Birth of a Goddess: DCEU Finally Succeeds with ‘Wonder Woman’

Breathe easy, everyone – after three horrific initial outings, the DC Extended Universe finally has a film audiences have longed for in Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins (Monster) instills Wonder Woman with the same sense of awe that made audiences believe a man could fly in 1978. Doing so does more than honor the legacy and meaning of the seventy-six year old comic book character. It honors women of all ages and from around the globe who see Diana, the Amazonian princess, as a beacon of hope, strength, and courage. Considered one of the Trinity of DC Comics, Diana of Themyscira is the last of the trio to receive a solo outing on the big screen, and Wonder Woman is an absolute triumph. It’s an adventure tale that’s humorous, heartfelt, and action-packed all due to Patty Jenkins fantastic direction, compelling themes, and capable cast. Finally, a film worthy of the DCEU.

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Lilly Aspell as Young Diana and Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta.

An Adventure Begins
Going into Wonder Woman, all we know about the warrior is what we can glean from her fighting alongside Superman and Batman to defeat the hybrid beast known as Doomsday in 2016’s Batman v Superman: she’s a fierce fighter with incredible strength and is old enough to have fought in World War I. How all of these things are possible is the mystery at the heart of Jenkins’s Wonder Woman and the answers we seek take us to a time of Gods and magic.

Themyscira is an island that is hidden from the rest of the world through the magic of Zeus. It is home to the warrior women known as the Amazons – fierce fighters whose grand purpose is to protect mankind from the influence of Ares, God of War. Here, Diana (Gal Gadot), the lone child of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), grows up to become the strongest, fiercest fighter on the island. When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the island, bringing his enemies along with him, Diana must choose between obeying her mother’s command of Amazonian isolation or to follow the divine purpose of the Amazons to protect humanity. Diana’s decision not only puts her on the path to become one of mankind’s greatest protectors, but also to discover the truth of her power.

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Gal Gadot as Adult Diana.

Coming of Age
On the surface, Wonder Woman is a straight-forward action film set within World War I. Underneath is an unexpectedly wonderful coming-of-age story. In her introduction as a young girl, Diana is precocious, longing to become a warrior like those on Themyscira, believing in the idyllic purpose of the Amazons. When it comes time for her to leave the island, those ideals are challenged to the point that she must decide for herself who she fights for and why. Is she fighting because of belief in a prophecy, of loyalty to her lineage, of adherence to Olympian decree, or of her own personal choice? Seeing this seventy-six-year-old character of such global influence struggle with these choices resonates with the audience, making the resolution at the end of the film all the more emotionally satisfying, even if the manner it arrives in is a bit narratively trite.

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Diana questions her mother.

A Look to the Past Establishes the Future
This, by the way, is a continual aspect of Wonder Woman beginning to end. As an origin story, it must hit certain beats in order to introduce characters and establish conflict. Since we already know Diana survives to present-day, Jenkins makes the entire film a flashback, making Diana the narrator of the story. While this is a common narrative tool, the application serves to support the larger theme of personal control. This is Diana’s story from childhood to godhood that echoes a familiar superhero story: that of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman the Movie. Donner’s influence can be seen throughout as Jenkins (an admitted fan of Donner’s film) infuses Wonder Woman with Diana’s perspective upon the world instead of the other way around (a major pitfall in the previous entries to the DCEU). This approach makes Wonder Woman frequently feel like an independent film staged as a small period film rather than the large summer tent pole it is. The perfect example is that while placing the film during World War I establishes the narrative need, it’s Diana who creates the emotional heart. Her journey from the isolated island to the world of mankind challenges her to determine her own role in humanity, a similar thematic note in Donner’s Superman. Make no mistake, though it’s a notable homage to DC Comic’s cinematic past that clearly influences the narrative tone, this is Jenkins’s film and Diana’s story.

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Queen Hippolyta, Diana, and the Amazons question Steve Trevor (unseen).

An Amazon Goddess
This brings us to the greatest success in all of Wonder Woman – the DCEU finally delivers a film with a hero who inspires hope. As depicted in Batman v Superman, Batman is a man driven by loss and anger, turning away from his purpose as protector, viewing biblical vengeance as the only recourse. Superman, as designed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is the epitome of hope. He’s the beacon, the icon, the ideal. Unfortunately, in both recent cinematic offerings, Superman does little more than mope and murder. His actions may be mighty and they may draw in awe or zealotry, but he does not inspire hope. This brings us back to Diana who exudes hope, inspires courage, and whose actions are aspirational to all around her. Compared to Superman and Batman on paper, she should be the ruthless killer, due to her training as an Amazonian warrior; yet, her use of lethal force is consistently restrained throughout the entire film. Her favorite weapons, the shield and Lasso of Truth, are defensive weapons that become destructive in her hands. The few times she utilizes her sword, it is rarely to deliver a mutilating or fatal blow; rather, it’s to invoke shock and awe. Truly, the greatest damage Diana causes to her enemies is by inspiring a hopeful spirit within her allies and showing them a better way. This is perfectly exemplified when Diana refuses to leave women, children, and soldiers pinned down under fire in order to continue a mission. To her, life is precious and should be safe-guarded. She walks alone across a heavily fortified field to protect those caught in the battle. Her lack of fear and her belief in what’s right inspire those around her to take action which ultimately causes the opposing forces to lose their stronghold. In both Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman, Diana is beautifully set up as the beacon of hope that this cinematic world desperately needs.

