I approached this latest superhero(ine) movie with trepidation. The concern was its provenance — the same Warner Bros. studio that gave us gave us last year’s tedious “Batman V Superman” and this year’s kid-friendly but undistinguished “The Lego Batman Movie.”
My worries were in vain. “Wonder Woman” is a fine bit of filmmaking.
In the superhero genre, this is called an origin story, a relaunch of a new actor, here Gal Gadot, in the role of a popular comic book character. The movie begins and ends with a current-day Wonder Woman studying a century-old photograph. The plot tells us how she got from there to here.
We meet Wonder Woman as a child named Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta, on the beautiful all-woman island of Themyscira. Diana grows up understanding that her mission, bequeathed by Zeus, is to fight and kill Ares, the god of war.
In 1917, an American spy washes up on the island’s shores and is pursued by German soldiers trying to kill him. The Amazons fight back, and Diana’s aunt, a general, is killed. As she dies, she tells Diana, “You must go,” to join the battle and end the First World War.
From there the film turns into a sepia-tinted semi-reality piece that takes Diana, now dressed in vintage attire and called Diana Prince, to London and then to Belgium, where she uses her superpowers and magic weapons to leap from an English infantry trench and overpower German enemy fortifications, freeing a grateful village.
The tension builds as a tag team of spirited but quirky men help Diana prepare for her ultimate challenge, a rousing American-style superhero battle that ends the story. Diana triumphs but learns that defending humans, flawed as they are, is not the work of a single campaign.
This of course leaves room to extend the Wonder Woman franchise, which means that audiences can look forward to sequels. An all-round win.
My understanding of superhero conventions is not keen, but my impression is that “Wonder Woman” has more in the way of plot than other such films. In addition, the title character’s mission is more complex and maybe a bit more feminine than the traditional warrior quests that animate traditional male superhero efforts.
In fact, “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, is the latest entrant in the broadening genre of popular and lucrative superhero movies. Next year Marvel is replacing Robert Downey Jr. with a teen-aged African American female as the new Iron Man. A sequel is scheduled for last year’s raunchy and cynical “Deadpool,” which sold well despite its R rating, or perhaps because of it. For younger audiences, there are now superhero movies featuring Lego characters.
Critics generally are very positive in their reactions to “Wonder Woman,” but there are a few who are not satisfied.
A couple writers said the bad guy characters were a bit too two-dimensional, which kept the film from reaching its full potential. Off the top, I can’t recall many carefully drawn bad guys in superhero movies, but it’s possible I have been distracted by lavish CGI spectacles. Usually the bad guys are just bad, really really bad.
And several women reviewers have faulted “Wonder Woman” for insufficiently feminist themes. Two examples:
“Wonder Woman” is like nothing that has come before it in how it joyously displays the camaraderie among women, many of whom are women of color and over 40. It’s electrifying watching the Amazons train and talk with each other. These women are fierce and kind, loyal and brave. If anything, I wished the film dwelt in Themyscira a bit longer, since their culture is so poignantly rendered.
In short, the world must be, yes, mansplained to the superhero by a character played by an actor who exudes all the charm of a hedge-fund analyst at last call. . . . During this scene and many others, especially the final one, when the warrior princess formulates her cuddly bellicose philosophy (“Only love can save the world”), I wished only for Diana to return to the literal no man’s land where she was reared.
The problem with all these critiques, to me, is that they want “Wonder Woman” to be something other than what it is, which is a superhero movie.
Might as well tell a dog that it would be a better dog if it were a cat.
That’s just my take.