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Review: Wonder Woman is a gorgeous, joyful triumph of a superhero film

Patty Jenkins’s film is Warner Bros.’ best superhero movie since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Making a superhero film isn’t as easy as Marvel usually makes it look. Just ask Warner Bros.

For the past few years, Warner Bros. has largely squandered its DC Comics opportunities, under the creative supervision of Zack Snyder. Man of Steel (2013) was so intent on giving us a stern Superman that it became a dour chore. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015) aimed to ask questions about authoritarianism and superheroism, but was bogged down by messy storytelling and a lack of common sense. Suicide Squad (2016) was an anti-superhero flick that the studio and all the actors involved would probably like to forget. The last time Warner Bros. put out a good/great superhero film was five years ago, with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, the last chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

In that context, the absolutely gorgeous and joyful Wonder Woman easily the best Warner Bros. superhero film since Nolan put his flair on the cape and cowl — is a major relief. Director Patty Jenkins’s fight scenes are masterpieces of motion. Gal Gadot is majestic. Chris Pine is impossibly charming. And Jenkins has created a film that rightfully does justice to its legendary title character.

This isn’t to say Wonder Woman is perfect; uneven might be more appropriate. In 141 minutes, it shatters the ceiling of how good Warner Bros.’ superhero movies can be — or how good we expect them to be — while also hitting the floor by returning, particularly late in its third act, to the DC formula of staging a big, bloated, finale. Its supporting cast is also underused and underwritten. Ultimately, what could be a fantastic film winds up in “good” territory.

But the moments when Wonder Woman hits its stride give us scenes that are so sublimely good, it’s a reminder of how great the superhero genre can be.

Wonder Woman’s fight scenes are glorious pieces of filmmaking

Warner Bros.

Wonder Woman is an origin story, one that actually begins with the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In that film, we’re introduced to Diana Prince, a.k.a. Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as a reluctant fighter, a woman who “walked away from mankind.” Wonder Woman expands on this morsel, unfolding Diana’s reluctance to save the world again.

Diana, who works in the Louvre as some kind of expert in ancient weapons, recalls her childhood on the paradise island of Themyscira. Themyscira is home to the Amazons, a race of women created by the gods to show mankind what sort of greatness they can achieve. Mankind being what it is, humans were quick to enslave the Amazons. But after a giant war, the Amazons fled to their paradise island, hidden from human evils. Ever since, they’ve been training to fight (and have also apparently had access to brilliant hair stylists, aestheticians, and waxers) in case man ever does come back.

In Wonder Woman, unbeknownst to the Amazons, World War I rages on Earth, and Steve Trevor (Pine), a man, puts an end to this amazingly complicated backstory by crashing a plane into the waters of Themyscira, bringing a dozen or so German soldiers with him. In doing so, he sets up one of the best superhero fight scenes in recent memory.

The Amazons have been training for this moment all their superhuman lives. They swoop down like trapeze artists, flinging themselves into battle. The hand-to-hand fighters kick up sand, throttling the Germans and taking them by surprise. Meanwhile, one of the Amazons, Antiope (Robin Wright), is an absolute marvel in the air, flipping and firing arrows with the grace of a principal ballerina.

Amazons deal beautiful death.

But Jenkins, along with fight coordinators Wayne Dalglish, Allen Jo, Rudolf Vrba, and Ryan Watson, don’t minimize the brutality of the fight. The Amazons may be beautiful, well-trained, and graceful, but any advantage they have from their years of training is negated by German guns. Watching the magnificent Amazons get slaughtered is heartbreaking. It’s not fair, and that’s exactly the feeling that Jenkins is going for.

The violence and fights in Wonder Woman are intriguing not just because they’re stunning but also because of how emotional they are.

The movie’s second fight scene (the one that’s been heavily shown in trailers like the one above) features Diana storming into a WWI impasse, a “no man’s land” in German territory that the British have all but given up on. She dives into battle, holding the line against a hail of German bullets. It’s a stunning feat — a hero under fire, defending the people around her — and it inspires her allies to save the people who live in that village. I’m a longtime Wonder Woman fan, and seeing her signature golden lasso spring and snap to joyous life even made me tear up a tiny bit.

More than the fights in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, the violence and fighting in Wonder Woman are extremely personal. Diana isn’t fighting alien forces or Zod or other heroes, nor is she saving the world in a do-or-die battle. Her first priority is to protect one tiny village, and then her second is to stop the world war. But those priorities shift throughout the film, as she’s determined to kill who she believes is the source of so much evil. And it’s riveting to see how Jenkins and her team tell her story, which is essentially about a hero finding and questioning her morality through the battles she wages.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are the best superhero duo in recent memory

Warner Bros.

In 2013, DC Entertainment chief Diane Nelson said the reason there was no Wonder Woman film (yet) was that Wonder Woman and her origin story were "tricky" and a "challenge" — an entertaining excuse when you consider that Superman is literally a solar-powered alien, Batman’s parents have been killed over and over in every adaptation, and Marvel has found astonishing success with a pair of movies about talking raccoons and humanoid trees that only say three words.

