WONDER WOMAN * * 1 / 2
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, David Thewlis and Danny Huston. Screenplay by Allan Heinberg. Directed by Patty Jenkins.
I don’t know yet if Gal Gadot is a great actress –or even a good one– but she’s an incredible screen presence. Her frisky, mysterious Diana Prince was the sole reason to see Zack Snyder’s turgid self-pity party Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, with her heavy metal guitar-shredding walk-on music providing that leaden picture’s only moment of playfulness. As you’ve no doubt heard, Gadot’s solo outing Wonder Woman is shaping up to be the summer’s biggest blockbuster, breathlessly celebrated in both culture-writing quarters and multiplex lobbies as a triumph of representation – the too-rare occasion of female badasses strutting their stuff in front of and behind the camera.
It’s two-thirds of a terrific picture, and I’m hard pressed to think of a recent movie I was enjoying so much that shit the bed quite as spectacularly as this one does. Here’s an aspirational adventure story bouncing along with good chemistry, great warmth and even –gasp!—ideas, until it sells itself out with a weightless, rock ‘em-sock ‘em CGI showdown aesthetically indistinguishable from the overwrought punch-a-thons that bored us to tears in Mr. Snyder’s opus. I understand it’s become a requirement of the genre for superhero movies to end with uninspired, interminable fireworks displays, but this one hurts more than most because I actually believed for a stretch that Wonder Woman was going to be different. The movie felt like it was gonna be about something.
For all intents and plot purposes a mashup of the first Captain America and Thor movies, it takes a bit (too long) to send our Amazon goddess to the front lines of WWI alongside hunky spy Chris Pine’s ragtag band of inglorious saboteurs, well-played by Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock. Wonder Woman has a fair amount of the fish-out-of-water humor that makes most of these superhero origin stories feel like remakes of Crocodile Dundee, but on a more thoughtful level it appears to be about the education and disillusionment of Diana Prince. Raised on a remote island as a warrior princess with dreams of honorable battlefield valor, it is on this mission that she witnesses firsthand the ugliness and futility of war, learning about fascism, racism, sexism and all the other “-isms” that make our world such a damnably frustrating place.
The filmmakers bumped the character’s origins back from WWII to its much more confusing prequel, creating a quagmire of uncertain motivations into which our plucky heroine is thrust. Diana thinks it’s her divine mission to kill Ares, the God of War whom she believes has corrupted and coerced mankind into this cycle of endless violence. Gadot radiates a lot of the same good-natured purity that Christopher Reeve brought to his stint as Superman, a kind of innocence and light that reflects quite nicely off of Pine’s rakish, cynical operator. They’re wonderful together, striking sparks that compensate for a lot of the movie’s surprisingly chintzy special effects and moldy color palette.
Director Patty Jenkins lingers for a bit longer on the character beats than most franchise filmmakers, allowing a melancholy undertow to creep into the proceedings, particularly with regard to bit players like Bremner’s shell-shocked sniper and a disfigured chemist played by The Skin I Live In’s Elena Anaya, who probably should have been the movie’s main villain. Diana finally sheds her cloak and becomes Wonder Woman in an instantly iconic set-piece –pointedly set in No Man’s Land—that alone just might be worth the price of admission. Then it’s pretty much all downhill after that.
“What if we’re just not that good?” asks Pine in the movie’s last interesting moment, positing perhaps all this bloodshed is not the result of some sinister force manipulating mankind, but rather that the fault is in ourselves. It’s an interesting question for a movie, and a fascinating one for such a massive corporate product. Is the world really worth saving if we’re just going to keep killing each other anyway?
Nah, turns out there’s an Ares after all – revealed in an over-telegraphed plot twist as an insanely miscast character actor who looks ridiculous in the medieval minotaur mask cooked up for him by the props department. Any goodwill you might have towards the film gets flushed away in a garish finale that looks like something out of Snyder’s Sucker Punch, complete with his gas-mask fetish. All the movie’s ideas are undercut by an endless supervillain monologue that tries to have its cake and throw a tank at it, too. Meanwhile, what should be the picture’s emotional payoff –shoplifted almost wholesale from Captain America: The First Avenger right down to an airborne sacrifice by someone named Steve– gets buried beneath all the clobbering and debris.
Wonder Woman ultimately leaves us much like the way it leaves Gadot’s Diana, dissatisfied in the present day, looking at old pictures and thinking wistfully about how great things almost were.