Let's get the pedantry out of the way. Erich Ludendorff survived World War I with evil yet to do. In 1923 he marched alongside Adolf Hitler during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, though the old general is thought to have later regretted his early sponsorship of the young Nazi leader. I don't like it when movies kill historical characters before their time for crowd-pleasing purposes or, in the case of Patty Jenkins' new film, shock value, when screenwriter Allan Heinberg could just as easily have invented an entirely fictional German general to be a villain. That being said, the filmmakers' Ludendorff scans relatively well, apart from his murder of most of the General Staff and his imbibing a super-soldier serum invented on the fly by his personal mad scientist, with the historical general, who by 1918 had become a virtual dictator of Germany and something of a madman in the eyes of his peers. As Ludendorff, Danny Huston has it both ways, at once a genuine villain in his own right and a red herring, and he's definitely better utilized than his sidekick, the disfigured Isabel "Dr. Poison" Maru (Elena Araya), who left me wondering why she never considered taking her own strength potion. Wonder Woman could have used a big brawl between the title character and a super-powered female villain, but most reviewers seem to be happy with the picture as it is -- and it's hard to blame them.
Critically reviled despite the popularity of its first three pictures, the DC Comics Extended Universe is now fully in business, and has stolen a march on the Marvel Cinematic Universe in classic tortoise-vs-hare fashion. Marvel has had since roughly 2010 to make a movie with a female lead, but hasn't done so despite already having one of the most popular actresses on Earth identified with a role she's now played five times as an ensemble character. There are many theories as to why, in their infinite wisdom, the Marvel people have not yet made a Black Widow movie, but in the end I suppose it's appropriate that Wonder Woman take her bow first. She's not the first female superhero but she's stood the test of time better than any other, being one of the few superheroes of either sex to be published without interruption from the 1940s until the 1980s, when a brief hiatus allowed for a reboot that's kept the character in business to the present day.Thanks to the 1970s TV show Wonder Woman remains the best known female superhero, and while her 2017 showcase has made Marvel suddenly look flat-footed many fans have been asking why it took so long for a character who in comics is considered the equal of the much-filmed Superman and Batman. I have neither an answer nor a theory, but once Warner Bros. decided to exploit its DC property on Marvel's "universe" model we were going to get a Wonder Woman movie sooner rather than later. It must be gratifying to her fans that she was given the heroic task of rescuing the DC franchise and met the challenge. That success is credited to the new film's stark contrast with the grimdark preoccupations of Zack Snyder's films, and it tells you something about the widespread hostility to Snyder's vision that a World War I movie in which the heroine murders someone in a case of mistaken identity and her love interest kills himself is welcomed as a ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air.
For a moment, Wonder Woman is arguably more grim and dark than either of Snyder's doom-and-gloom exercises, but let's step back and set up the moment. Most people know the Wonder Woman origin story, I think, and Heinberg and Jenkins don't deviate from the folk version any more than DC Comics themselves have in recent years. Suffice it to say that on an island paradise live the Amazons, an all-female race apparently drawn from the sea to spread love to mankind, but driven to learn combat to protect themselves and humanity as a whole from the Ares, the rebel son of Zeus who drives men to make war on one another. Perhaps to avoid resemblances to Marvel's Thor movies, just as the time of the main story has been moved back to World War I from World War II to avoid resemblances to Captain America, all the Olympian gods sacrificed themselves to subdue Ares, against whose return the Amazons are to be ever-vigilant despite their isolation from the rest of the world. They are entrusted with a god-killing weapon to deal with Ares and have kept in training for the last few millennia until the average Amazon is a superhuman warrior. Princess Diana grows up as the only child on an island of immortal woman, apparently a sort of Pygmalion clay sculpture -- or a golem, if you prefer -- given life to satisfy the craving of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) for a daughter to nurture. This daughter grows up into Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and by then has developed into a super-Amazon. A nice feature of the film as a whole is the way Diana spends the whole film discovering just how powerful she is; there are times when she literally doesn't know her own strength. Inevitably the American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shows up in his crashing plane. Unlike other versions of this story, in this one Steve is pursued by German marines who storm the forbidden island only to be massacred, despite their firearms -- which do take a toll -- by a band of mounted archers. Steve explains -- thankfully, this comic book movie lets everyone from Amazons to Germans speak English instead of forcing subtitles on us -- that he, flying for British Intelligence, has to deliver proof that General Ludendorff and "Dr. Poison" have developed a new, more lethal poison gas for a major offensive the general plans to launch despite ongoing armistice negotiations. From this evidence it's apparent to Diana that Ares must be backing the Germans in the war, and she'll later deduce that Ludendorff himself is Ares in human form. To her it's a matter of Amazon duty to go back to Europe with Trevor and confront the war god, despite her mother's very strong reluctance to have her meet, much less fight Ares.
