"Wonder Woman" (2017) Review
Let's talk about limitations.
But before we talk about limitations, let me just say up front that I'm not an employee of Warner Brothers (or, really an employee at any entertainment company for that matter). The reason I say that is because I wasn't there when Wonder Woman was made and so I can only speculate about the nature of its production based on other stories I've read over the years about film production and specifically the behind the scenes stories that have come out of the last three DC films.
You might be asking yourself why it's necessary to bring all of this into a film review, but in the case of the recent DC films, it's absolutely essential, because the last three films have been... Mixed in quality to say the least. For any technical merit that could be assigned to Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, or Suicide Squad, there are loads of problems that come with them.
They are deeply flawed films, but Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice did have one legitimate bright spot. It was Wonder Woman, the only character that seemed to be having anything resembling fun in that film. However, she didn't have a ton to do in that movie besides opening an email from Bruce Wayne and showing up for the fight against Doomsday, so a legitimate question remained:
Could Gal Gadot effectively play the character for her solo film?
Short answer: Absolutely.
Wonder Woman is easily the best of the new DC films and a model for how to move forward with these heroes. The previous DC films in this continuity spoke of the hope that its heroes inspired, but never actually bothered to show anything except for their gloom, angst, and rage. Wonder Woman has its darker moments, but this time it actually brought hope along for the ride and it makes all of the difference.
And that last part is worth reiterating because I think it speaks to the limitations that this film is up against. When you break this film down from the perspective of "how does this fit into the vision of an interconnected franchise," certain parts of it make sense. It explains the film's darker color palette and liberal use of slow motion, migrated from Zack Snyder's style. It explains the darker tone of its story. And, it explains an unfortunate choice in the third act. We'll revisit this soon enough.
On top of having to serve its franchise, it also has to act as an origin for the character of Wonder Woman. It has the cliches that a story like this tend to have, a slightly overlong first act, a love interest for our hero, a funny explanation for Wonder Woman's undercover name, that kind of stuff. Anyone whose been watching superhero movies for long enough will recognize those elements. Throw in a dash of "fish out of water" scenes (which you can also find in other superhero films) and you have pretty familiar pieces.
What changes the nature of all of those pieces though is character, the kind of morality and drive that our heroes have, the chemistry they have, and so on. And Wonder Woman's characterization absolutely drives the movie forward. A particular sequence involving Wonder Woman's conquest of No Man's Land is stunning, combining super stylish action with emotional stakes and some nicely appreciated symbolism.
All of these sequences and pieces are results of the aforementioned limitations that this kind of film brings. It seems as if everyone involved with the film decided that if they were going to have to make this kind of film, they were going to make the best damn version of it that they could manage. And the end result is hard not to cheer for, to get pumped up and excited about. Even the cliche of a romantic interest, the character Steve Trevor played by Chris Pine, is really damn good. Gadot and Pine have some of the best chemistry I've seen in a superhero movie in a long time, a tender relationship rarely seen in the genre.
Speaking of a character named Steve in the early 1900s, I've seen some comparisons between Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger. It's not completely unwarranted, both films are period pieces... With a guy named Steve. That's honestly where the similarities end, and I understand the surface level comparison but that's exactly what it is though. Surface level. Captain America: The First Avenger was an adventure film homage out and out, but more importantly, the character of Steve Rogers was a good man that understood his enemy. Rogers had been watching newsreels of the Axis powers in World War II. He knew bullies when he saw them and didn't want them to win.
Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a good woman that doesn't understand her enemies. She seeks to kill Ares, the God of War, believing he's responsible for World War I. Her arc ends up being a cruel lesson about the evil that mankind inflicts but trying to find the good all the same. Her naiveté is amusing initially in London when she's trying dresses on and failing to understand their function, but descends into tragedy deeper into the film. It's a powerful arc that's bolstered by her relationship not only to Steve Trevor, but to her other comrades in combat.
And then the third act hits and the film turns into another recent DC movie. I don't want to give too much away, but it's CGI heavy battle that feels out of place with the rest of the movie. To make matters worse, the budget of this film is noticeably lower than the previous three DC films which results in some really dodgy looking CGI shots, which is exacerbated by the giant scale of the battle. This is where the limitations of trying to be a big blockbuster superhero film hurt it the most. And dammit, it still works. Even with the misstep, they manage to make it feel mostly character driven. There are definitely some leaps in logic, but the character work of Wonder Woman herself is so good I'm more than willing to forgive it.
This a long review, even by the "Forever" standards of my URL, but please bare with me on one more tangent inside of a tangent. There's a really great line in the film Sunset Boulevard where Joe Gillis, a washed up screenwriter, says that "Audiences don't know that somebody sits down and writes a picture, they think the actors make it up as they go along." That's pretty funny, but it underscores the importance of character and how a distinct character makes you seemingly forget about the mechanical pieces in a film.
I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and it reminded me of how important characters really are. The biggest criticism lobbied against The Force Awakens is that it's basically A New Hope all over again. In the broad-strokes, yeah, it is. But Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver as Kylo Renn were all new and exciting. It's fantastic to see these new characters work inside of a familiar framework, seeing how they react to the staples of the Star Wars franchise.
In that same way, seeing Wonder Woman react to the new world that she's entered is wonderful, exciting, and fun. It's a classic superhero story. Not an old school adventure romp, not a deep grim-dark character study. Classic in the truest sense of the word.
And perhaps the most ironic thing about Wonder Woman as a film is that despite it supposedly being part of a larger universe, it's mostly self-contained beyond a framing device that lightly alludes to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Mark my words, when we look back on superhero films from this timeframe, that fact is going to count for a lot. Because Wonder Woman, like its title character, truly stands on its own.