I understand part of Nelson’s reasoning, though, in that Wonder Woman is a genuine and earnest hero who believes in the goodness of people. That outlook doesn’t match up with the sardonic nature of the most popular superheroes today. Not unlike Superman, Wonder Woman is supposed to be about hope and love, tenets that Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne would scoff at.

So with Wonder Woman, Jenkins faced a challenge: updating a character who is earnest, admirable, and hopeful by default to be relevant and relatable to an audience groomed on sarcastic, grim, “cool” heroes.

Instead of trying to push into darker, more cynical territory, Jenkins leans into Wonder Woman’s optimism and hope by telling her origin story as a fish-out-of-water tale.

Post-Themyscira, Diana Prince is struggling to adjust to a world that makes no sense to her. The men calling the shots have, with their wars and their pollution, turned Earth into a wasteland. Nevertheless, she believes that if she can kill the god who’s responsible for this war, she can restore the planet back to its former glory.

Gadot gives Diana the dignity the role calls for, imbuing her with graceful nobility in the film’s biggest fight scenes. But it’s in Wonder Woman’s quieter moments, like the disconnect Diana experiences between WWI-era London and Themyscira, or her soul-shattering realization that good and evil are more nuanced than myth makes them out to be, that really show off Gadot’s understanding of the character.

And Gadot and Pine have compelling chemistry, the best in any superhero movie (yes, including the Marvel ones) of the past decade.

He’s her guide to the modern world, as well as her sidekick and romantic interest. Physically, she’s his protector, though he wants to shield her from the rot of Earth. He knows he has to teach her about war and the abstract nature of evil, but he’s drawn to her optimism and selflessness.

Pine has the splashier, more compelling role as the marooned and mortal Steve Trevor. He gets to bounce jokes off Diana’s squareness. He gets to be lovestruck and awkward, but also relatable. And Pine is absolutely charming in the role, giving the film humor, pop, and crackle.

I predict one of the main criticisms of the film will be connected to the inevitable raves over Pine’s performance and the notion that he got the better lines in what’s supposed to be Wonder Woman’s movie. It won’t help that those lines were written by a man (Allan Heinberg wrote the screenplay). But I also think that to keep Diana Prince true to her comic book roots and what Wonder Woman stands for, she needs to be a bit of a square and a more serious and earnest character — at least initially.

Wonder Woman asks intriguing questions, but falls short of trying to answer them

Warner Bros.

If Warner Bros. had chopped off the last 20 minutes of Wonder Woman, and worked in a few more Amazon fight scenes, I would’ve raised the movie’s rating by at least a star. Because until those last 20 minutes, and in particular in the film’s second act, Jenkins flirts with a bevy of ideas that feel fresh to the superhero genre, the most scintillating of which is that Diana could be wrong about how to save the world.

Diana is motivated by the simple idea that good must triumph over evil. Evil, in this case, is Ares, the Greek god of war. If she kills him, there will be no more war, and people will be saved. She has to do the killing because she’s the chosen one, the greatest warrior. That basic premise is essentially the core of every superhero movie in recent memory.

Bit by bit, Wonder Woman pecks away Diana’s and our general superhero fantasy.

It reflects on the toll of war on people, exploring trauma and PTSD in ways that superhero movies don’t usually do. It shines a light on what happens to people whose bodies aren’t invulnerable, like the Amazons killed on Themyscira or the villagers in the aforementioned “no man’s land.” It plays with the idea of there being indomitable joy in seeing our heroes exert their power, by also questioning the strange trust we put in those heroes and the way we dehumanize our villains.

What if violence isn’t so easily shaken off? What does saving the world look like in a war that isn’t easily won? How can any one being be super if the world he or she lives in doesn’t reflect that?

It’s a shame then, that in the end, Wonder Woman seemingly abandons these intriguing and provocative questions for what amounts to a grand, weightless fireworks show — a signature of Warner Bros.’ superhero films of late. The movie revs its motor and becomes more about a supercharged spectacle of a fight than Diana’s understanding of heroism and mankind. The scope of the movie increases exponentially, threatening to blow out the intricate sense of scale and delicate intimacy Jenkins firmly established throughout its first two-thirds of the film.

Thankfully, though, not all of Jenkins’s core work is undone by adhering to Warner Bros.’ house style.

Maybe asking for a philosophical, woman-led superhero film that questions authoritarianism and the mythologizing of war, one that explores how love gives superheroes their humanity, was too much to ask of a studio that, in the past few years, has offered little to prove it could pull off such a feat.

That Jenkins and her leading woman Gadot sharpened a story that was considered too “tricky” and “challenging” just a few years ago into something that’s quite brilliant is an accomplishment in itself. Wonder Woman’s next appearance, in November’s Justice League, the Warner Bros. equivalent to Marvel’s Avengers, probably won’t have the space or time to answer the big, fascinating questions posed in her origin story. But maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get those in a sequel — one that the character, Jenkins, and Gadot deserve.

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