The way some of the rapturous responses to Wonder Woman would have it, you’d think it was tantamount to the second coming of the Great Prophet Zarquon. Yeah, it’s laudable to have a female-led superhero movie at last (at least, one that’s halfway decent: see Elektra). And it’s great to have a halfway-decent DC movie too (although, Man of Steel was at least half halfway decent), but I can only see a gulf between how good Wonder Woman is purported to be and how good it actually is. Which is just okay.
Celebrating the movie’s perceived merits is entirely understandable, of course, for all the symbolic reasons of finally having that female superhero (in a picture that’s a success to boot), but to try to make out Wonder Woman as some kind of genuine artistic and/or miraculous achievement of gender representation is quite another matter. It’s better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – most movies are – but really, is it so far superior to Man of Steel or Suicide Squad?
This kind of over-enthusiasm is common, be it willing The Force Awakens to be a masterpiece or even giving a free pass to Alien: Covenant’s many failings (guilty as charged). It’s even more so with Wonder Woman, as it’s immediately attached to a progressive political context. Hence a multitude of think pieces about how important the movie is, and what it means, and – only maybe – a few lines admitting that, well, the plot isn’t all that, the third act descends into a salvo of not-so-special effects, and it isn’t really very different or distinctive at all when set against any other superhero movie, gender aside, let alone any other world war-based one (Hellboy, Captain America: The First Avenger).
All that given, it isn’t as if Wonder Woman had this baggage foisted upon it. Her genesis was a reaction to “bloodcurdling masculinity”, whatever peccadillos creator William Moulton Marston brought along with that. The movie follows suit, hitting very clear, defined notes in establishing its female empowerment focus (albeit, despite Zeus being integral to her existence, whether investing her mother’s clay with life or – as Ares claims – being her actual, biological dad).
Patty Jenkins consistently draws attention to this through location (the female-only paradise of Themyscira), social structures and era (pre-vote), so it’s curious how passively/predictably a great deal of this material plays, either through obvious jokes (sidekick Etta comparing secretaries to slaves, Steve Trevor imploring Diana to cover herself up, showing up the patriarchal rule as hidebound, Steve continually surprised at her superior fighting skills), or outrage (Diana repeatedly witnessing the evil that men do). In terms of the fish-out-of-water trope, the London scenes play agreeably, but there’s nothing that’s surprising or different. For such an “important” movie, Wonder Woman feels very familiar.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if the whole feels dramatically cohesive and creatively charged, but the movie too often seems to think that simply having Diana Prince there will be enough, when it isn’t. In some respects, as clunky as the characterisations are and replete with eccentric eastern European accents, the opening section on Themyscira is the most satisfying, as it’s the most distinctive and unfiltered, something it shares with the Man of Steel prologue. Diana’s growing sense of destiny, taught by an understanding aunt (Robin Wright) at the (initial) objection of her regal mother (Connie Nielsen) is bathed in a refreshingly lush palette. And, while it covers a fair bit of ground, it moves at a considered enough pace to provide a properintroduction, rather than feeling as if it’s desperate to cut to the chase.
It’s also pleasing that the movie is willing to go for it with the aforementioned outlandish backstory: of the gods, of Amazons made for man’s delectation before breaking with them, of Diana fashioned from clay (whether Ares’ later claims are just a deception, or designed to link the movie to recent comics retcons, I guess future instalments will clarify). So much so, it seemed to be setting Diana up for a “Everything you were told was a lie” reveal, exposing her naivety and facile earnestness. That might have been a cruel choice, since many of the kudos the movie has received from the DC faithful (and those comparing the tone of the movies to the TV versions of DC characters) have been as much about it choosing hope and sincerity over grimdark as its gender-based strides.
It is indeed one of the picture’s greatest strengths that Gal Gadot plays Diana as unaffected and uncynical in her outlook (even fellow Amazons think she’s bonkers talking about the gods as real). So much so that, while her crisis of faith is an essential part of the hero’s journey, when she momentarily rejects the call on having her illusions (seemingly) shattered, it’s a groan-worthy, rather than powerful, moment (much of that may be to do with how it plays as a pure, undiluted cliché).
Yet, if the “It was all a lie” had been the reveal, I can’t help feel it would have been more compelling, even if it would have taken the picture in a direction that had less to do with a uniquely female protagonist and more to do with superheroes generally. We have seen how easily and convincingly Diana has persuaded a coterie of acolytes to her cause, such that natural doubters are willing to believe her most ludicrous story, a metaphor for our own gullibility and desire to believe what we want to believe, be it the realm of conspiracy theory, “real” news, or the soundbites of the charismatic leader. Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to invest Diana with the same self-belief she reaches without the prop of concrete higher beings to define her?
The reveal that Danny Huston’s Ludendorff is not in fact Ares wasn’t so surprising (he’s been Poseidon already, and he can’t play every god; more to the point, his WWI equivalent of pill-popping seemed altogether too mundane for a deity), and I did ponder at one point that Dr Poison (Elena Anaya, last visiting Hollywood in Stephen Sommers’ wretched Van Helsing) might be architect of all this madness, as a twist on expected male malefactions.