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Diverse Casting Grounds the World
In order to pull all of this off, Jenkins assembled a team of actors that elevate every scene. Connie Nielsen (Gladiator) and Robin Wright (House of Cards) each exude the gravitas necessary to represent the Queen of the Amazons and their general, respectively. Though their time on-screen is limited, their presence echoes through the choices Diana makes. In her first full-film as Diana, Gal Gadot solidifies once and for all that she was far more than just a glorious sunspot in the gloomy cloud of Batman v Superman and was the perfect actor for the role. Gadot effortlessly embodies the grace and strength of Diana, while also capturing the struggle of applying real-world consequences to her academic-like studies. It’s one thing to know how to fight and kill, but how you use that knowledge is key and Gadot inserts this internal struggle delicately throughout her performance. As her main escort through mankind, Pine exudes charm, discomfort, and surprise with almost every scene. Rather than coming across as arrogant or misogynistic, Pine infuses Trevor with a continual state of wonder as he reconciles the world he knew with the one Diana brings forth. Their culture clash also provides the majority of the humor within the world of Wonder Woman. Inserting lightness into the prior films – 2013’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman – would have been at odds with their internal themes whereas here, they fit in nicely and add to Jenkins’s collective theme of hope.

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L-R: Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Gadot, Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief, and Ewen Bremner as Charlie.

As World War I was a global conflict, providing Diana and Trevor with a multi-cultural cast moves beyond any sense of social justice affirmative action casting. As an established spy working with British Intelligence, Trevor would acquire consorts of varied nationalities from his missions, providing a reasonable explanation for their involvement here. Impressively, each actor does more than just serve as a token character – important solely for nationality or skillset – rather, each offers insight into aspects of society, providing deeply needed color for Diana’s black and white perception of mankind. Sameer, the con-man, played by Said Taghmaoui (The Infiltrator); Charlie, the sharpshooter, played by Ewen Bremner (T2 Trainspotting); and The Chief, purveyor of supplies, played by relative newcomer Eugene Brave Rock; each have their own personal reasons for fighting in the war and each have their own demons. Impressively, Jenkins allows for each team member a moment to open themselves up to Diana; each moment creating a distinct shift in the gender dynamic between the team as they realize that as they have their place in the war, so does a woman. Notably, while Jenkins doesn’t set out to create a film addressing misogyny, the topic’s unavoidable in the subtext, given the era in which the film is set. For those concerned, the gender differences in Wonder Woman are addressed in a way that fits within one of the underling themes: acceptance of strengths. This carries over to the casting of the opposition with Danny Huston (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as Ludendorff, a German general who seeks world domination, and Elena Anaya (The Infiltrator) as Dr. Maru, a brilliant scientist creating devastating poisons for the German army. The dynamic of Ludendorff and Maru is a crooked mirror of that of Diana and Trevor. Their relationship is also one of mutual respect, just with a hell bend. Though not much is offered in the way of backstory, audiences are at least certain of Ludendorff’s and Maru’s desire for domination.

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Diana and Danny Huston as Ludendorff share a dance.

No Great Force Is Without Weakness
As fantastic an adventure as Wonder Woman is, it still falls prey to common cinematic tent pole pitfalls: overabundance of CGI, underdeveloped villains, and an excessive runtime. This is perhaps the greatest difference between the scenes on Themyscira and those elsewhere – the actors playing the Amazons are clearly doing their own stunts, making the feats of strength incredible; whereas the majority of Diana’s fights are CGI-laden to the point of distracting from what should be awe-inspiring. As for Ludendorff and Maru – once described as Germans, the assumption is that they are bad people and, therefore, their choices are inherently bad. However, no time is taken to inform us as to why they are bad people. Is it just national pride? Personal desire? What drives them to murder innocent civilians? They are merely empty shells waiting for Diana to stop them. Finally, while Jenkins keeps the narrative moving forward, there are moments in the middle that drag, causing the audience to suddenly become aware that the film is still building toward its climax. Though this does create some strain, each scene is clearly necessary, so removal would do greater harm than good to the overall narrative. That said, the 2-hour 21-minute runtime does become a bit cumbersome even though Jenkins uses every moment to examine the nature of man, a goddess’s role in man’s world, and how the past can inform the future.

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Diana engages with the locals.

Birth of the League
Like Zeus breathing life into the world creating man, so does Jenkins breathe life into the DCEU. The doom and gloom is replaced by what should have been there in the first place: hope. Though DC Comics fans around the world now have a film worthy of the brand, it’s most important that the icon that is Wonder Woman has earned her place in the pantheon of cinema history. Between the direction, casting, and approach to tackling the complex themes of free will and hope, Wonder Woman is a resounding triumph, heralding the birth of a goddess.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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