One of the marvels of Patty Jenkins’ enjoyable but thoroughly contradictory summer blockbuster is the carefree way it plays with time. The present day, the First World War and mythical, ancient Greece sit side by side. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is first spotted as a conservatively dressed academic, working in the antiquities department at the Louvre. She is later shown in glorious, slow-motion close-up in full warrior outfit, crossing the muddy trenches of No Man’s Land separating the British and Germans. She also spends quite some time in Amazon boot camp on a sun-baked island thousands of years in the past.
This is a very definite upgrade on last year’s lamentable Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, in which Wonder Woman appeared fleetingly. In that film, we saw a faded old black and white photograph showing her alongside four mercenary looking types in what appears to be a First World War bombed-out village. That photo is explained here and we’re given the full story of her origins.
There is bound to be a strong debate about Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials and how she compares to all the male superheroes who’ve dominated the global box office in recent years. Typically, the film turns out to be both progressive in its gender politics and an exercise in compromise and pulled punches. For all her martial skills, Diana is portrayed as a sensitive and engagingly naive figure. She has made it her lifetime mission to banish Ares, God of War, and to “save the world, this beautiful place”. As portrayed by Gadot, she has powers of empathy and kindness that her male counterparts in superhero movies completely lack.
It is refreshing to see Chris Pine’s wisecracking, Bogart-like Captain Steve Trevor, the male lead, deferring to Diana. After all, she’s the one with the powers. He is both her love interest and her Robin-like helper. Director Jenkins allows more time for character development than is generally given to Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent.
Jenkins also continually shows up the chauvinist attitudes of those around Diana, for example when she appears at a meeting of the all-male British wartime cabinet and they bluster away in anger at her presence. Nonetheless, she is still the object of male longing. She’s the most glamorously dressed in the ballroom sequence. In the special effects-dominated action sequences, when the protagonists use their super powers to bring down the villains, gender doesn’t make that much difference anyway.
The scenes of the Amazon women in their thongs on their beautiful Mediterranean island can’t help but teeter on the brink of extreme kitsch. Their costumes and all the long-winded explanations about their relationship to Zeus and the other gods rekindle unfortunate memories of Clash Of The Titans. We’re introduced to Diana as a fearless and mischievous young child (played by Lilly Aspell). For reasons that aren’t very clear, her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) doesn’t want her to be trained up as a warrior. Her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright) has different ideas. Eventually, by the time she is a young adult, it is decided that Diana will be trained “harder” than any of the other warriors. She’s already the most lethal among them when, out of the blue, a plane driven by Captain Trevor crashes in the sea just off the island.
Gadot plays Diana in appealing fashion. For all her strength and prowess, she is an innocent, even comic figure, who simply can’t understand the cynicism, politicking, and violence of the humans she encounters. The film becomes much darker and more compelling when she arrives in 1918 London and then heads to the battle front. The German army is close to collapse and an armistice is about to be signed.
The film’s trump cards are its villains. General Ludendorff (a bravura performance Danny Huston) is a bullish and intimidating figure who sniffs a mysterious gas which makes the veins in his face pulse and pop and which gives him superhuman powers. He is determined to scupper the peace talks. His partner in villainy is Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), a very delicate, very lethal woman with a disfigured face who has a genius for chemical warfare. Another intriguing character is David Thewlis’s bewhiskered and patrician British politician, Sir Patrick Morgan, a member of the establishment who has hidden depths.
As if to provide as stark a contrast as possible with the sun-soaked world of the Amazons’ island, Jenkins films the First World War scenes in a far darker palate. The colours are desaturated. There is just as much mud and barbed wire as you’d expect. Diana is thrown together with Steve’s associates, characters like the traumatised Scottish soldier played by Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui’s secret agent and the Native American chieftain played by Eugene Brave Rock (whose expertise with smoke signals comes in predictably useful).
It’s a drawback with films like this that the protagonists have to use their super-powers sooner or later. All the effort devoted to building up characters and developing plot lines becomes redundant as the Amazon warrior in the hot pants and the God of War face off against one another. It’s a case of pow! biff! bam! and boom as the comic book origins of the project become painfully apparent and memories of Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV series begin to spring to mind. Even so, Wonder Woman feels far fresher than most recent superhero movies. It leaves many questions about its heroine unanswered – but there are bound to be plenty of sequels to deal with those.
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