Since Christopher Nolan cut Batman loose in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Zack Snyder has been in charge of DC’s film output, with decidedly pronounced results. 2016’s Suicide Squad suffered from a surfeit of studio interference. Despite Snyder’s story credit on Wonder Woman, it’s the first DC Extended Universe entry that doesn’t adversely bear his fingerprints. Patty Jenkins (TV’s Exposed) is the helmswoman behind Wonder Woman. Her focus, combined with a script written by a genuine comic book writer, makes Wonder Woman the strongest contender for the comic book movie throne in the modern DC pantheon.
In 1918, Diana (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up With The Joneses) leaves her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the hidden Amazonian island of Themyscira to help American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Hell or High Water) end the War to End All Wars. Trevor believes the war can be won through the defeat of General Ludendorf (Danny Huston, Paranoid) and his chemical weapons program, while Diana is convinced that Ares, the god of war, must be stopped so that humanity can remember its fundamental goodness.
Wonder Woman is a matryoshka movie: framing devices within framing devices, stories within stories. The film begins in the modern day, at the Louvre for some reason. Diana recalls her childhood, in which her mother tells her of a legend that is literally framed (but animated) within the pages of a storybook. When Trevor has to tell his story to the Amazons, we flashback to his own war experience. It’s not complicated or confusing, but at times it seems overly ornamental. The good news is that Wonder Woman quickly calms down, and Allan Heinberg’s (The Catch) script begins to tackle events in a linear fashion; the story not only makes sense, but it’s entertaining. The film develops with warmth, humour and high stakes — and, being chronologically first, does not bear the burden of established continuity.
Gadot has never been an exceptional actress, but she uses that to her advantage here: at this point in Diana’s life, Gadot displays a wide-eyed optimism that suits her exceedingly simplistic world view. Whether Gadot can carry on the necessary evolution of the character across the intervening century remains to be seen. Huston is another in a long line of functional if unexceptional comic book movie villains. As Diana’s Man Friday, Pine is as good as he’s ever been. Though he may be present to meet quotas as the film’s only American accented character, he’s the true utility player and an excellent foil for Gadot.
Even Nolan himself had difficulty communicating action in his films; he and Snyder both confused sound and motion for event. Jenkins, by comparison, has a very clean sense of movement that conveys intent and impact without issue. There is a sequence that begins in No Man’s Land and terminates in a beleaguered German city that flows so well and showcases the heroine’s abilities to a degree that one can have no doubt precisely who Wonder Woman is. There’s even the sort of coverage that some movies would cut; at one point Diana leaves her sword on a roof, and continuity is such that she wouldn’t have it in the next shot: after the next cutaway she is seen dropping down from the roof, armed and ready. Jenkins has not only managed to film a comic book movie in a way that makes sense, she has also thrown several discrete and impressive-looking locations at the screen.
With strong characterisation from a largely committed cast, coherent action and a rare confidence in its mise-en-scène, Wonder Woman is a comic book movie the way they should be done. Having finally struck the right sort of tone — importance of narrative without self-importance of form, a degree of fun, action that is capable of being interpreted by the human eye — it may not be too late to turn the DC Extended Universe around.
Wonder Woman opened in Australian cinemas on June 1, 2017.
Directed by: Patty Jenkins.
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis and Connie Nielsen.