#6 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.
I know that the general consensus is that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman righted the DCEU ship, but for the faults of the previous film, I don’t think that was really a way to make it better. It’s brighter, more colorful, with a more upbeat central character, for sure, several things I have no problem with whatsoever, but there are sections of this film that I find poorly done and even thematically confused. It’s really a mixed bag of a solo adventure for the Amazon.
My problems with the film really start at the very beginning. You see, I kind of hate everything about Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons. The production design, in particular the costumes, are too monotonous. The awkward accents everyone has to adopt because Gal Gadot couldn’t completely rid herself of her own are a bane on every line of dialogue. The biggest problem ends up being the action sequence that introduces Steve Trevor. The American pilot/spy working for British intelligence is fleeing the Germans after he stole the notebook of Dr. Poison that details her newest deadly gas weapon. Diana gets Steve to shore, and the Germans attack.
Now, the Amazons have been established as the best fighters who train hard endlessly without any actual opponents for thousands of years. The second the Germans show up with guns, they wreck the Amazons, but this being a movie, logic doesn’t follow through and the warriors on horseback with spears and bows end up beating the organized soldiers with rifles. Fine, I can deal with it. I would normally just call it a nitpick, but the problems compound with later events. Skipping ahead, Steve gets Diana to the front line trenches in France. As they get closer, Diana is looking at the dead and wounded and wanting to do everything she can to stop the group’s progress to help them like this is the first time she’s seen the actual effects of war, except she’s already seen them and they involved her friends and family. Her mentor died in her arms, for Pete’s sake. Ultimately, everything on Themyscira feels wrong, and that’s a solid thirty minute start to the film.
Once Steve gets Diana off Themyscira, things pick up. The early banter between the two feels a bit forced but gets progressively better as the movie develops. The fish out of water stuff with Diana in 1916 London is silly and entertaining on a thin level. Diana’s textbook and almost childlike understanding of the practical realities of war gives her a do-goodism that feels refreshing in the World War I aesthetic. The group of soldiers that Steve finds to go to the continent are distinctive individually and entertaining. It’s solid stuff. Diana standing up from the trenches to charge across No Man’s Land is a wonderful visual moment, but my problems start picking up again.
This would be another nitpick, but after the collapse of the beach battle at Themyscira, it builds up. The stakes and objective of the action across No Man’s Land become fuzzy at best. It ends up that Diana is going to reach a small town on the other side of the German lines, but the geography from the German line to the town is unclear, especially when you throw in the poor French woman begging for help compounded with Steve’s assertion that the trenches haven’t moved in a year. Then once they get to the town, the actual objective of this fight is, well, fuzzy. Where are the troops they’re fighting? Where’s their command center? What are the grounds for victory? The movie never really answers these and the fight kind of just stops after Diana gets the last guy who happens to be a sniper in a church steeple. The action itself is well filmed (much better than the cut up nonsense that was the beach battle), but the objectives are just really unclear so that when the battle ends it’s unclear that it’s actually the end.
Now, to talk about the antagonists. There are three, and I hate two of them. There’s General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) who is just the most generic scenery chewing villain. There’s Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) with a cool three piece facemask who is dedicated to her research and feels unappreciated (I really like her). And then there’s Ares (David Thewlis) who turns into a CGI scenery chewing villain. Both Ludendorff and Ares are awful antagonists. Thin and more about playing to the rafters than anything else, though Ares should have been the kind of interesting antagonist who could potentially tempt Diana onto his side, but he just devolves into nonsense by the end.
So, Diana herself has the makings of having a great and emotionally mature arc, but the movie screws with it so completely that it ultimately devolves into nonsense, mostly because of Ares. The idea seems to be that Diana has no understanding of war and men, gets a lesson in the brutality of war and men, and ultimately turns away from the world because of it. That seems purposefully piggybacked on the plot mechanics of Diana going into the Great War with the objective of finding Ares in human form and killing him, ending the evil in men’s hearts and stopping the war. She’s convinced that Ludendorff is Ares and ultimately kills him only to find that the war didn’t just stop. It kept going.
That would have been, well, that would have been an absolutely fantastic place to end Diana. She walks away, convinced that man isn’t worth saving or something. But that’s not the kind ending you can have in your big budget comic book movie, so they turn around and make Ares real, manifesting right after next to Diana in the form of a physically weak British diplomat who had been working towards armistice. His efforts at an armistice are brushed away unconvincingly in a single line of dialogue and then he becomes CGI monster man who yells a lot. This is disappointing but what makes the ending confused is what Diana goes through. She ends up defending mankind as worthwhile anyway despite Ares’ proof that they made the war themselves, she defeats him in borderline incomprehensible CGI, and then she decides to turn her back on humanity because Steve sacrificed himself to end the poison gas threat. I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. None of it makes a lick of sense. Diana shouldn’t suddenly defend humanity after she realizes that they made the war themselves after a lifetime of thinking that Ares was the source of all man’s cruelty. She shouldn’t see the selfless act of Steve as a reason to turn her back on humanity. It’s a mishmash of nonsense to end the film, and I kind of hate it.
I don’t hate the movie as a whole, for sure. It’s lightly entertaining for long stretches. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine develop really good chemistry to the point where Steve’s goodbye to Diana ends up feeling quite genuine and affecting. It often looks very good, embracing speed ramping and slow motion far more than Zack Snyder ever did for his Superman movies despite having popularized the technique in 300. What this movie is not is particularly intelligent thematically, nor does it know how to create and effectively use any antagonists (its best, Doctor Poison, gets sidelined for most of the runtime). I sort of understand the affection people have for it, but I definitely don’t share it.