“Fighting does not make you a hero.”
This one line of dialogue, delivered sternly by Connie Nielsen’s Queen Hippolyta to a little girl with a fiery glint in her eyes, neatly sums up the message of Wonder Woman. Diana Prince is a hero intent on bringing peace to the world, and it’s that, not her gift for ass-kicking, that makes her a fictional hero and a cultural icon. It is a moment that buries the lede, however — because, holy shit and praise be, does Wonder Woman ever kick ass.
So do Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins, and Wonder Woman itself, a film that manages to so thoroughly charm, thrill, disarm, and delight that any missteps — and there are a few — feel just a little less significant. Director Jenkins and her star have created a hell of a summer thrill ride, built not from clay but from whip-smart direction, solid performances, and action sequences that you can actually follow and see. The movie doesn’t pull punches, so neither will this review: this film is a goddamned blast. To merely call it the strongest entrant in the DC Entertainment Universe so far is to call Jaws the strongest entrant in the shark movie canon. Say what you will about Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Deep Blue Sea, but Wonder Woman is in another class altogether.
That’s true of the character as well, of course. Like most superhero movies these days, Wonder Woman begins by introducing us to our hero — in this case, Diana, Princess of Themyscira (Gadot), who we meet as a young girl desperate to punch things. She’s kept at bay by her mother (Nielsen), a Warrior Queen determined to keep her daughter as far away from war, to say nothing of its god Ares, as possible. She’s thwarted in this, first by her well-meaning sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright, deliciously steely), and then by either fate or the first World War, depending on your perspective. Out of the sky falls a plane, and out of the plane falls a pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (a terrific Chris Pine). With that, the would-be warrior finds a fight, a pair of enemies in General Erich Ludendorff and Doctor Poison (Danny Huston and Elena Anaya, respectively), a supportive statesman (David Thewlis), and a great, big, fucked-up world.
So a good woman goes to war, making a pit stop in a fish-out-of-water story on the way. This would be a good time to mention that, miracle of miracles, Wonder Woman is honest-to-god funny. That Gadot is charismatic comes as no surprise; that she’s a solid comedic presence is a more unexpected delight. She’s aided in this by Pine, a reliably entertaining presence who’s in top form here. That’s to say nothing of Lucy Davis, stealing scenes as Captain Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy, or screenwriter Allan Heinberg. There’s a shot early in the movie that reads as a deliberate homage to The Little Mermaid — if you were a kid in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, you’ll know it when you see it — and that, along with Marvel’s first Thor film, is perhaps the most direct comparison one can make to what Heinberg and company have created. Jenkins and Heinberg prove early on that they can tell a swift and engaging origin story, stage a killer battle, and draw compelling characters, but it’s in these unexpectedly funny scenes that they really hit their stride.
It’s a momentum that carries into the film’s most impressive stretch, a lengthy middle battle made up of several independent and savage skirmishes. The long sequence ties together nearly all of the film’s technical strengths with grace, though Wonder Woman is so engaging that one could be forgiven for not noticing how well made it is. Lindy Hemming’s battle costume for Diana makes the hero shine like a beacon, and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams outfits the film with a sweeping score that it actually earns. Editor Martin Walsh ensures that each fight is both thrilling and coherent, a quality that’s sadly undervalued when it comes to modern comic book movies. Jenkins and cinematographer Matthew Jensen treat the whole production like the mini-war movie it is, simultaneously grand and humane in its scope. That the camera never once suggestively lingers on Gadot’s frame is but one piece of a genuinely affecting whole, but it’s an important piece, and one that elevates the depiction of Diana’s first charge in the Great War from really good to truly great.
Would that the whole film were so, and not just most of it. As Wonder Woman enters its final act, things get a bit bumpier, with fight sequences more obviously drenched in CGI and coated with that now-signature DCEU grit. Jenkins and Heinberg treat the proceedings as epic with a capital E, and for much of the film’s 140-minute runtime, it’s well-earned. As the proceedings careen toward their conclusion, however, it seems as though Jenkins and her effects team were so eager to make sure that the film looked appropriately mythic in scale that they forgot to make sure the film still felt human at its heart. In another movie, that might not be so jarring, but when so much of what precedes it rings clear and true, even the slightest hollow moment can’t help but strike a sour note.
It’s a familiar problem with movies designed to provide maximum “wow,” and while it’s not enough to spoil this one, it’s also not easy to ignore. It’s a problem, not of plot but of emotional beats. The film cruises through points A to N, assured and appealing, but suddenly it arrives at V or W, with the characters, score, and story all yards ahead of the audience. Even the best blockbusters — your Guardians of the Galaxies, your Die Hards, your Indiana Joneses — often fall into this trap. It’s as though some key scenes are skipped along the way, and the bits that were missed are those that one needs to become truly invested. Throw in a hero’s temptation that one never believes the hero will fall for, and you have a climax that limps just a bit. That these leaps work at all — and they do, somewhat — is a testament to Gadot and especially to Pine, whose ironclad commitment to the material makes one of the film’s biggest moments land with authority.
Still, the whole of Wonder Woman is greater than the sum of its parts. Fighting doesn’t make you a hero. Neither does a dark and grandiose finale. It’s what you choose to do with the power you own that defines you. What Jenkins has chosen to do is treat a classic character — one that many people, women in particular, have been waiting their whole lives to see — with dignity, honesty, some real complexity, and no small amount of fun. Those who’ve been hungry for a film like this one should not be surprised to be moved by its very existence. But as important as Wonder Woman may feel to those who’ve been waiting for it, it will likely loom even larger to those who are getting their very first glimpse of Diana Prince. Fighting doesn’t make you a hero. Making little girls believe that they can be heroes — that just might.