Wonder Woman shows up its male-dominated predecessors for the mope-a-thons they are

Gal Gadot turns out to be exactly what the superhero genre needs.

There was barely time to judge whether Gal Gadot qualified as a wondrous Wonder Woman when she made a fleeting appearance last year in the numbingly bad Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Liberated from that graveyard of a movie and permitted to shine, however, she turns out to be exactly what the superhero genre needs: a bright performer who doesn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed by the portentous mythologising that comes with the territory. Wonder Woman is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film, but it is sparky and jolly enough to show up most of its male-dominated predecessors for the gloomy mope-a-thons they really are. If only the director Patty Jenkins had rejected also the genre’s preference for a cumbersome running time (140 minutes) and a final reel overburdened with biffs and bangs, we might really have been on to something radical. As it stands, fun will have to suffice.

Silliness abounds in the opening section set on the all-female island of Themyscira, where Wonder-Woman-to-be Diana (Gadot) and her fellow Amazonians spend their days in combat training, twirling in slow-motion in the air and dodging one another’s broadswords under the beady, judgmental eye of General Antiope (Robin Wright). The fact that we never find out what these women do with their downtime only adds to the glorious air of uninhibited camp, which is half softcore fantasy, half sword-and-sandals B-movie. Indeed, when the US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands in the sea fresh from the First World War, pursued by German soldiers who chase him onto the beach only to be showered with flaming arrows by the women, the effect suggests an incongruous mix of Saving Private Ryan and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. 

Diana is advised by her compatriots not to intervene in the problems of the world by following Steve into the war. “There is so much you don’t understand,” says her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and she’s not only talking about the plot. “If you choose to leave, you may never return,” she continues, which is good advice generally for anyone nipping out for a popcorn refill. 

But—wouldn’t you know it?—Diana goes anyway, pitching up in London and heading straight into a changing-room montage to find some new threads to help her blend in. This isn’t as grisly a prospect as it sounds. For one thing, she has at her side Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), a chipper sort with bags of pluck and the lion’s share of good lines courtesy of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg (whose previous credits include TV series such as Sex and the City, Grey’s Anatomy and Looking). Inspecting a corset, Diana wonders if this is what passes for armour in Etta’s country. “It’s for keeping your tummy in,” comes the reply. “Why would you keep your tummy in?” asks Diana. “Only someone with no tummy would ask this,” sighs Etta. This would have been a delightful exchange in any film. But in the context of a superhero movie, where the best example of comedy one can hope for is a phrase such as “Oh shit” (which was the big comic line in Batman V Superman), it is positively revolutionary.

The further Diana gets in her attempt to find Aries, the god of war, whom she is convinced is behind the current hostilities, the less room there is for these restorative moments of oddness and eccentricity. But the film has put her together with a likeable band of social misfits who can fill the void now that the Guardians of the Galaxy have exhausted their charms. There is Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American who laments briefly the theft of his people’s land, Charlie (Ewen Bremner), a battle-scarred Scot with orange bog-brush hair, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), whose skin colour precludes him from following his acting dreams. One look at Diana hurling an adversary across the room and he gasps: “I’m both frightened and aroused.” 

It’s unfortunate and borderline tasteless that the movie hitches its fantastical story to the reality of the First World War and the development of toxic gas; for all that Raiders of the Lost Ark resorted to Nazis as its hero’s foes, it never tried to pretend that Indiana Jones won the war. (In fact, as many people have pointed out, his contribution has no bearing on the outcome even of that film, let alone the war itself.) And the nearer we get to the end, the more the stock movie dialogue starts piling up. Nothing screams “popcorn refill time” like hearing a villain intone the words “It is futile to imagine you can win!” 

Wonder Woman is at the top end of superhero movies, though the strict rules of the genre, from which no entry can deviate too starkly, decree that this can only ever be a qualified recommendation. There has been much talk about whether the picture will smash the glass ceiling for films with female protagonists, which tend to be considered anomalous if they achieve success but proof positive of the ineffectiveness of women in cinema if they don’t. Another, unspoken glass ceiling, though, is the one that caps the quality of all superhero movies. Even at their best, they’re never quite good enough to hold their own in the real world of serious cinema. Whether the source is Marvel or DC, there are too many corporate guidelines in place, too much boardroom infrastructure, to allow these pictures to flourish autonomously or to take the sort of risks that lead to distinction.

At least Gadot comes through it all unscathed, even enhanced, with a wry disposition that will serve her well if she can maintain it throughout the inevitable sequels and spin-offs. And Jenkins has a neat eye for a simple but charming effect, such as the swishing illuminated rope with which Wonder Woman lassoes her opponents: it carves out a looping golden trail in the dark, much as children do when they write their names in the air with sparklers.

Wonder Woman is released 1 June.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Wonder Woman on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.