Compassion maketh the hero. This seems to be the central pillar to the foundation of Wonder Woman, the latest film in the shared DC extended universe from director Patty Jenkins. Diana is an Amazon, born to protect the world from all manner of danger, but she enters into this film having stepped up to protect the world from Doomsday after walking away after a “century of horrors.” Her final words in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are poignant and powerful; “Man made a world where standing together is impossible.” What led her to this end? She is mysterious and powerful; she is the truest aspiration to the strength and perseverance of the hero. She is Wonder Woman.
Gal Gadot returns to reprise the role of Wonder Woman as she recounts the events that led to her walking away from mankind. She grew up on the hidden island of Themyscira, land of the Amazonians, dreaming of becoming an Amazon warrior, which her mother Queen Hippolyta forbids. After a crash landing by an American spy (Chris Pine), Diana is convinced that the god of war, Ares, is behind the “war to end all wars” and resolves to leave Themyscira and stop him.
For the work it does with Diana’s character, Wonder Woman is spectacular; in fact, her development is deliciously decadent, reminiscent of the great work done with Superman in the first DCEU outing in Man of Steel. The film plays out entirely as a character piece, and with Gadot at its center, she completely shines. She is the epitome of strength and compassion, though her naiveté and black-and-white worldview repeatedly lead her into conflict with the world’s many shades of gray. In the face of that, she never wavers, maintaining her strength of emotion and depth of character. Gadot gives one of the most emotionally ranged and complex performances in a superhero film, transcending the medium to give the character life in the way that many films, genre or otherwise, completely fail to do. When she sees the ravages of war and refuses to stand idly by, it is one of the most uplifting and well-realized pieces of character work in recent memory. Her Wonder Woman is utterly and completely awesome, and Gal Gadot should finally have laid any and all doubts to rest about her ability to carry the immense weight of this character’s legacy into the future. She IS Wonder Woman, and is a wonder to see on the screen. More than that, she portrays the idealization of the superhero, someone who does what humanity cannot do, a representation of a dream of how different the world might be, had we gods that walked among us. Any and all praise should be heaped upon Jenkins and Gadot for so beautifully delivering this to the audience as no comic book film has ever done before.
What is most lamentable, then, is just how woefully mediocre the rest of the film is in comparison to this. Everything from its pacing and plotting, the dreadful action scenes and the sadly forgettable score is incredibly bland, like a bowl of wet paper pulp. There’s no flavor, no life; it is un-energized and mediocre claptrap. Backstory is briskly rushed through, throwing information at the audience to rush through to the next scene that is also lifelessly flat. Action scenes are laden with dreadfully terrible slow-motion for slow-motion’s sake, ripping the energy from them to just try to look “cool” instead of showcasing the power of the titular hero. The incredible score that brought so much vibrancy to the Doomsday battle in Batman v Superman here is needlessly mixed and sped-up to terrible effect, robbing it of the majesty that it so beautifully portrayed previously, and the remainder of the score is so forgettable and underwhelming that it doesn’t even seem like there was any music at all.
Also extremely poorly-executed is the final reveal of Ares and the subsequent battle between the god of war and Diana, a rushed and hackneyed affair tacked onto the film to give it a comic book ending in a sequence so forced it dredges up memories of the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine. One could deride the utter lack of development in the plot for Ares as a villain, but as he’s not the true villain of the piece, that’s not the real issue. He instead feels like a pointless afterthought, a CGI money shot to try to dazzle the audience and make up for the terrible slow-motion that has robbed the strength and energy from the previous action pieces. The entire sequence is utterly and completely needless to both the plot of the film and to the culmination of Diana’s emotional journey; it quite simply doesn’t need to be here. The effects, for their part, are great, but one can’t help but feel as if they’re just watching a climactic battle simply because it is the convention of the genre, but it isn’t earned.
For his part, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a great addition to the film, and the chemistry between he and Gadot is actually really fantastic. The comedic moments of the film, mostly from Trevor, are a great way to lighten up the film in its second act as it makes its way through Diana’s “fish out of water” moments. The squad of Sameer, Charlie, and the Chief are great in their minor roles as well, keeping things light as the film spins and rolls toward its conclusion. They’re all relatively one-note, even Trevor, but they only exist insofar as Diana’s character arc and journey requires them to, and for this they are all extremely effective, and add more splashes of color to a backdrop robbed of its color by the ravages of the Great War.
For the incredible strength of character on display here, it is ultimately sad that the fourth entry in the DCEU is so lacking in almost every other department. Jenkins’ film, based on a script from Allan Heinberg best known for writing some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and The O.C., hoists the entire product onto Gadot’s shoulders and hopes that its characterization of the Amazon princess will be enough to sell the entire picture. It gives us a mesmerizingly brilliant performance from Gadot, but with all of that focus, very little attention was paid to the product as a whole, and Wonder Woman is another dreadfully boring and “safe” superhero film in a genre that is becoming all-too formulaic. While many celebrate the “savior” of the DCEU, we should collectively lament the death of the genre’s creativity.