During all the crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water bits set in London, Diana believes that she can end the Great War with a decapitation strike. As she and Steve return to the mainland, having acquired the motley band of helpers shown in an old photograph in Dawn of Justice, you begin to believe that she could well win the war singlehandedly. In an instantly iconic sequence, made more epic by the incongruity of a colorfully but scantily clad woman striding alone into the killing ground of All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory, she charges through No Man's Land and liberates a town, punctuating her victory with an overkill attack on a German sniper in a church tower. Inexorably she closes in on Ludendorff and finally confronts him. The general's super-soldier formula only buys him a few minutes; he is fatally out of his league, but Diana credits her victory to her god-killing sword. Here's where things go grimdark, if only in contrast to Diana's naivete. She is genuinely stunned, horrified even, not to mention disgusted, to see war preparations continue around her as Steve's buddies. fight to stop a plane from delivering Dr. Poison's gas. Here, also, is where Heinberg's script transcends the pre-knowledge people are likely to have about the story. I doubt I was the only person in the audience who knew, from having read about the casting of Ares, that Diana had killed the wrong man. Working from that knowledge, you might think that the movie is saying that Diana just needs to kill the right man, who conveniently shows up a few minutes later. Steve Trevor knows better, however. Still sort of skeptical about the whole Ares thing despite everything he's seen, he tries to set the princess straight about human nature. The brutal truth the film tells -- and which Ares himself confirms -- is that men don't need a god to make them fight and kill each other. Ares sees himself as only a facilitator of that self-destructive, vicious nature that led him, Iblis style, to deny respect to humanity in his primal act of rebellion against Zeus. Diana is tempted to share Ares' misanthropy, almost persuaded that mankind is unworthy of her protection, but Steve persuades her, by words and example, that men are just as capable of redemptive love as of war and destruction. It may be corny but it comes with a sincere earnestness in its philosophical commitment to heroism that we haven't really seen in any of the modern superhero films up to this point. Wonder Woman promises a light at the end of the grimdark tunnel that arguably justifies the trip.
People seem to like Wonder Woman for supposedly old-fashioned qualities, comparing it more often to Richard Donner's Superman than to more recent superhero movies. It has that enigmatic element of "fun" that people require of superhero movies, Snyder's films being resented for its perceived absence. Thankfully, Wonder Woman is fun without the increasingly forced glibness of the most recent Marvel productions. It isn't self-conscious about being "fun," but just happens to have a tremendously likable, guileless performance by Gal Gadot, who achieves the small miracle of sentencing Ludendorff to death "in the name of all that is good" with a straight face without making the audience snicker. Gadot is not a true unknown, but she is unfamiliar enough to be accepted entirely as Wonder Woman, rather than as a performance of Wonder Woman. In support, Chris Pine at last becomes more than "that fool who thinks he's Kirk." While the advertising threatened to make Steve Trevor look snarky by emphasizing some of his comic lines, the actual character comes across as a genuine good guy with something of the modesty and reticence we might expect from a man of 1918. I especially liked his byplay with Gadot over their sleeping arrangements on a sailboat, which segues into a surprisingly tasteful exploration of Amazon sexuality, at least as taught in books. Going further, if, despite the relocation of the story to an earlier war, Wonder Woman bears an inescapable resemblance to Captain America; The First Avenger, one respect in which it easily surpasses its predecessor is the attention given to its whole supporting cast. One of the few gripes I have about the Cap movies is that the first film didn't really do enough with Bucky Barnes to make his reappearance in Winter Soldier feel as important as Marvel wanted, while First Avenger's introduction of a version of the Howling Commandos was little more than perfunctory. By comparison, the three original characters who tag along with Diana and Steve, played by Eugene Brave Rock, Ewen Bremner and Said Taghmaoui are much more developed and interesting, while Steve Trevor, of course, is sort of Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter combined in one person -- he even gets something like Bucky's traditional death scene. Finally, the more I think about it the more I think the World War I setting is a stroke of genius. The Great War may still be the most cinematic of wars, perhaps because it took place as cinema came of age and discovered its full narrative and expressive power. World War I movies like All Quiet arguably still have the purest renditions of combat on screen, and it was a truly inspired move to have a superheroine run rampant in the midst of it without really trivializing the particular horrors of that conflict. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen deserves a lot of credit for those war scenes, while Jenkins, as the director of Monster, clearly has a knack for showcasing womanly wrath. I have to agree with those who found the final fight with a scrap-metal Ares somewhat wanting, but it's not really as bad or anticlimactic as those say who for some reason dislike superhero movies ending with superpowered combat. Jenkins has done a great job, not as a woman achieving any number of milestones, but as a filmmaker overcoming heavy odds, not to mention reviewers with knives practically drawn, to make a modern superhero movie that all audiences may enjoy.