The DCEU (DC Extended Universe) has had it’s share of stumbles, stumbles, and faceplants over the last few years, the result of Warner Bros.’ rush to cash in on the whole shared superhero universe thing Marvel/Disney started almost a decade ago with Iron Man. Back then, Warner Bros.’ was content letting Christopher Nolan complete his critically and commercially acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, but once The Dark Knight Rises came and went in 2012, it was back to square one cinematic universe wise, a universe that kicked off with the divisive, if unfairly maligned Man of Steel in 2013 and continued with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice just last year (the less said about Suicide Squad, the better). For all of its literal and figurative darkness, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice featured Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) long awaited big-screen debut. Any doubts about both Wonder Woman as a standalone character or Gadot’s performance disappeared almost immediately, making Wonder Woman’s solo film probably the most anticipated superhero film of 2017.
Wonder Woman opens with a completely unnecessary reminder of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Set sometime after last summer’s film, Diana Prince (Gadot), a curator in the Arts and Ancient Weapons department of the Louvre in Paris, receives a super-secret gift from an offscreen Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the century-old original photo of Wonder Woman with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and several other men post battle. The photo sends Diana back in time (not literally), as she enters flashback mode for all but the closing minutes of Wonder Woman. Obligatory origin scenes, of Diana as a fierce, independent young girl, as a fierce, independent teen, and finally as a fierce, independent young woman played by Gadot as she clashes with her overprotective mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), the ruler and leader of a millennia-old, fog-shrouded island paradise, Themyscira, somewhere apparently in the Adriatic Sea or thereabouts. While her mother tries to dissuade her from becoming a warrior, the headstrong Diana trains with her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright).
Moments after proving herself the first among Amazonian equals, Diana spots Steve’s plane as it crashes into the sea. Trevor, every bit the early 20th-century man, responds with shock, surprise, even awe, but before he can ask too many questions, German soldiers arrive on the island, in hot pursuit of Trevor, an American spy working for the Brits at the tail end of World War I. Trevor has something the Germans want, a book filled with deadly formulas that could change the course of the war. The battle that follows on the beach, deftly directed by Patty Jenkins’ with a fluidity and grace that emphasizes the Amazons athleticism, training, and general badassery, avoids the usual pandering or lingering over female bodies typical of even progressive-minded directors. It’s a sign of great things to come where Wonder Woman is concerned, though we don’t see Diana in action again for another hour when she attempts to cross No Man’s Land on the Belgium front to stop Ares, the God of War.
Diana’s cloistered, sheltered upbringing gives Wonder Woman ample opportunity for humor, but never at her expense. When she accompanies Trevor to the world of man and war, she’s a naive, wide-eyed innocent, eager to absorb the ways and manners of early 20th-century life, but quickly realizing that gender equality doesn’t exist. That doesn’t stop Diana, however, from barreling into one men’s-only situation after another, forcibly gaining their respect with the forcefulness of her personality and the depth of her knowledge. In a role reversal with Trevor’s island experience, he becomes Diana’s guide, mentor, and eventually, romantic interest. Despite the usual demands of superhero origin stories, including a big-budget, effects-heavy, videogame-inspired finale that drags on far too long, the Diana-Trevor romance develops organically, the result of their growing mutual respect and admiration for each other.
When they’re not falling for each other, they’re fighting and here again (minus the disappointing finale), Jenkins, her stunt team, and visual effects technicians, deliver rousing, energetic action. Because Diana fights with a sword, shield, and lasso, the action generally stays grounded. She also essentially powers up with each encounter, becoming increasingly more powerful as she discovers her true nature. The gritty, dirty war scenes also reflect the murkiness of a world war without clear-cut villains or sides, just men, women, and children dying pointlessly in the millions over four years, a daring choice for a big-budget superhero film, but also a necessary one given that Captain America staked a claim on World War II several years ago (both characters debuted during the Second World War).
Diana’s journey has also more heft and weight than the usual superhero flick: She comes to some hard-fought, hard-won realizations about humanity, many of them negative, in essence challenging Diana and through Diana, the audience, to see the good, bad, and ugly in the world. Gadot, a onetime-model-turned-actress, has really grown as an onscreen performer. While there was little doubt Gadot looked the part or could handle the physical demands of the role (after a suitable weight-training program, of course), Gadot’s ability to convey Diana’s inner life, the little things actors need to do to convince moviegoers they’re giving truthful, honest performances, was up for grabs. Ten minutes into Diana’s onscreen journey, though, and it’s abundantly clear producer-filmmaker Zack Snyder (he also receives a co-story credit) made the right call when he picked Gadot to play Wonder Woman. That decision alone might have just saved the DCEU.