Created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter, Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941's All Star Comics #8 published by DC. Marston, a Tufts University psychology professor, drew inspiration for the superhero demigoddess from early feminists like Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The physical appearance of the character was influenced by Byrne's daughter, Olive, who was Marston's research assistant before becoming romantically involved with the polyamorous professor and his wife.* For more than 75 years since her introduction, Wonder Woman has been an enduring symbol of strength and equality.
A press release issued by Marston in 1942 states, "Wonder Woman was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men" because "the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity." He goes on to say that Wonder Woman is "psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world."
From the pages of Justice League of America to Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter, Princess Diana of Themyscira has become a pop culture mainstay despite never appearing on the big screen. Since 1978, Warner Bros has made seven Superman films and eight Batman films, but there has never been a major motion picture dedicated to Wonder Woman. Until now, that is. After making her debut in Zack Snyder's superhero epic Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice last year, Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, is finally getting her own standalone movie.
Directed by filmmaker Patty Jenkins (Monster), Wonder Woman tells the long-awaited origin story of Princess Diana of Themyscira. Daughter to Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana is a member of the Amazons, a race of immortal warrior women sworn to protect the world from Ares, the Greek god of war. With the help of her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana has prepared for the day when Ares would return from exile to destroy the Amazons and their hidden island paradise. As Diana discovers her true potential as a warrior, the invisible dome surrounding the island is breached. Unbeknownst to the Amazons, World War I has engulfed the world of men, and American super-spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) has crashed into the waters of Themyscira, with a platoon of German soldiers hot on his tail.
Diana dives into the water to rescue Steve, the first man she has ever seen, and, in turn, he opens her eyes to the world beyond her sheltered eden—one plagued by the horrors of war. In the first of many memorable action sequences, the Amazons protect their home from the invading Germans in spectacular fashion, with dazzling fight choreography that captures the power and grace of these highly skilled warrior women. Diana can no longer stay within the bubble of Themyscira knowing that Ares has corrupted the world of men with an unending war that has already claimed millions of lives. Armed with her shield, the Lasso of Hestia or, as it’s more commonly known, the Lasso of Truth, and The Godkiller, a sacred sword capable of killing Ares, Diana leaves with Steve, who promises to take her to the front lines where she might meet Ares face-to-face.
Fun, thrilling, and inspiring, Wonder Woman is the best movie to come out of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It's everything that Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad failed to be – an uplifting movie filled with heart and humor, with endearing characters and beautifully realized action set pieces. A sequence where Diana strides into no man's land in the middle of a trench battle, deflecting bullets with her bracelets and clearing a path for the Allied Powers, is without question one of the greatest moments in superhero movie history. Jenkins and director of photography Matthew Jensen (HBO's Game of Thrones) stage these epic battles in an intelligible, immersive way—a wonderful change of pace from the disorienting, shaky-cam sensory overload we've endured in the DCEU's previous entries.
Screenwriter Allan Heinberg, who wrote a five-issue Wonder Woman series for DC in 2006, understands all of these characters better than most, giving Diana dimension beyond the idea of the Strong Female Lead™. Diana isn't just a fierce warrior, she's allowed to be vulnerable, sensitive, confident, funny, romantic—everything, all at once. She doesn't hide her intelligence or her emotions, but carries the courage of her convictions everywhere she goes. She is fucking heroic, with an earnest desire to do right by others. That's a rare thing these days, in movies or otherwise.
Gadot embodies the iconic demigoddess with an equally iconic performance. As Chris Evans is Steve Rogers and Christopher Reeve will always be Superman, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. She's simply fantastic here, bringing physicality and emotional depth in equal measure. She also has legit chemistry with Pine, who delivers a great turn as well. There's a real spark between Diana and Steve, and it's their connection that keeps us invested in the story, even when the film treads into well-worn territory in its third act.
The climax, a CGI-heavy battle between Wonder Woman and Ares, is somewhat underwhelming. Ares, one of the movie's three villains, is the most uninteresting of the trio, and while his motivations are clear, there just isn't anything interesting about him. It doesn't help that this scene, which takes place at night on a military base, is marred by the same drearily drab, computer-generated fakery that pops up in the third act of every DCEU film. Whether it's the World Engine sequence in Man of Steel, the Doomsday fight in BVS, or that horrendous final battle in Suicide Squad, these films fixate on cramming as much pixelated devastation as possible into their finales. Jenkins' film isn't nearly as bad in this regard, but it's disappointing to see such a charming and vibrant movie succumb to DC's signature brand of muted doom-and-gloom.
Despite a messy third act that stumbles slightly, Wonder Woman is a stirring, hope-filled superhero origin story with great performances within that, hopefully, course-corrects the DCEU and paves the way for more female-directed, female-led tentpoles across the industry. I can only imagine how empowering and cathartic it must be for female fans to see a great movie like this, where strong, self-reliant women tell other strong, self-reliant women things like, "You're more powerful than you know." Those moments resonate, and the feelings they illicit will stay with us longer than any spectacle CGI can summon forth.
*For more info on the unconventional lives of William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway, and their live-in lover Olive Byrne, check out Jill Lepore's 2014 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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