Wonder Woman is solid summer entertainment.
Raven-haired star Gal Gadot carries herself with a nobility worthy of the iconic superhero. The action sequences are confidently executed. There’s a not-so-subtle message about the ravages of war. And fear not: it’s significantly better than 2016’s overstuffed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But is it the best D.C. movie since The Dark Knight and worthy of all the giddy pre-release buzz?
I’m sorry, but that would be a no.
It feels weird to apologize for an opinion. In the film critics’ circle, an I’m sorry is a huge no-no. Consider this the exception.
Wonder Woman, you see, isn’t just a savior to World War I soldiers — she’s set up to be the savior for a subpar summer movie season. Let’s take it a step further: This is the first Wonder Wonder movie in the character’s 76-year history, and the first superhero movie to feature a female lead since Jennifer Garner’s Elektra (2005) and Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004). A woman (Patty Jenkins, Monster) directed it, too. It’s important that this film isn’t just a one-off but the start of a cinematic movement. And a stream of robust reviews could move the needle in the right direction.
Those are heavy expectations for a slender gladiator. And as a female critic, I must admit I was ready to embrace it before I stepped in the screening room. I beat the drum loudly for more big-budget movies featuring strong female characters, a la Rogue One. The deficiency is glaring, and movies like Baywatch and King Arthur underline the point.
Also, I’m a child of the ‘80s and worshipped the Lynda Carter TV series. I wore Underoos, for crying out loud! But last year’s dud Ghostbusters proved that an all-female cast shouldn’t be immune from hard-nosed criticism just because of the names above the title — and out of fear of social media backlash. (Has anyone caught the film on Starz lately? Woeful in all facets, female performances included.) So to hell with gender political correctness. I’m going to review this movie for what it is — not for what it represents. And, again, Wonder Woman is… a B-grade offering. But an inspired one.
She was the original Princess Diana. A young and somewhat rebellious daughter of Zeus living on the idyllic island of Theryscira (literally no man’s land), she grows into a strong-willed young woman curious about the world around her. (In an animated Disney movie, this is the part where Diana sings “How Far I’ll Go.”) She realizes her destiny when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes near the island. With the little help from the lasso of truth, he reveals that he’s an American spy reluctant to return to the horrors of World War I circa 1918.
Motivated by her duty to protect those in need, Diana travels with Steve to London. She doesn’t simply want to fight — she’s out to kill Ares, the God of War, whom she believes is responsible for starting the battle. Once he’s dead, she reasons, peace will prosper.
Diana was already a confident heroine when we met her in Batman V. Superman. In this origin tale, Gadot shows her naivety. At first, this quality is the source of uncomfortable laughs at her expense. “I’m the daughter of Zeus and made of clay,” she solemnly explains to Pine en route to London. She’s flummoxed by a watch. There’s palpable relief as she evolves into a woman of super-strength, illustrating virtuous qualities of kindness and love. She will never quip rat-a-tat dialogue like Iron Man or have a self-aware sense of humor like Thor. She’s serious about justice. Bless her for it.
Alas, these qualities don’t necessarily translate into a dynamic and Wam! Bam! superhero movie. Like several other D.C. Comic entries, Wonder Woman is a full-fledge drama that happens to feature characters in costume. This spin works for Christopher Nolan, a masterful auteur (and even his final Batman film got bogged down in self-righteousness). Jenkins can’t quite pull it off.
The director, in fact, seems intent on presenting her film as a straight-faced period piece. A bit of colorful levity sprinkled into the proceedings would have helped. In terms of action, Jenkins can do better than bullets flying through the air in slow-mo. And the end of the day/war, we’re still left with 20 superfluous minutes of stuff blowing up, CGI-style.
For all of Diana’s weapons, including the bullet-proof shield, a lasso of truth and her indestructible golden bracelets, the one that proves the most indispensable is her chemistry with the charismatic Steve Trevor. Their interplay — his cocksure meshing nicely against her grace under pressure — keeps the story popping.
Frankly, Gadot needs the pick-me-up. Looking the part is not enough. Though the beautiful Israeli actress exhibits WW’s most altruistic qualities, she still doesn’t yet seem 100 percent comfortable in front of a camera. Even in motion, she looks like a still photo. Call it a work in progress.
Gadot gets another crack at the role in November’s Justice League, where she’ll match her skill set with heavy-hitters Batman, Superman, Cyborg, the Flash and Aquaman. She’s the only one with a crown. How Wonder-ful.
(Wonder Woman opens in theaters Friday, June 2).
Also published on Medium.