REVIEW: WONDER WOMAN soars but doesn’t stick the landing

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In the critical world, it’s not exactly high praise to say Wonder Woman is Warner Bros. and DC’s best film in the recent line-up, given the poor reactions to both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. So to get the obvious out of the way first: yes, Wonder Woman is the best, by far. DC’s best bet for this film was to stick to a simpler, more logical story and focus on developing Diana’s character, and it readily met both of those goals, crafting one of the best on-screen superheroes in years.

Whether it’s a great film? I’d say: close.

Wonder Woman has amazing character development and my hands-down favorite action scene in any superhero movie during a second act piece where Diana inserts herself into the front lines of the war. But, like so many superhero films before it, Wonder Woman stumbles in the third act, where it reverts to a CGI-laden showdown with a big bad we can barely see or understand, bumping the overall feeling of the film down a notch.

Opening with a framing device that calls back to BvS, Wonder Woman is an origin story set during World War I. At the start of the film, Diana (Gal Gadot) lives with the Amazons on Themyscira in peace, largely oblivious to mankind, but bracing for the god of war, Ares, to bring chaos into her life. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island while escaping from German soldiers, Diana learns about humanity and the ongoing war happening across the world. Certain the war marks Ares’ return to Earth, Diana decides to leave Themyscira and bring the god of war to an end.

While Diana’s backstory isn’t the same, the plot beats and strengths of Wonder Woman remind me of Captain America: The First Avenger. Gadot and Pine have amazing chemistry and banter, and I loved every bit of the film that featured them working together to leave Themyscira, visit London, and fight through enemy lines. In these first two acts, the movie managed to deliver intense action sequences and easily moved between serious and lighter fish-out-of-water moments. Lucy Davis was also perfect as Etta Candy, and I’d argue we actually didn’t get enough of her.

Days later, I’m still thinking about one of the action sequences in this film’s second act, where Wonder Woman climbs above the trenches and pushes through enemy lines. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for this one. The entire crowd was cheering, and the action looked great, even managing to incorporate the Woman Woman theme from BvS in a way that felt natural in this movie. What’s most impressive about this sequence is the way Diana uses defense as a strength: her shield draws away fire, and then she goes on to rip apart weapons rather than people. The entire sequence was unlike any I’d seen before.

Unfortunately, as the film trudges into the third act, the stakes get higher and the battle between super-powered characters falls flat, recalling some of the messier CGI action with Doomsday in BvS. If you had issues with some of the violence in BvS, this third act will also likely leave you disappointed.

I think Wonder Woman is a huge step in the right direction for DC’s new slate of movies. Patty Jenkins’ directorial efforts really shine through, and though the script’s broad arc had problems, Diana’s character development was top notch. If you came out of Batman v. Superman feeling like Wonder Woman was the best part, you’ll likely love most of this film, even if it hasn’t managed to cure DC of its messy third act woes.

28 COMMENTS

  1. “guitar-riffy Woman Woman theme from BvS”

    It was an electric cello in “BvS,” not a guitar.

    “recalling some of the messier CGI action with Darkseid in BvS”

    Darkseid was not in BvS. You are probably referencing Doomsday.

  2. Oops! Yes I meant Doomsday. Thanks for catching the mistake! (The guitar-riffy-theme note was meant in jest, but I’ll remove it for clarity).

  3. “guitar-riffy Woman Woman theme from BvS”

    It was an electric cello in “BvS,” not a guitar.

    This is the most anal-retentive nerd comment I’ve seen in recent memory. I don’t know how I’ll use it, but I will say “It was an electric cello, not a guitar,” at some point in the future.

  4. @Daniel Smith – yes, equality means equality, if women want to drink, they should pay the same price as I do. I also do not let pregnant women have my seat on the train.

  5. @MRA (nomen est omen) You’re a real edgy guy. This will bring you far once you leave Middle School. You show these uppity women, taking away god-given male dominated space with their silly idea of “equality”. Need a real man to tell them how equality really looks like.

  6. Biology always trumps equality. While we should always strive for equality, some aspects of biology are simply facts. Men cannot have baby, women cannot be firemen or paratroopers. I respect equality otherwise.

  7. Getting back to the point at hand with Hannah’s review. Wonder Woman is a big improvement on the dreadful BvS and Suicide Squad two-fer, and its humor and performances notch it above Man of Steel (a movie I like, with reservations). But the final 20 minutes border on incoherent, as seems to be de rigueur for the Cinematic DCU these days. I had some other less pressing troubles scattered about, but nothing that was a deal-breaker.

    Still, any righting of the ship is welcome here, and Gadot, Pine, and Davis are golden.

  8. There was a discussion of WW on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today. Film critic Claudia Puig generally liked it, although she said it was marred by yet another big, chaotic CGI battle at the end. She admitted that she tends to “zone out” during these scenes, because she’s seen them so many times. (So have I.)

    I definitely plan to see it. I’m sure it’s a better movie than Suicide Squad. Heck, almost any movie is!

