The DC Extended Universe has had a bad, but oh so bad run. You've had Man of Steel kick it off with a dull, somber tale. Suicide Squad reveled in its gruesomeness, and the less said about Yawn of Justice the better.
It is therefore almost shocking that Wonder Woman, the fourth stab to get DC to come close to its archrival Marvel, finally gets it right. Suffice to say the reason is that Wonder Woman did something none of the other DC Extended Universe films did: it was fun, it balanced action, comedy, romance, drama and fantasy well, and it gave us someone we actually care about.
On Themyscira, a hidden island full of Amazons, there is one child: a girl named Diana. She yearns to train to be a warrior like her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother, Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen) is strongly opposed to it. Eventually, as Diana (Gal Gadot) grows, Hyppolita concedes. Diana proves herself to be good but one who needs much to learn, especially with a great secret that the other Amazons keep from her.
The Amazons were tasked by Zeus before the fall of the gods to be defenders of his creation, Man, which has been corrupted by Ares, God of War, who has hated Man from the beginning. Ares has disappeared, but the Amazons believe he will return to seek his final vengeance. Just as Diana is about to discover her true strength as a warrior princess, enter one Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). His plane manages to get past the protective shield of Themyscira and crash onto the water. Diana rescues him, only to find that the German military has been following him and has invaded the island. The Amazons defend their home, but their spears are no match to bullets.
The Amazons learn from Trevor that the world is engulfed in war, and Diana believes it is the work of Ares. She insists on going with Trevor to find Ares, and Trevor is eager to go along with her oddball ideas if it gets him back to deliver the chemical weapons plans he stole as a spy. Diana now goes to London but finds no help in finding Ares. Trevor, still dubious but aware of her powers, decides to take her on an unsanctioned mission to take out General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his own version of Chemical Ali, Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya). Going with them are other soldiers of fortune Trevor knows: con artist Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Scottish marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Native American smuggler The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). They get secret help from Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who is working to negotiate an armistice.
Diana is shocked by how monstrous war is, and is more determined to bring Ares down. There is love, there is loss, and there is a shocking revelation to Diana about how man is. Ares does reveal himself, and tempts her to join him against Man. However, realizing the sacrifices other Men have made, she decides to fight Ares to the bitter end.
It is all bookended by Diana, now at the Louvre, receiving a faded photo of herself and her crew from Bruce Wayne.
Wonder Woman works for a variety of reasons, all blended and balanced perfectly by director Patty Jenkins. One of them is that the film takes the premise seriously without being either somber or silly. The nearly two-and-a-half hour running time did concern me, but what I found was that the story was so rich that it pretty much kept flowing rather smoothly.
We got properly introduced to Diana, with a beautiful animated sequence explaining the backstory of the Amazons, so that by the time she went out of Paradise Island we could understand her reactions and emotions. She was a stranger in a strange land, but one that was highly intelligent and with a genuine heart.
Diana's intelligence, however, did not make her aloof, and an extended comic sequence of her trying out the fashions of World War I for women did not diminish her or make her look like an imbecile. It was light and funny, but it was because we were laughing with her, not at her. Her puzzlement as to both how women could possibly fight in the clothes of the time or why women weren't at the front were the reactions of someone who came from a whole other society, but while the film was making its own wry commentary on how society struggled to open venues for women, the character herself never got on a soapbox to lecture the unenlightened men.
She let her actions speak for herself, chafing under the misogyny and sexism she encountered but also motivated by a genuine sadness and concern for civilians suffering through war.
Here is where we get another element that makes Wonder Woman such a great success: the cast. Gal Gadot was a rare bright spot from Yawn of Justice, and Wonder Woman is the promise of that film fulfilled. She makes Diana a fully-formed figure: naïve without being dim, innocent without being clueless, sincere without being idealistic. She is able to talk openly about speculation on 'the pleasures of the flesh' while simultaneously wondering why Trevor wouldn't want to sleep next to her. Gadot makes Diana/Wonder Woman someone without filters or subterfuge, but she also makes her a genuinely caring person, eager to learn more but not afraid to go after evil where she sees it.
Pine now ventures from one franchise (Star Trek) to another, and he fits the bill for the action hero with some smarts. His Steve Trevor is not unafraid, but one who faces that fear and does what needs to be done. Appropriately romantic, nervous, agitated, frustrated and in awe of Diana, Pine does extremely well communicating both his wonder and his confusion about who this woman and her ideas are.
In smaller roles, Nielsen and Wright give us the mixture of grace and strength at the heart of Amazon society, one who prepares for war and one who years for the peace they've long held. Taghmaoui, Bremner, and Brave Rock, although with smaller roles as well, balance the humor, despair, resignation, and joint action of Pine and Gadot.
The special effects work within the story, though the final battle seemed to be a bit overblown. At times the slow-motion of battles was a bit fatiguing, I'd say effective if a bit excessive. One can forgive Huston's a-touch bombastic Teutonic villain, complete with accent.
As a side note, Wonder Woman is reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger, with the difference that the former was a World War I-set film, the latter World War II.
If I could quibble about things, it might be that some of the slow-motion was a bit too much and that Huston was a bit broad, as well as the mad scientist bit a bit cliché, but those are such minor quibbles that it seems almost petty.
Wonder Woman is successful because it took the premise seriously without mocking it or thinking it was smarter than the material. It brought an epic feel to its story without letting the effects and visuals drown out the heart: a strong woman who fights the good fight. It also takes its time to establish the characters rather than rushing through things to get to the action. Finally, it doesn't bother trying to tie itself into a larger mythos (the opening and closing scenes being the only things to tie it in with the overall DC Extended Universe, and if you cut them out you could spin a whole franchise with Wonder Woman alone).
With strong performances by the cast, especially Gadot in the title role, Wonder Woman is a fine example of a comic book adaptation done right. I don't think since the original Superman has there been a comic book-based debut story that is just about perfect. A mix of action, adventure, comedy, and romance all balancing themselves within the overall story, Wonder Woman shows that DC can make a good film.
Whether it can that from now on is another matter altogether.