“Wonder Woman” is, perhaps above all else, an example of how fresh perspectives can inject new life into a film or a film genre. One of the few female-fronted superhero/superhero-adjacent movies in decades, and only the second ever directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, of “Monster” and “Game of Thrones” fame), the film captures a sense of urgency and freshness by telling a familiar story in a way that none of these countless movies has before.
Consider, if you will, the setting of most of the movie: World War I, both in stodgy London and on the battlefields of Belgium. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), or her given name, Diana, has left behind her Amazonian island of paradise in exchange for “man’s world” because she’s heard of the evils of “the war to end all wars” and hopes to bring about peace. Despite a constant, yet humble, display of her hyper-competence and excellent training to every general in London, she’s talked down to, patronized or outright dismissed at every turn – far more than any male superhero I’ve ever watched on the silver screen, with the possible exception of Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man. Those moments of frustration for her and the viewer are both cleverly executed and effectively paid off, doubly so in the latter’s case.
By setting the film in the 1910s, its displays of sexist behavior can be even more outsized than the sexism that’s unfortunately still thriving in today’s world. Once sown, that frustratingly broad misogynist behavior can be harvested in double portions, first by showing the perils of an international conflict entered without the perspective of the majority of the human race (in “Wonder Woman,” the only people who white guys treat more poorly than women are minorities) and second by allowing Diana to quite literally smash the patriarchy, via shield or sword or a slow-mo tag team body slam that wouldn’t look out of place in a wrestling pay-per-view.
If those two approaches to narrative payoff sound like a tonal mismatch, well, that’s exactly what “Wonder Woman” is. One of its greatest tricks is to stay engaging, and, in its own way, downright clever in the face of a ping-ponging tone and a silly environment.
And make no mistake: “Wonder Woman” is a profoundly silly movie. It’s silly in that wonderful comic-booky way, like when one of the bad guys Diana must defeat is unironically named Dr. Poison, but it’s also silly in that over-compensatory way that previous entries to the DC Entertainment Cinematic Universe have been: hyper-stylized, surprisingly violent, and a heavy utilizer of “300”-esque slow mo.
The difference comes in how those elements are used. Gadot is effortlessly charming while remaining physically formidable, a far cry from the empty philosophizing and sullen glowering of the leads of “Batman v. Superman” and “Man of Steel.” The violence and stylization is also more forgivable, as it’s in service of a joyous celebration of strength and fighting for what’s right, rather than a petty squabble over a revenge that was never deserved. Even the “Zak Snyder Instagram filter,” as some call the “BvS” and “MoS” director’s oppressively muted color palette, is used to better effect here, providing a depressingly unadorned view of what life in and near the trenches of the war may have felt like while also providing a contrast to the vibrant world of the Amazons glimpsed in the film’s opening sequences.
The only real chink in “Wonder Woman’s” armor comes at the end, with a final boss fight that hews too closely to the most boring final battles that characterize far too many superhero films – “Batman v. Superman’s” Doomsday fight perhaps chief among them. Lacking spatial reference points or a logical flow, the fight drags on and on before coming to a preordained and unsurprising conclusion, taking an unfortunate amount of wind out of the sails of a movie that really clips along up to that point.
Still, however, there’s plenty to recommend. “Wonder Woman” manages to be a fun movie about chemical warfare, a thoughtful movie surrounded by kitsch and flash, and an upliftingly feminist film in a genre with few such voices. After watching it, I just wanted more “Wonder Woman” movies. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill can hang up their capes for a while.