Gaze upon the gentle grace, gutsy gumption, gripping grin, and glistening glory of the gorgeously gallant Gal Gadot who goads Gods and grapples with German guns and goons in generous gestures of good guidance. That might as well be the pitch for Patty Jenkins’ uneven origin pic Wonder Woman, which marks the famed superheroine’s first big-screen solo feature after an iconic run in comics and on television that began more than 75 years ago. The movie is flawed, but it almost doesn’t matter because Gadot’s performance is a triumph on every level, one of the most honestly impressive examples of superhero casting and acting since the gee-golly perfection of Christopher Reeve.
It’s hard to ignore that Gadot is singlehandedly propping up a messy movie weighed down by a nonsensical third act and generally marred by creakily predictable turns, hokey villains, and an unnecessary pseudo-romance, but if anyone can make the audience forgive the flick in favour of its star, it’s the statuesque Israeli actress who utterly owns the screen for every frame she’s in.
Her performance is prime proof of what a massive difference a script and/or director can make in one's portrayal of a character. Gadot was pretty stiff and awkward in the same role under Zack Snyder's direction in the abysmal Batman v Superman, but the Wonder Woman screenplay by Allan Heinberg gives the titular character an engaging arc and Gadot, under Jenkins' direction, fills the heroine with a delightful personality that makes her much more than a striking image.
Jenkins doesn't have very many feature directing credits to her name, but she previously directed Charlize Theron to her lauded Oscar win, which is much more than can be said for any other filmmakers on superhero payrolls right now. Her experience with handling actors over action is a significant reason the movie works in key areas that were severely underserved in last year's moronic DC flicks and Jenkins still handles the set pieces quite decently as well. Some of producer Zack Snyder's influence is unfortunately felt, particularly in the use of speed-ramping effects where slow and fast motion collide, but for every recycled action effect, there's at least an accompanying awe-inspiring shot that feels fresh and creative.
The context of the action matters too, which again underscores Gadot’s commitment and overall contribution to making the movie work. When she storms a battlefield that no man dares to cross and uses her shield to block incredible amounts of enemy gunfire, the brave heroism displayed in the imagery is enhanced by camera angles and digital effects, but given real life and emotion thanks to Gadot’s brightening charisma and stunning strength.
Not that Gadot needs action sequences to kick ass and show everyone how tough she is. The plot revolves around innocent Amazon princess Diana leaving the tranquil island of Themyscira to singlehandedly stop World War I because she believes it’s the work of none other than Ares, the Greek God of War and a villain that the Amazons have a nasty history with. Diana’s quest requires her to do plenty of heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively, but the beauty of her arc is that she always comes across as assured and in control. She’s a courageous hero in all situations, not just those that require supreme physical strength.
Another part of Diana's unique charm is that her fish-out-of-water situation cleverly transforms her naivety into boldness, imbuing her with a confidence and can-do attitude that completely ignores social rules and gender roles. When she finds herself in a meeting of male minds to discuss an end to the Great War, she doesn't hesitate to call out a colonel as cowardly, even though everyone else is aghast at the mere presence of a woman in the room, let alone a woman who speaks her mind.
Diana’s uniqueness as a feminist icon in the midst of so much muddied, bloodied testosterone is a key focus throughout the movie, even before the World War I setting is established. The opening act is especially electrifying as it immediately introduces us to Themyscira, a world inhabited only by female warriors. It may seem obvious to open a movie about Amazons with a series of shots showing, well, Amazons, but Hollywood blockbusters that depict multiple women interacting, training, governing, parenting, and just generally living before showing a single man’s face or having a guy utter a single line are rare to the point of nonexistence.
That this distinctly women-only world exists in the same cinematic universe as Batman v Superman, which made a point of beating or blowing up nearly every female character who had a name, and Suicide Squad, which made not one, but two jokes about women being punched in the face, is all the more strange. Hopefully this marks a turning point for the interconnected franchises that will once again overlap in the upcoming Justice League.
Whatever happens there, it’s Diana who deserves all the attention. Wonder Woman the movie owes everything to its depiction of Wonder Woman the character. While the pic falters occasionally and concludes with all the clamorous chaos that has come to define cinematic superhero clashes, there remains a sense of eager anticipation to see what happens next in a sequel. There’s certainly much more story to tell here and the next chapter will have several narrative avenues to explore, but that’s hardly the reason for any of this viewer’s excitement about what lies ahead. Who cares about plot! I’m just waiting for Gadot.