This review contains some spoilers.
“Be careful of mankind, Diana, they do not deserve you.”
These are some of the last words spoken by Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, before watching her daughter sail away from her forever, and into the uncertain future of Man’s World. Mankind, and whether it deserves saving, is a question central to the heart of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and cuts to the very core of what the character represents.
When psychologist and women’s rights advocate William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941, he did so with a specific aim in mind. Literature, he thought, was a powerful didactic tool, and he lamented the lack of prominent female role-models in children’s fiction. Having witnessed the achievements of many feminists of the era, and inspired by their resolve and dedication to shaping a fairer world, Marston saw a crucial need for a female hero to inspire humanist values in young readers as an alternative to the power-driven, violent male heroes of the era; characters that embodied values Marston believed were damaging to human relations. If strength should be valued, then it was important to use that strength to champion love and compassion.
The team behind Wonder Woman fully grasp this duality of Wonder Woman’s nature, her role as both warrior and ambassador of peace, dedicated to fighting not for vengeance or sport, but for love and understanding without condition or reward. It’s this understanding of the character’s core identity that shapes Wonder Woman into such an uplifting and compelling triumph.
The film opens with the breathtaking majesty of Themyscira, an island sequestered from the outside world and home to the mythological warrior race of women called the Amazons. Young Princess Diana daydreams of training to be a warrior like her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother Queen Hippolyta (a regal Connie Nielsen) forbids it. As Diana grows older, and her mother finally relents, it isn’t long before their idyllic existence is interrupted. Enter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American soldier who crashes his plane into surrounding waters and is rescued by Diana (Gal Gadot). Trevor tells the Amazons of the Great War, and Diana resolves to go with him to the front lines, as she believes Ares, God of War and longtime enemy of her people, is corrupting mankind and influencing the war.
While many superhero origin story movies often short-change the genesis of their characters in favor of rushing to the “meat” of picture, Wonder Woman commits to developing its protagonist, her backstory and the people in her life who helped shape her. What’s more, the story (by Allan Heinberg, with assists from Jack Synder and Jason Fuchs) capably brings non-comics fans into the fold, not demanding any prior knowledge of the character to fully understand events and relationships onscreen. And in terms of superhero movie fare, Wonder Woman is an immensely enjoyable, emotionally rich film, in large part buoyed by Gal Gadot, who swiftly earns her place as the heart of the story.
Gadot commands the screen with an endearing combination of naïve idealism and a warrior’s strength and sense of purpose, and her journey from an insular culture with an idealized notion of battle to the jarring, eye-opening reality of Man’s World and wartime carnage rings true. From her youth in Themyscira to her eventual fight in the thick of the Great War, Gadot makes Diana’s emotional and literal journey believable and one the audience can rally behind. With this role, she easily joins the ranks of great onscreen heroes in the tradition of Christopher Reeves’ Superman and Chris Evans’ Captain America.
Chris Pine is pitch-perfect as the grounded, well-intentioned American pilot Steve Trevor. He is Diana’s link to Man’s World, embodying its flaws and virtues in equal measure, and makes the perfect foil for Diana’s “stranger in a strange land” culture shock. Their dynamic leads to many genuinely hilarious moments throughout the film, always organic and sparked by circumstance, avoiding some of the forced, situationally-inappropriate humor that plagues other recent comic book movies.
Filling out the supporting cast, Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen are brilliant and badass as General Antiope and Queen Hippolyta, making it easy to understand where Diana’s gets her values and competence on the battlefield. Lucy Davis delivers a charming and hilarious turn as Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s secretary and stalwart help back home while the rest of the team takes to the trenches. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui and Ewen Bremner are memorable as Trevor’s special taskforce, each dealing with their own personal battles amidst the larger war, and David Thewlis turns in a deceptively understated performance as Sir Patrick, a high-ranking British military official who isn’t quite what he seems. As for the villains, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are camp perfection as the evil one-two punch of General Ludendorff and his right-hand woman, Dr. Poison, rogue agents of death and destruction.
Though the film does take its time on the relationships between these characters, it doesn’t shy away from the action. Jenkins demonstrates a discerning eye for kinetic, adrenaline-pumping filmmaking, and though I’m not usually a fan of the slow-motion technique, it’s tastefully deployed here. Jenkins knows when to spring for fast-paced close combat and when to rely on the artful deconstruction of slow-motion, utilizing the latter to emphasize the grace of movement in Diana and the Amazons’ style of battle. It also lends a certain dramatic gravitas to the action, making for some positively spellbinding sequences.
Perhaps the greatest example, and easily the most breathtaking spectacle in the entire film, is the No Man’s Land sequence. As Team Diana advance toward the Belgian hamlet of Veld, they are faced with the barren, battle-torn wasteland of No Man’s Land, so named because no man can cross it without threat of annihilation by gunfire from the German soldiers stationed across the way. Without hesitation, Diana announces her intention to climb out of the trenches and onto the battlefield, to horrified protestations from her team. What they don’t yet understand is that accepting that she cannot cross means accepting that she cannot help, and that is unacceptable. Deflecting a hail of gunfire from every direction, Diana defiantly makes her way across No Man’s Land, clearing the way for Trevor and the other soldiers to cross, and in this selfless act of bravery, she realizes her true heroic potential. From start to finish, it’s a sequence that reminds us precisely why people want to see superhero movies.
Indeed, this dedication to doing what is right against all odds defines Diana’s motivations throughout the entire film and is Wonder Woman’s greatest virtue. In Diana’s only time of doubt, as she grapples with the futility of war and the possibility that mankind’s actions cannot be explained away with simple, black and white solutions, she questions whether humanity is worth saving. Trevor reminds her that “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s what you believe.” And when Ares, like Hippolyta, tries to convince Diana that mankind does not deserve her help or mercy, she defiantly declares: “I believe in love.” It’s this belief in the power of love above all else that wins out and empowers Diana to vanquish Ares. It’s what propelled her forward in the liberation of Veld, and what compelled her to leave her home knowing she could never return, to redeem an entire civilization she did not know and could have easily let fall. She will always extend a hand before drawing a sword, but isn’t afraid to fight to make the world a better place—because it’s just the right thing to do. The film completely embraces this facet of her character, crystallizes exactly who Diana is and brings her to the heights her creator envisioned.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a superhero movie (or any kind of movie, for that matter) so earnestly advocate for the power of love and so boldly, unashamedly embrace goodness and humanism as ideals to which we should aspire. There isn’t a shred of cynicism to be found in Wonder Woman, just a meaningful message to impart and a whole lot of triumphant, emotionally invigorating heroism. I left the theater deflecting bullets with imaginary gauntlets, and maybe you will, too.