'Wonder Woman' Review: A More Traditional (And Very Good) DC Superhero Movie

Much like its heroine, Wonder Woman manages to soar to some sublime heights. There are sequences that demand to be gazed at and the action — specifically the Amazon women in battle, soaring through the air — make slo-mo seem fresh for the first time since 300. The cast is charming, with each character afforded a particular grace note, and Gal Gadot shines as the goddess at the center of the whole affair. But Diana of Themyscira has to go through some growing pains before really becoming a hero, and so does the film.

Under the direction of Patty Jenkins, the most thrilling parts of Wonder Woman are the battles and the relationships that the women featured in the movie have with each other. The fights are balletic, with the coordinated grace of the Amazons giving way to the path that Diana cuts through Europe as World War I rages around her. Though there's nothing to say that Diana is utterly invincible, the movie excels in communicating her strength to the point that she might as well be. When she strides out of a bunker and across a warzone, determined to fight, it's not just her ability to deflect bullets that's striking: it's her confidence. Not to mention the fact that it's a break in ranks by a single woman that finally leads a battalion of men to victory after years of stalemate.

The boundless energy and faith that Diana seems to possess put warmth in the movie that makes the more emotional beats particularly effective, especially as the Amazons seem to value a certain amount of stoicism. Diana's relationship with her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is emphasized early on, to the point that when Diana finally leaves home (which up to this point is all she's ever known and to which she may never return), it's easily one of the most affecting scenes in the movie. A mother's love is special, after all. The other relationship that truly shapes Diana's character is the first human she meets, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). It's after his plane crashes in the water near the island of Themyscira that Diana is spurred to leave and pursue Ares, god of war, whom she presumes is responsible for the chaos Steve tells her rages beyond the water. It's not difficult to see where this route is going, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable to watch. The simple power of love is the cornerstone upon which Wonder Woman is built. If it seems earnest, it's because it is.

As two of the more diabolical figures involved in the war, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are just villainous and hammy enough to make it clear that the movie is following a more traditional template than its predecessors in the DC extended universe. It feels like a classic in how simple and well meaning it is (at least for the large part), and it's best when it plays to that strength.

Accordingly, the movie is weakest when it allows itself to start becoming something else. Much as Diana is pushed and pulled in different directions by men who think they know better from the moment she steps onto London soil, the movie feels like it's been pushed and pulled in terms of creative direction. There are parts that resemble the other DC movies (the final act devolves into the worst kind of CGI mess that the franchise has to offer; the CGI is uniformly not great but is easier to ignore earlier in the film when it's not being used for the obligatory climactic battle), and there are parts that feel like they're being pushed to copy Marvel (specifically some of the more boilerplate "superhero" beats). It's concerning given that the DC extended universe has shown itself to excel when it embraces the unique. The first two acts of Man of Steel were beautiful as a story simply about a person finding their place in the world, and for whatever flaws it had, Batman v Superman had ambition on a scale that would just as well have suited a biblical epic.

Wonder Woman is smaller in scale (it'd be hard not to be) but the issues that it brings up are more potent than anything that's really been tackled in the superhero genre thus far. As if in accordance, there are beats that are touched upon very lightly by various members of Trevor's crew. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) mentions that he'd longed to be an actor, but was the wrong color for it. Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) refers briefly to the fraught nature of American history, noting that it was people like Steve Trevor who drove the Native Americans out of their homes and from their lands. Neither of these points reaches any real resolution as the story wraps up a little too neatly to be entirely palatable, but they're still notable for having been brought up in the first place.

Similarly, Wonder Woman deserves credit as a movie that sheds some of the worst of its genre's conventions, with its charms outweighing its flaws by virtue of a cast that's pitch-perfect and a director who knows how to shoot women who know how to fight. Certainly, the illusion fades at times, but that's a small price to pay for a vision that's otherwise so lovely to behold.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10