Without the charisma and skill of a few superpowered women holding it together, Wonder Woman would be another characteristically unwatchable addition to the DC cinematic universe.
As it is, this is certainly the best movie (certainly the most compelling superhero) that DC Comics has managed to truss up and toss onscreen since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
This is thanks in no small part to Gal Gadot, who should be offered a chance to anchor any franchise she wishes for the rest of her natural born life. So beautiful she nearly defies verisimilitude, with an evocative face that complicates her character’s moral decision-making with every twitch, she’s a perfect star for this vehicle.
And she’s not alone. The movie did a few things right – mostly its hiring and casting. As an Amazonian general Robin Wright is a badass; as a plucky British secretary, Lucy Davis a delight. There’s some smartly managed action sequences deftly shot by director Patty Jenkins, a tenderly balanced romantic undertow that manages to remain a subplot, and a posse of oddball sidekicks.
But it’s clear we’re going to have to grade this outing on a curve. Without Gadot and Jenkins, and the ability to make woke audiences cheer before they even entered the theater, this movie would have been another poorly constructed Hindenberg of DC and Zach Snyder’s making. As it is, it may be stronger as a symbolic gesture than it is as a story. As a story, it falls prey to the exact same issues that made every other DC superhero movie (Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad) a hackneyed mess.
The fatal flaw of every awful DC movie up until this point has been the total absence of convincing character development. Think of character development as simply audience members seeing what the characters want, what their motivations are, and watching as characters fundamentally change because of their own choices. Comic books have always excelled at character development, made it so obvious it was practically kitsch. Think of any superhero origin story: Spider-Man fails to stop the man who kills his uncle and BAM. He’s forever changed, understanding that his power comes with responsibility.
DC movies weren’t always so bad at it. Think of the first Dark Knight film. As Bruce Wayne completes his training, Ra’s al Ghul demands that he execute a thief, and Bruce Wayne refuses and is forced to fight his way out. With that decision, he is changed, and he becomes the hero that enables the rest of the story.
Filmmaker Patrick Willems is really good at explaining why DC movies suck at this:
Wonder Woman gropes at character development. It’s one reason why the movie is the most gratifying of the modern DC cinematic universe. It almost gets there. Diana sees people around her suffering because of war, and believes that she has a duty to save them. But she carries this fully-formed sense of duty with her for the entirety of the movie. We’re not really allowed to see a moment when she makes a decision that allows it to solidify. She gets close to it when defying her mother to rescue the spy (played by Chris Pine) who’s crashed her sorority party. She also gets one symbolic moment in the trenches when she ditches her restrictive cloak and charges an enemy machine gun. But nothing changed for Diana in those moments – she was a character who obviously would have made those decisions when placed in those situations, who was then placed in those situations.
Which is frightfully dull. Or would be, if Gadot and Jenkins didn’t do such a good job of distracting from it with the well-staged fireworks.
Unfortunately, the villians don’t get anywhere near the same consideration as Diana does. There are three of them in the movie, three! And none of them have any clear motivations. Chaos? Destruction? Mayhem? Avoiding defeat? Who knows. Those aren’t real human motivations, and they aren’t complicated, so they aren’t interesting. Even Ares, who has been the focus of Diana’s quest throughout the movie, doesn’t make any sense. The moment his character’s identity is revealed, nobody in the theater gasped, because nothing was set up at the beginning of the movie that would make you understand how or why he plotted for this moment to arrive. And when Diana finally fights Ares, we’re thrust into another of DC’s signature CGI paroxysms, where things blow up and none of it matters, because the audience has no sense of the space, or scale, or stakes. Some things fire up, some things spark, and there’s no logic to the fight that we’re supposed to understand, only sound and bright lights and knowing that our gal will win in the end. How boring!
Luckily, with only a few moments to spare, Wonder Woman redeems herself. Diana finally, mercifully becomes the sole character in a DC movie to make a choice that exhibits growth, one that defines the ending of the movie and her future as a hero. Thank the gods.
If it wasn’t for that final moment, I don’t know if I’d like Wonder Woman as much as I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for its success, and the way that it’s already changing the way that Hollywood does business. If this movie gives us more all girl superhero movies, we’ll all have to call it a win, or else. But it’s hard to watch Wonder Woman without being disappointed that the people behind DC movies haven’t learned a thing from their failures and read up on character development. One has to imagine that Gadot, Jenkins and the rest of the DC cast of characters won’t get the same pass the next time around.