Even in an era where no summer is complete without a tidal wave of comic book adaptations filling every screen in the land, female-led superhero films remain as rare as a mint condition Action Comics #1. The last one of any note was 2004’s Catwoman, a film so catastrophically terrible that even now it’s spoken of in the hushed, maudlin tones used to describe a horrific road accident.
So DC Film’s Wonder Woman, shockingly the first live action standalone feature film for arguably the most female superhero of all (previously she’s been limited to a 1974 TV movie and a brief but show-stealing appearance in last year’s otherwise dreadful Batman vs Superman) has some wrongs to right. And though this adaptation by director Patty Jenkins (whose only previous feature directing credit was 2003’s astonishing Charlize Theron-led serial killer drama Monster) sometimes struggles to rise above comic book movie cliches, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable and entertaining outing for a genre that has become laboriously po-faced in recent years.
The statuesque and stunningly beautiful Israeli actress Gal Godot makes a clear pitch for mega-stardom as Diana, an Amazonian warrior princess living on a hidden Mediterranean island inhabited by an all-female society ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and defended by an army led by General Antiope (an all too brief appearance for Robin Wright). The island is peaceful and seemingly none the worse for being devoid of men – quite the opposite in fact. ‘Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary,’ Diana explains.
Unbeknownst to them, however, in the outside world the Great War is raging, and their tranquil existence is interrupted when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) almost literally crashes the party, pursued by German soldiers (the resulting battle of the sexes, a high-octane swords’n’sandles vs guns’n’spiked helmets showdown, is as wildly fun an action scene as you’ll see all year). Persuaded that the Amazonians’ old foe Ares, the Greek god of war, is up to his old tricks again, Diana sets out in pursuit of him, with Steve in tow.
There’s some enjoyable fish out of water fun as Diana arrives in 1918 London, where her unabashedly forthright manner outrages the mutton-chopped patriarchy and she is equally nonplussed by the subjugated obeisance (and bafflingly restrictive clothes) of London’s womenfolk. In truth, the film’s feminist message isn’t overly deep, but there are some enjoyable subversive moments; practical or no, Diana’s costume is as scanty as you’d expect from a female comic book character, but Steve spends much of his early scenes naked too, ensuring there’s eye candy on display to suit all tastes.
While Diana is the clear star of the show, Steve isn’t reduced to the role of mansel-in-distress, but is given a clear, compelling character arc in his own right – it’d be nice if all superhero love interests were treated as well. Indeed, unusually for a blockbuster – where love stories tend to feel like either box-ticking exercises or slightly distasteful rewards for the (almost always male) main characters – the relationship between Diana and Steve turns out to be one of the film’s strengths. Their low-key flirty banter is coyly steamy, and when their big romantic moment comes it feels like a convincing and obvious progression. What a difference it makes when a comic book film treats both its male and female romantic partners as characters in their own right.
The decision to set Wonder Woman during the Great War proves to be a slightly awkward one. Though the film’s tackling of wartime issues like refugee crises is in one sense admirably ambitious for a superhero film, the message never really develops into anything more complex than ‘war is bad’, and it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable about the marriage of comic book movie sensibilities with trench and chemical warfare. What’s more, unlike the World War 2-set Captain America, it feels slightly unfair and ahistorical to write off the Germans as the principal villains in a war where millions of people were fed into the meat grinder for the advancement of imperialists on all sides.
Nonetheless it provides the backdrop for some gloriously choreographed action scenes, most notably an assault on a German-held Belgian town that offers up some genuinely thrilling spectacle. Indeed for all the well-written repartee between its leads, Wonder Woman is still a film that is at its best when it’s at its most action-packed, and I found myself impatiently suffering through a few too many scenes of backstory and exposition between fistfights.
Much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recent success has been built on excellent casting, and DC do their damnedest to match their rivals here, ensuring that the acting is generally strong even where the characters aren’t. Diana and Steve are accompanied on their quest by a motley crew consisting of a Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner), a French-Maghreb linguist (Saïd Taghmaoui) and a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock). In truth they feel a little underused, particularly the always wonderful Bremner who so recently made Trainspotting 2 his own, although it’s nice to see Taghmaoui being given a less stereotypical role than the ones he normally gets saddled with.
Similarly, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are rather wasted as the film’s chief villains, who aren’t sufficiently intimidating and whose motivations are never really clear. Better served are Lucy Davis, in a fun comic relief role as Steve’s suffragette secretary, and the ever-wonderful David Thewlis who’s given a chance to show off some unexpected action chops.
Pine meanwhile is his usual charming self as the handsome blue-eyed Steve, but ultimately this film would be nothing without Godot’s Wonder Woman. She lends Diana a winning combination of doe-eyed naivety and steely determination; she’s shocked by the horrors of the world around her but steadfast in her resolve to protect the innocent and ensure justice is served. In this she’s a throwback to a pre-Nolan superhero era, when good guys were allowed to be good guys and comic book movies didn’t have to be melancholy treatises on the nature of crime and vigilantism. Diana is a free-spirited, pure-hearted badass, and one of the most instantly likeable movie superheroes in a long time.
For all its lip-service to hard-hitting themes of war and conflict, Wonder Woman is at heart a levity-filled, shamelessly enjoyable film that’s light-years away from the previous near-unwatchably humourless DC outings. What’s more, it feels like a proper film in its own right, rather than, as with the recent likes of Captain America: Civil War or the Marvel TV shows, an extended trailer for a wider franchise; with the exception of a couple of brief references to Bruce Wayne the wider DC universe is largely absent. And if, in the end, it doesn’t break the superhero mould (a destructive climactic battle could have come from pretty much any recent genre release) it remains the most fun I’ve had at a comic book film since, at the very least, Guardians of the Galaxy. Imperfect it may be, but Wonder Woman may be a much needed shot in the arm not just for the DC universe, but for comic book film-making as a whole.