  9. “I’m sure it’s a better movie than Suicide Squad. Heck, almost any movie is!”

    Well, maybe any movie but BAYWATCH, which I understand is utterly wretched. Not that I’m buying a ticket to find out!

    In less happy WW news, Lebanon has banned the movie because Gadot is from Israel and served in that country’s military.

  10. I can certainly understand about boredom with big CGI endings, but this one actually did work for me. First, it was Diana’s apotheosis, which had been set up from the very beginning of the movie — it couldn’t really be small. Second, the emotions in the scene were big, gothic coming of age feelings that the movie had been working towards all along. Third, we were seeing the wrath of gods. It was operatic, sure, but in an earned way, and I thought it was exactly the release the movie needed.

    The CGI itself could have been a lot tighter. At points it seemed to be trying to be one more summer blockbuster ending, and I can see reacting to it that way. But it was definitely part of the story telling.

  11. Don’t most superhero movies have third-act problems? It’s not just DC, in my mind. Not to say ALL Marvel movies have rough third-acts, but a lot of them have disappointing, CGI-burdened finishes preceded by the plot either going off the rails or coming up short and dissatisfying.

    Heck, I’d even argue two of the Nolan Batman movies (Dark Knight being, arguably, ARGUABLY, the exception) have the same problem. I feel I can count the superhero movies with really solid final thirds on one hand.

  12. Yep, Dark Knight was the best for having a much smaller character-driven finale.

    I was loving Batman Begins for its thoughtful dramatic character development in the first hour. Middle was more balanced between that an action, and then the last 30 devolved into non-sense action; Batmobile jumping rooftops and plot points that made no sense.

  13. (There’s some minor SPOILERS in my comment, please read with caution!)

    I was a little puzzled that they had Diana’s power flow from Zeus, the father of the Gods, rather than the Goddesses.

    I’m also not 100% sure if the film passed the Bechdel test (While the Amazons talked about, say, training, it was in direct connection to opposing Ares, a male God) — which you’d think Wonder Woman, of all films, would ace.

    However, I did NOT see the third act twist coming, so that’s a big plus.

    -B

  14. Gal and Chris were just outstanding together. I’ve always felt that the majority of love stories in superhero movies were hackneyed, but this movie really made it work, and kept it important to the film’s central message.

  15. Brian – I was also looking out for this – Diana and Etta talk casually about clothes and the practicality in fighting, womens voting rights etc…. Hippolyta and Antiope talk cryptically about whether they should train Diana. Hippolita and Diana have a few conversations about Themyscera. Antiope yells at Diana a lot.

    Justice League does not look promising on the Bechdel scale

  16. Saw it yesterday and I think Hannah is right on target with her review. Not perfect, but an extremely enjoyable movie I would recommend. BTW–my opinion here–the Bechdel test is made up and stupid. The only test I care about for my entertainment is–is it entertaining? I don’t look for reasons to dislike stuff.

  17. The Captain America comparison made sense, but it also felt to me a lot like a Hellboy story: against a war backdrop a group of humans helping a super-powered being fight off a very ancient evil, who was clad like Surter in the final scenes.

  18. Responding to Brian:
    “I was a little puzzled that they had Diana’s power flow from Zeus, the father of the Gods, rather than the Goddesses.”

    Yeah, this was the biggest flaw in an otherwise FANTASTIC movie. It’s a change the comics made with the “New 52” relaunch (that Greg Rucka’s run seems to be undoing) so it’s not the first time this mistake has been made. WW is a symbol of female empowerment, and to have that power be derived from a male deity undermines the core purpose of the character. The fact that Diana was life created with no male involvement is as central to the character as Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder or Krypton exploding, imo.

    The rest of the movie was so outstanding that I’m willing to forgive such a HUGE misstep (similar to the Batmobile having machine guns).

  19. I don’t entirely agree about the ending. * spoilers follow *

    We learn that Ares has been anonymous and bureaucratic British imperialism the whole time. He tells Diana that nothing can defeat him.

    Then he returns, mockingly, in the form of a monster she can fight.

    The point of the scene is that this is a hollow battle — she can’t fight the faceless atrocities which are Ares’ real victory. What she can take on is his view of the world: that there is nothing except darkness. This allows her to keep fighting and bust through to a victory about belief not about what people just getting what they deserve.

    This is a much stranger moral than a lot of reviews of the film have acknowledged — the whole point is you have to keep fighting even if the world is completely corrupt and you have to find kinds of belief, symbols and ways of relating to other people which allow you to do that. WW can do that because of her platonic love for her comrades.

    I don’t love the final battle scene but I do think it works a lot better if you see it as part of the film’s whole question of what it means to fight back against destructive male violence.

  20. “The point of the scene is that this is a hollow battle”

    I don’t think that’s quite right. The reaction of the soldiers, good guys and bad, who survive the final battle would seem to directly contradict that message. I do think you are right that the whole thing is meant to underline the message that victory is won through promoting love and not destroying evil, but you’re reading into it a bit more intellectual sophistication than is actually there.

    Mike

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