That it’s David Thewlis’ Sir Patrick amounted to probably the most unintentionally hilarious superhero standoff in memory. I think I’m on solid ground when I suggest Thewlis definitely didn’t spend any time down the gym for the role, but even with a composited buff body and regulation de-aging, he doesn’t once come across as other than entirely ridiculous. Not helping any is his decision to retain his cartoonishly clipped delivery when announced as the Greek god.
Generally, though, the climax is probably no worse – as in, just as par for the course – than most other superhero movie showdowns. Albeit, with additionally confusing logic, but it’s precisely this that makes it an undiscerning plod, fatiguing even. It seems Diana absorbed and fed back Ares’ energy, so destroying him, which one might interpret as a metaphor for male aggression being its own undoing, but still plays as Diana killing the baddie at the end (after which, she makes an impassioned plea to love conquering all; it’s unfortunate that Steve’s self-sacrificial plotline carries so much better, as does the replay, now with audible dialogue, of their last words to each other, as it means her big moment is rather deflated).
And I don’t really know my DC, but I didn’t really take away from the climax much more positivity and hope than the much-vilified Man of Steel; both movies position their heroes ankle deep in destruction. I know, Supes isn’t supposed to kill anyone, and Diana doesn’t have that shackle, but it still feels a little off that, after running through a poor innocent mass-murderer – he’s not even a Nazi, merely a proto-Nazi, albeit all Germans are obviously heading that way eventually, and he certainly wasn’t a god, so was unjustly punished on that count – and hacking through armies of Hun in her rage over Steve’s demise (they’re only Germans, so they don’t count), we’re supposed to swallow her platitudes; her actions surely aren’t anything to embrace as a model of female empowerment. Diana essentially adopts the standard masculine response. Although, maybe that’s a given in a male-dominated genre and industry.
Prior to this, Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg (from a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs and Zack Snyder, chaps all three) largely succeed in distinguishing Diana from the rather careless, carnage-based superheroes, as she can’t go a hundred yards without wanting to coo at a baby or aid the wounded. But there are times where the sincerity on display comes across as faux, almost glib, like the movie has plumped for an easy option, and appropriating WWI this way seems slightly distasteful.
To be clear, I don’t mean utilising historic wars in fiction is something that ought to be avoided. Rather, that attempting to assert their horror in a meaningful way in a movie of this nature is tricky territory, and I don’t think Wonder Woman succeeds. When Diana and her band encounter a procession of wounded and her heart goes out to them, it reveals itself as little more than a tableau to impress upon us her empathy.
Much worse is the no man’s land sequence, in which the irresistible symbolism (no man can cross it – only a woman can!) falls victim to risibly cheesy realisation. I don’t honestly know how you could have a woman in a metal bra running across a recreation of a historic scene of horrific devastation and not elicit some kind of disconnect, as any impulse to consider the moment as cool or powerful quickly subsides into wondering if the incongruity of her being there was such a sensible idea.
The gratuitous gorgonzola is also pure Snyder in design. Patty Jenkins ensures her performers all acquit themselves, but the action scenes, replete with speed-ramping and electric cello, could have been slotted into any of the previous Snyder movies (as could scenes of Diana jumping/floating about the place). Which is to say, they’re serviceable, polished and rather anonymous. I wondered, when it was announced that Whedon would be handling reshoots of Justice League, how he would replicate Snyder’s style (since Whedon doesn’t really have one), and this looks to be the answer; you get your crew to stick to the house style.
Wonder Woman’s greatest strength is its leads, and it’s this, over anything else, that puts it head and shoulders above the other DC entries (I like Henry Cavill a lot, but he’s been given very little to work with thus far). There’s something likeably low-key about the relationship between Diana and Steve, and Gadot and Pine have an easy chemistry.
There are moments where the picture’s trying too hard for “normalcy” (the cock/watch gag), because this isn’t really that type of picture in intended tone, and Etta (Lucy Davis) is served some funny comic relief lines but as many fail to land. The problematic side of this is that, if your picture isn’t relying on comedy by design, it can end up feeling a somewhat bland and undernourished, if the script isn’t sufficiently distinctive and different (The First Avenger was a particular victim to this syndrome, with the added constraint of lacklustre direction).
Steve’s band never feel fully formed, caricatures traced onto the trenches, with the exception of the scene where Diana goes to comfort Ewan Bremner’s Charlie as he awakes from a nightmare and is repelled with “Don’t make a fuss, woman”. Huston seems like he’s played this role many times before, because he has. Anaya makes a much stronger impression (in particular the scene where Steve attempts to butter her up), but as a whole the villains are sorely lacking, even compared to those in the aforementioned First Avenger and Hellboy (one scene subverts this, as Ludenforff and Etta gas a gathering of German generals planning for armistice, sealing them to a toxic fate and hooting with laughter at their “mischief”).
I think that’s probably it, really: Wonder Woman is competently made, pleasingly performed by Gadot and Pine, but it’s all a bit vanilla. It needed a richer confection. The script is entirely unremarkable. The visuals, aside from the opening, simply aren’t different enough to Snyder’s established style. The third act is a non-starter. And there’s more than enough enraged violence from the hero to identify this as same old-DC.
Where it gains ground is Gadot herself, who overcomes some rather backwards motivation to make the role uniquely sympathetic. But still, respect is due: we wouldn’t have this movie if it weren’t for Batman. He’s the guy who sent Diana the picture that prompted her remembrance. Good old patriarchal Bruce Wayne, facilitating feminist principles everywhere.