'Wonder Woman' Movie Review: Can Gal Gadot Play Superman Too, Please?

wonder woman
Wonder Woman is here to break some skulls Warner Brothers

While Wonder Woman is engaging and establishes the first worthwhile Justice League character, it’s in some respects an unambitious and safe movie. Wonder Woman feels most like a successful retread of Captain America: The First Avenger. It delivers a clear origin story, spends some time adjusting its character to radical new conditions, then sets them loose against a narrow conspiracy within a larger historical conflict, ending with a flying superweapon and the by-now standard one-on-one superpowered brawl. Still, Wonder Woman does this better than most superhero movies in recent memory. It’s funny, often exciting and unlike The First Avenger, doesn’t bow out of its time period and have Wonder Woman fight a bunch of idiots with plasma guns. Where the first Captain America is only begrudgingly a World War II movie, Wonder Woman throws Diana in the trenches against German machine gun nests (WWI this time), juxtaposing the superheroic with the muddy and mundane violence of our actual world.

But, of course, the most dramatic distinction between Wonder Woman and other superhero movies doesn’t feel safe or unambitious at all. It’s both astounding and sad just how novel the woman-led movie feels. Watching the Justice League trailer beforehand, with Wonder Woman as the token in a CGI clusterfuck of men, dramatizes just how novel Wonder Woman is in our tentpole ecosystem. Setting aside all considerations of representation or gender politics, you’ve just never seen anything like the first half hour of Wonder Woman , set in an all-woman utopian society. Novelty alone, with Wonder Woman providing something profoundly different among increasingly formulaic peers, should be sufficient to motivate moviegoers still on board with the genre.

A woman lead isn’t the only way that Wonder Woman ameliorates superhero fatigue. Whereas Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman, already irredeemable movies, suffered even more by comparison to the remarkable quality and consistency of the Marvel lineup, Wonder Woman benefits from the same comparison. Not by being better than Marvel movies — though it is better than Captain America: The First Avenger — but simply by being a smidge different.

The most obvious difference, though tricky to describe, is tonal. Where even Marvel’s more serious movies, like Captain America: Civil War, couch their geopolitical espionage action in the banter-y idiom of Joss Whedon — characters are as much chatty teens as world-influencing adults — Wonder Woman is presumptively straight-faced. The women of Themyscira are classically educated (Diana knows thousands of languages and quotes Thucydides), but has no cultural fluidity. This leads to some of the most charming fish-out-of-water humor since 1979’s Time After Time, endearing us to Diana far more quickly than Henry Cavill’s Superman has accomplished with his screen time. Plus, Wonder Woman ’s jokes are told without the Chris’ (Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans… though Pine comes close to the archetype) throwing a jocular elbow in your rib and smirking out one side of their mouths. Lucy Davis as Etta in particular delivers some of the movie’s biggest laughs by adding rigorously subtle gestures and expressions to an otherwise broad comic relief character.

As a side effect of this tonal difference, Wonder Woman can be silly in ways superhero movies haven’t been in a long time. Whereas Marvel has developed a special effects vocabulary and consistent visual language, Wonder Woman occasionally belies its own visual seriousness with odd special effect choices, like Ludendorff’s (Danny Huston) gas-powered facial glow, which might as well be pulled straight from the more self-consciously comic book-y look of 2003’s Hulk. But just as frequently silliness works strongly in Wonder Woman’s favor, such as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) speaking English in a congested German accent to indicate he’s actually speaking German, adding to Wonder Woman a gungho 1950s adventure vibe. Other elements, such as the superfluous grab-bag of secondary characters — an Ottoman con man, Scottish sniper and Native American smuggler — feel mostly extraneous.

The villains, however, do not. Ludendorff is your fairly typical Nazi-type (even if this is World War I), but the evil chemist, Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In), is especially memorable. Wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask over her jaw, Anaya is both more subtle than the typical comic book villain and deliciously overwrought. Her voice sounds hitched and a little phlegmatic, with the breathy stuttering of perverted cinematic sadists like Raiders of the Lost Ark ’s Major Toht. Her arms flutter about theatrically, more like a 1940s Peter Lorre creep than the power-tripping megalomania found in most superhero movies. And though he only plays a minor role in the plot, the big bad Ares is also a different villain than the genre usually offers. It’s hard to say more without getting into spoilers, but I loved that he enters the last fight in a tatty outfit more appropriate to a schlub on Veep than a god of war. However, it’s a major disappointment when he instead becomes a metal glob of CGI big guy.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, already one of the only bright spots in Batman v Superman, nails the character’s appeal. Unlike the brooding boys Batman and Superman have become, Gadot’s Wonder Woman enjoys her power, only her unerring sense of justice exceeding the thrill she takes from combat. That Gadot exudes a nobility of purpose and demeanour isn’t much surprise, but her ability to drop it all is. Her Wonder Woman turns on a dime from sophisticate to gawking tourist in our world, allowing the character an emotional range far outside of Affleck’s grim-set Bruce Wayne.

Wonder Woman is less of a departure from DC’s disastrous cinematic rollout and more proof of its possibilities. Rather than fleeing from Zack Snyder, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins beats him at his own game. As lamentable as speed-ramping and slow-motion may be (it’s always preferable to let cool action moments go unhighlighted, providing a sense of reward to viewers for catching them), Jenkins simply does slow-mo better. Action sequences in Wonder Woman are fairly typical of the genre, but made bracing by high-flying choreography. There’s an elegance to Amazonian archers arcing through the air. Wonder Woman herself combines the brutality of Batman — slamming, slicing and kicking outmatched soldiers — with a weightlessness that emphasizes superhuman, demigod capacities.

Jenkins also understands what Snyder never will — that the superhero’s moral project, its emphasis on righting individual injustices punch by punch, is essentially naive. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the perfect vehicle for this. Raised on an island of immortal warrior-scholars, Diana has every reason to be shocked by the state of man’s world, where the innocent suffer as the powerful plot their demises in men-only committee rooms. Diana’s evolution in Wonder Woman is not toward cynicism, but toward a love for humanity despite its imperfections. She leaves Themyscira believing that killing Ares would end human evil and instead learns that life is to be protected and cherished not because of its goodness, but because of its moral potential. Where Snyder turned Superman into a brooding jackass, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a true torchbearer for universal human worth. Wonder Woman finally makes gives DC a cinematic character that isn’t a festering stinkhole of misanthropy.

Though there are remarkable moments, particularly Wonder Woman marching across No Man’s Land, repelling bullets with her wrist guards and shield, Wonder Woman is unlikely to knock any socks off. It’s a straightforward superhero origin story brought to a fine polish. The biggest takeaway will be Wonder Woman herself, who not only resurrects the possibilities of the DC superhero series, but of the superhero generally. Unlike Marvel and its themes of geopolitical complexity, Wonder Woman makes a moral case for doing good. Rather than feeling simplistic, it gives Wonder Woman a sense of pure purpose, tied to a lead character likely to be one of the strongest of 2017. In this, Wonder Woman doesn’t feel like a revolution in the genre, but a return to first principles.

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