In the much-storied, trope-heavy world of superhero movies, Marvel has, for what feels like an eternity, been the 800-pound gorilla, throwing epic, blockbuster film after epic blockbuster film at audiences, each one seemingly more successful and zeitgeist-dominating than the last, its erstwhile rival DC Comics always consigned to a far distant also-ran.
That is until now.
While Wonder Woman, directed Patty Jenkins to a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, is not in and of itself the great cinematic leveller – on sheer number of releases and box office haul alone, Marvel can afford to sit calmly by the side of the road for a good long while before DC comes close to catching up – it is such an impressively-calibrated, substantive leap forward that you can’t help feeling that the fight, and oh there will be a fight, there always is in movies of this ilk, has just become a whole lot more equal.
DC, of course, has not had it easy with clunker after clunker emerging from the Warners lot – Green Lantern (2011) or Batman vs. Superman (2016), or even god forbid Suicide Squad (2016) anyone? – possessed not of Marvel’s slick Midas touch but rather that of a used car salesman from a backwater small town, convinced they have what it takes and talking a big game but never really capitalising on their promise.
Wonder Woman, however, is a whole different story, a film so perfectly put together, with exposition, action and philosophical rumination so expertly and pleasingly poised, that you gasp in wonder that such a gritty and substantive beast could exist and yet be so delightfully, immersively enjoyable.
It is, in many ways a work of art, nuanced, thoughtful and deeply existentially-aware and yet never so full of its own self-importance, and it tackles some fairly weighty issues so the propensity for a strutting sense of substance is most certainly there, that is falls over under the weight of its own musing about humanity and its many competing, often self-destructive elements.
At the centre of this masterpiece composed of robust narrative, thoughtful characterisation and smile-inducing cheesy humour (always judiciously-used) sits Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the daughter of the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who has spent her life chafing at the bit to be something extraordinary, wholly unaware that she is exactly that, the pivotal element in the future of her hidden home island of Themyscira (although the barrier put in place by Zeus proves a little too permeable for anyone hoping to keep out warring World War One combatants) and the world itself.
Trained harder and tougher than any of her fellow Amazons by an aunt Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the greatest Amazon warrior to date, who knows her true potential and provenience, Diana is a woman of great empathy and moral purpose, who believes love is the greatest force in the world, and doesn’t, for one second, sound like a cheesy, badly-written hallmark card when doing so.
Emerging into a war-torn Western world after Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a dashingly-handsome spy with British intelligence crash lands on Themyscira, instructing Diana while there on the ways of a world corrupted by Ares, God of War – he, of course, doesn’t believe in the gods but Diana most certainly does – Diana is a winning mix of muscular love, compassion naivety and bold, badass purpose, doing where others talk, striding into action while others meditate on the pros and cons of doing something.
She is, in so many ways, especially as given life and presence by the marvellous Gal Gadot, a refreshing change from strutting peacock male superheroes whose every move is announced with testosterone-laced intent and who, though entertaining, never quite manage to fully transcend the sense that they are captives of some bravura masculinity.
Wonder Woman, in pleasing contrast, gives us a titular character who manages wide-eyed innocence, a strong moral core and a muscularity of love all while knocking those who are barbarous, bloodthirsty and murderous far off their violence-spewing pedestals.
She is unwilling to sit by and simply let people die if there is any way she can stop it, but rather than coming across as some sort of consummately capable dogooder, Wonder Woman, possessed of moral reasoning and certainty of rightness that is never overweening or portentous but simply right, is the superhero you always knew you wanted but never quite had delivered.
Among the many impressive aspects of this superlative film is that Wonder Woman bristles with mightily important and desperately timely ideas on feminism, the nature of man, the sheer idiocy of war and the corruption of the human condition, without once feeling like an overwrought polemic come to life.
When astute observations about war and the futility of war are made, and they are made often, they are slipped into the narrative and dialogue with the kind of elegance that would have made the film a favourite at the table of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table in the Roaring Twenties and Wonder Woman a frequent and honoured guest.
To give an example – at one point Diana meets Steve’s ragtag mob of spies including Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a US First Nations mercenary with a heart of gold, who makes some sage but quietly-placed (no less powerful for that) observations on the rightness or otherwise of various conflicts by comparing the current war with the destruction of his peoples’ culture and lifestyles.
In one war, he notes, Trevor is a good guy; in the other he is on the other side completely, an observation that captures not only the lack of moral absolutes in any justification for war but rightly notes that every person has the capacity for great good and appalling bad, a dichotomy that Diana later champions in her showdown battle, itself nowhere as overblown as most superhero epic finales, with Ares who believes we should be send to the slaughterhouse, irredeemably broken (Diana, naturally, disagrees, and does with her trademark passion and vigour).
It is but one scene of many that sagely and with raw insight and deep emotional resonance grants Wonder Woman a rich storytelling muscularity, that combined with profoundly good characterisation and deft touches of humour and pithy dialogues, makes it a standout superhero film, not only of the year but of its genre overall.