite the impression with what little screen time she has, and of course Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, the pilot/spy who accompanies Diana throughout. Modern superhero films often tend to simply assume that we'll invest in any potential romance thrown at us, but Wonder Woman doesn't make that mistake - the relationship between Diana and Steve never feels like an afterthought thanks to how prominent it is throughout, and between some quality writing and the chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, it ends up being the most believable, well-earned and in truth emotionally engaging romance in a modern superhero film by some margin. It's worth noting that a large part of the reason for this is that we don't only really care about one half of the couple - this is Diana's film through and through, but Steve still ends up being a far more developed character than most love interests, someone we could root for and enjoy spending time around even without Diana's presence.

Naturally then, it's the film's character-focused middle section where Wonder Woman is at it's strongest. It would be easy to look at the scenes set in London as nothing more than "fish-out-of-water" comedy, but Diana's unwillingness to adhere to the social norms of the time speaks volumes about her priorities, as well as being very funny. Likewise, the stunning, instantly iconic action sequence that sees Diana storming No Man's Land may be a very good action scene, but it's also showing us just how much she's willing to do for those in need, speaking to that innate sense of compassion she's imbued with. All the best aspects of Wonder Woman are rooted in showing us who Diana is, what she believes in and what she stands for, lending the film a sense of focus and cohesion that it may have otherwise lacked.

Which is why Wonder Woman's finale is ultimately such a major disappointment. Not only is it willing to embrace all the worst tendencies of modern superhero films - it's yet another incoherent, incomprehensible CGI punch fest between two virtually invulnerable beings focused only on appealing to what a 14 year old might think of as "cool" - it also contains a number of really strange storytelling choices that completely undermine Diana's character arc while removing any shades of grey or complexities that the film could have contained, problems only compounded by Ares being such a weak, boring antagonist when he finally does show up. I can't go into details for fear of spoilers, but the finale ends up feeling almost completely at odds with the rest of the movie, and that's a significant, frustrating flaw that I'm simply unable to ignore.

While there are other criticisms to be made of Wonder Woman - the consistently ropey CGI, the odd tonal misstep, just how much it ends up taking directly from Captain America: The First Avenger - it's really just this stinker of a finale that holds it back from being the genuinely great, rather than just very good, piece of blockbuster entertainment that it could have been. Whether or not Warner Bros will be able to follow this up with something worthwhile remains to be seen - and I'm skeptical to say the least - but for now, Wonder Woman is certainly a pretty big step in the right direction.

4 stars

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