In 2015, the post-credits zinger for Marvel’s Ant-Man had Evangeline Lily’s heroine, the Wasp, promised her own super suit. Her retort: “It’s about damn time.” The world echoed her sentiments. And waited. But alas: you snooze you lose, Marvel. Wonder Woman is here, loud, proud, heartfelt, and almost absurdly fun. Not to mention: in the super-super-saturated cinemas of late, it’s the first female-led superhero film in 13(?!) years? Suddenly Wasp’s pithy barb feels like the understatement of the century.
If we’re going to continue to play the Marvel card (and we should, for Wonder Woman is more akin to the MCU’s bright, mischievously fun fare than any of its sombre, melodramatic, ludicrously unironic DC precedents), director Patty Jenkins magpies the best bits of Captain America and Thor into a robustly satisfying romp. It’s a lot to juggle, simultaneously sating the twin bastions of feminism and fun in the rare superhero film expected to be About Something, but Jenkins, drawing upon nearly 80 years of fandom and iconography, is rightly confident. Her social commentary streak is as hearty as her flair for fun, and she gamely plunges into the film’s WWI setting as a potent vehicle for one of the genre’s most potent explorations of the ethics of action combat. Jenkins juxtaposing the sparkling, saturated sapphire colour scheme of Diana’s Amazon island with the sepia soot on the war-torn outside world (and just when we’d been enjoying a welcome break from the gloomy DC greys ) which succinctly feeds into Diana’s indictment of human cruelty. A superhero film sincere enough to advocate for empathy and benevolent compassion instead of revenge, justice, or simply violence? It’s a core moral streak so puppy-eyed and earnest it would verge on cornball were it not sold with a ferocious fervour heartfelt enough to trigger twinges of guilty reflection in between bites of popcorn. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
But, paradoxically, in spite of this effective call for compassion there’s almost never been a movie where watching someone punch things has felt so goddamn awesome. Jenkins uncorks action interludes with a zippy abandon, as balletic as they are concussively cathartic, so stupendously fun that you shouldn’t be surprised to see audience members unconsciously swept to their feet with the infectious, heady momentum (Robin Wright, in particular, nearly steals the show with a functional cameo just by making ass-kicking in a leather miniskirt look so ferociously cool). Paired with the crisply perfect period wartime décor, and especially when accompanied by her exhilarating and impossibly catchy guitar riff, Wonder Woman is the first superhero film in years where the fight scenes, rather than merely pleasant diversions, are moving, almost overwhelmingly endorphin-flooding experiences. The mere memory of Diana crumbling a clock tower or flattening a roof with single blows, or granted her very own Éowyn moment by storming into no man’s land (get it?) is enough to bring shivers of magnificence.
And that’s when the shoe drops, and the ‘women only Texas screening’-shaped elephant in the room rears its head: we’ve had decades for the exuberance of men hitting things to wear off. Wonder Woman reminds us of how much fun it can be to watch WOMEN hitting things, and how desperately rare it is. Mercilessly scrutinized under the gender policing microscope, Jenkins, cannily, doesn’t oversell her gender politics. Instead, she calmly naturalizes them by steering the film through Diana’s headstrong, take-no-sh*t character, with each feminist beat emerging naturally through her personality. It’s oodles more effective than any polarizing, dogmatic diatribe, and yields many of the film’s moments of sneaky humour. One aside in particular, where an exasperated Diana condemns petticoats and skirts for impeding high-kicks, instantly cements itself as an iconic reprieve of solidarity for women’s dressing rooms for the next century.
Still, a Wonder Woman film would be moot without the right Gal in the lead. Here, it’s indisputably clear that it’s been worth waiting for Godot. Anchored by a tempestuous, fiery charisma, Godot’s remarkable performance is just as unforgettable in her small moments of zealous humanity (her almost childlike indignation at a war counsel willing to abandon soldiers as a strategic coup, or equivalent jubilation when tasting ice cream for the first time) as she is fiercely convincing tossing tanks or bridling enemies with a glowing lasso. Supporting her, Chris Pine is at his most disarmingly hysterical and irreverently lovable here, and provides a welcome anchoring of incredulous realism when the film threatens to topple into being too steeped in mythology. Danny Huston’s Red Skull clone hits all the requisite skulking, ominously pontificating adversarial notes, but he’s nowhere near as interesting as Elena Anayu’s luridly sinister and tragic Dr. Poison, who, disappointingly, is relegated to sidekick status. Thankfully, Diana’s remarkably diverse cabal of ‘Howling Commandos’ pals remain on the right side of fun without overstaying their welcome (though Ewen Bremner is just one bug-eyed nibble of haggis away from belonging in a live action cartoon). Finally, David Thewlis’ droll prissiness perfectly befits Diana’s befuddled ambassador to the human world, even if his range isn’t quite up for the challenge plot twists demand of him.
Wonder Woman isn’t perfect – there are expanses when Jenkins’ juggernaut pacing fumbles (especially an overlong expository origin), and it toes the line of being a touch too derivative, leaning on its superhero predecessors so liberally that key emotional moments threaten to belly flop from over-familiarity. Still, it’s only a fleeting wobble of tentativeness and creative laziness, that only serves to reinforce Robin Wright’s advice: Wonder Woman is at its (/her) best when she truly believes in herself. Still, when Godot is armoured up, flashing her gauntlets and kicking through walls, the film achieves an almost peerless sense of infectious awesomeness. Will its legacy abide? Well, I’ll let the waves of young girls (and boys!) jump-kicking and slamming their forearms together when stampeding out of the auditorium of my screening speak for themselves.
3 out of 5 stars