Does Wonder Woman sink or soar?
Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Warner Bros)
There’s been talk of a film about the comics heroine for decades. Now, after many false starts, it’s here – and the wait was worth it, writes critic Caryn James.

In Wonder Woman’s reimagining of the princess myth, Diana, Princess of the Amazons, leaps through the air deflecting bullets with her bracelets. She enters a formal reception with a sword tucked into the back of her evening dress. But she differs from conventional princesses and superheroes in an even more pointed way – one that speaks to today’s fraught global politics. While Batman is motivated by vengeance for his parents’ deaths and Superman is dedicated to saving those in peril, Wonder Woman wants nothing less than world peace. All this in a crisply executed action movie with an engaging narrative, and, in Diana (Gal Gadot), as swift and strong a heroine as anyone could have wished for.

This is a film that radiates confidence and sangfroid

Director Patty Jenkins, who led Charlize Theron to an Oscar in Monster, had a great responsibility here. She is one of the few women to direct a film with a budget of $100 million or more. And the character of Wonder Woman enters the almost exclusively male domain of DC comics movies, a franchise ravaged by disappointments like Batman v Superman. Under this pressure, Jenkins comes through with a work that radiates confidence and sangfroid.

The major action takes place during World War One, but flashbacks show the young Diana. She is raised on an island of women ruled by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who believes that war should be a last resort for any culture. Nonetheless, the Amazons are trained to fight on horseback with swords and spears. Diana learns from the best, her aunt (Robin Wright).

The story takes off when a warplane crashes and Diana rescues Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) an American working for British intelligence. He is the first man she has ever set eyes on, and their surprise at each other is laced with deadpan wit. He acknowledges that he is considered an above-average specimen of a male. She explains that she was moulded from clay and brought to life by Zeus. Those scenes land just on the right side of too cute. Romance is inevitable.

'Toughness and equality' 

The phrase ‘wonder woman’ has become a generic term for a strong female who manages to do it all, but Diana really does a lot. She gets away with wearing a sexy fighting costume because she is all about toughness and equality. Steve is brave and handsome, but he loves her for her honesty and strength. In a perfect world, Pine’s Steve might have looked a little less like a milquetoast Prince Charming, but at least he never acts like one.  

After a fierce battle with the Germans on the beach – the Amazons bring flaming arrows to a gunfight, yet win – Diana helps Steve leave the island so he can alert the British about a German weapons factory manufacturing a deadly poison. She goes too, with the goal of murdering Ares, the God of War, and eliminating such conflicts from the planet forever. Gadot gives the character a wide-eyed idealism and sense of wonder that infuses the entire movie. Wonder Woman’s hopefulness is a perfect match for “the war to end all wars”.

This is not some gushy idea that if women ruled the world there would be no war

Candidates for top villain are all around. They include Danny Huston as the ruthless German general Ludendorff, supported by Dr Maru, (Elena Anaya), a mad scientist who has developed the poison, more dangerous than anything the world has ever seen.  Diana is well-armed too, with her shield and a sword known as the Godkiller.  

The paradox of Wonder Woman is that only by murdering Ares and his warmongers can she end violence itself. This is not some gushy idea that if women ruled the world there would be no war: the hard lesson she learns through the film is that all humans have a persistent capacity for evil and self-destruction.

Diana and Steve’s first stop en route to the battlefield is London, which gives the film another comic interlude. The screenplay could have used more of Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Steve’s no-nonsense secretary, who takes Diana shopping at Selfridge’s for a more appropriate, suffragette-era wardrobe. Etta realizes that you can put spectacles on Diana, but they won’t disguise the fact that she is the most beautiful woman on Earth.

David Thewlis, as Sir Patrick, a British official, supports Steve’s undercover mission to Ludendorff’s bomb factory. Steve also picks up some bland sidekicks: Ewen Bremner as a PTSD-stricken sniper and Said Taghmaoui as a con man. They are the movie’s weakest, most wasted elements.

It remains too rooted in superhero tropes to become genuinely original

Jenkins uses special effects judiciously, however, so they never overwhelm scenes. Diana’s Lasso of Truth, which forces anyone encircled by it to be honest, appears as a gleaming golden rope made of light. Throughout, the director handles the battle scenes with panache. Diana climbs out of a trench and strides across the field into battle, mines exploding around her, bullets ricocheting off her shield. Alternately speeding up the movement and using slow-motion, Jenkins makes the action scenes dynamic. They are executed and edited with a clarity missing from the muddled chaos of so many previous superhero movies.

The most explosive action is saved for the finale at the weapons laboratory and airfield in Belgium, the obligatory over-the-top battle that ends all superhero movies. This one has more emotional resonance not because Diana is a woman but because Jenkins and Gadot make her human, despite being a goddess.

The best genre films transcend the limits of the form, and Wonder Woman doesn’t quite attain that level. Powerfully feminist and anti-war though it is, it remains too rooted in the broad strokes of superhero conventions to become genuinely original.

But it is a bracing pop entertainment that should work for both men and women. And it has some extra value. Women, even those young enough to have grown up on enlightened heroines like Mulan, might wish Wonder Woman had been around to guide the way when they were girls.


If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC