The DCEU has been very miss or miss in terms of critical reception… has Wonder Woman broken the DCEU’s curse of cantankerous critics? Lee and Darren review!
We often overstate the negative aspects of convention and recurring tropes in cinema; often, even if a film plays closely to the established form of its genre, it can still surprise and entertain through casual subversion and well-managed characterization and, if it plays the given cards right, even connect with the viewer thoroughly enough to evoke some pathos from them. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a film such as this.
Your quintessential ‘chosen one/fish out of water/hero’s journey’ tale, we follow Princess Diana of Themyscira as she travels beyond her closed fantasy life to take part in The Great War, using her super strength and assortment of super weapons to deal swift, comic-book justice to those darn Fritz and all the while falling in love with the admittedly quite loveable Chris Pine. So-far-so-old? Well, much of the film’s strengths don’t exactly lie in its inversions, but rather its ability to imbue the old standards with affection, sincerity and gleeful fun.
But let’s not dismiss inversions completely; Wonder Woman takes on that most formless of adversaries: the ability to tell a story about kicking and punching people to death whilst also touting moral uprightness. And while it teases the potential to sell its soul down the river at every turn, somehow it manages to make a firm statement of ‘we all do what we can in this terrible world’ while also clearly praising some inherent values that make people great and dismissing values that make people dicks. All without being too heavy-handed, it might also be worth mentioning – it’s no light feat.
Above all the choices behind the scenes though; it makes all the right calls where it counts. The film is utterly charming, exciting to watch, full of likeable and memorable characters who, big or small, all make an impact, and it even manages to take on the proto-typical love story and not make it either boring or unbelievable. This, in a film where a super Amazonian princess falls in love with a WWI spy – the heavy feats keep coming.
A roaring soundtrack, great acting, a splendid sense of humour, a believable and only occasionally flawed fantasy – it’s pulp spectacle at its highest pedigree. Wonder Woman has an identity well beyond the politics of the time it was made, bearing all the hallmarks of a classic to be treasured, adored and shared by adults and kids from all walks of life for years to come. Leave your cynicism behind at the door; this blockbuster wants only your heart.
This review contains some spoilers for Wonder Woman.
There is no doubt about it. In terms of western Feminist icons, Wonder Woman is the absolute pinnacle. Buffy and Scully are more modern kickass women, but Diana here has been taking names and representing female empowerment for over seven decades. She’s up there with Rosie the riveter in terms of iconography. It’s a little depressing then that despite all of this, despite being part of DC’s “Big Three” most people know little of her backstory or how she came to be created in the first place. How many people know her origin as intimately as they do Superman or Batman’s? I digress but honestly, treat yourself to a quick google of her creator William Moulton Marston. You won’t be disappointed.
I cannot explain to you how much I adore the character Wonder Woman. I pretty much wrote my university thesis on her creation. So it might come as a little bit of a shock when I tell you I am of two minds with this movie. I cannot separate what I know from what I see, and that irks me. For me then the only way to review this justly is in two halves.
The Moviegoer and the Fan.
Finally we have a female led superhero movie, pipping Marvel to the post despite Marvel having an ungodly amount of movies in the works. Wonder Woman is a fun a fast paced action movie. Gal Gadot is wonderful as Princess Diana, commanding the screen. The action is fun and frantic, but let down from time to time by the lacklustre CGI in some places. The rest of the cast are mostly forgettable but serve their purpose well, with the possible exception of David Thewlis as Sir Patrick. He has an entertaining world weariness to him that unfortunately isn’t given enough time to truly come through.
There are a lot of uncomfortable similarities between Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger that I think everyone will be quick to point out.
Like seemingly every Zack Snyder written film, the work is a little long and bloated. With key scenes and moments that will probably only be truly shown in the director’s cut of the film. He may not have directed it but there is no doubt to me who was calling the shots over Patty Jenkins’ head.
The main villain for example, Ares, has a lot of potential with this fantastic despair for humanity, but it isn’t really given time to grow that much; instead, being mentioned only in the last twenty minutes of the movie. Yet, this is where the work begins to shine. Having the film set in World War I, it might seem strange to have the Germans as cartoonish-ly evil bad guys; not to mention having Chris Pine’s character, Steve Trevor, constantly referring to them as such and himself as the “good guy.” Only at the end is the truth about war and morality shown to be a lot more complex than the standard good/evil dichotomy; where one sees what should have been the focus the entire time.
In summary, this is a great first outing for a female superhero movie: being both fun and still taking some time to ask more difficult questions, even if the film isn’t as smart as it wants to be. The intricate complexities between good and evil in times of war that the film wishes to address are there, yet never central or pondered enough to be anything more than a theme that isn’t fully explored.
It’s the movie that the DCEU has needed for nearly a decade, finally dragging them out of their slump of terrible to mediocre superhero flicks and it is no surprise to me that it was the Woman of might herself who could do it.
How many of us have ever left a movie before it was over? When I was a teenager a friend of my family told me that the only time he had done so was during Highlander 2. He got so depressed that something he felt was so important to him was destroyed that he just stood up and walked out.
I’ve never understood that. I’ve never wanted to leave even during a bad movie because there is always something to see, something to learn. I’ve stuck my way through the worst of them (see my Monster Trucks review for example) and not once has the thought ever entered my mind.
I get it now though. Oh, do I.
A half hour into Wonder Woman I almost stood up and walked away.
This is part is going to be slightly spoilery to both the movie and the comics but I feel it’s important so you know how I felt watching the start of the film.
In the comics, Diana is the Princess of the Amazons, born from clay after the Queen of the Amazons prayed to the goddesses for a daughter. Recently, they have ret-conned the origin story so that Zeus is Diana’s father and that she is just another god.
The movie decided to go with this more up to date version of her life, however, with another caveat to the genesis: that the Greek gods are all now dead at the hands of Ares. This new addition is portrayed less like a clash of godlike personifications of the elements and human conceptions, and more like a Christian theologian’s interpretation of Greek myth. (Side note, there have been many strange, but pointless overtly Christian imagery in a lot of the DCEU’s movies lately. Batman v Superman’s angel v devil theme that goes nowhere; the whole Deadshot as the Christian assassin that also gets dropped halfway through Suicide Squad).
Secondly they changed the history of the Amazons themselves. They are now paragons of virtue, there to show man how to truly live their lives. Unfortunately, because of Ares, man’s conduct was twisted and they were briefly enslaved before revolting and being entrusted with a weapon, by Zeus, that can kill Ares.
Maybe you can understand why this just really gets under my skin.
I started this review by talking about feminism and how central both Wonder Woman and her creators have been to that idea. Central to this was Diana Prince’s birth and origin. It signified so much about female empowerment and patriarchal challenges. She was born of women, a key part of her character. That she is expressly a woman and has been born without man’s interference. Add to that, that now the Amazons are now “servants to man” as Queen Hippolyta explains and you see what I mean. Gone is the truth, that they were brutally enslaved by men for generations, becoming little more that sex objects for men who were granted a hidden island, not because they were ‘angels’ or protecting a secret weapon, but because they went through hell. They suffered as a metaphor for how women have been treated historically in real world circumstances. Diana’s all female birth then represents a future where men cannot claim ownership over a woman, that they are not here for men’s needs.
Yet, we have a movie here that constantly puts women into the background. Sure, it has a few moments that pay lip service to feminism, but these are more to do with ‘look how bad it was then’ instead of ‘how much farther we have to go.’
Take for example that final part of the movie. In a scene that will be compared to Captain America, Steve Trevor (not Rogers) gets on a plane and sacrifices himself to prevent a deadly bomb from destroying a major city, leaving a memento with the woman he loves. This spurs Diana on, teaching her how important love is. She then embraces her godhood and destroys Ares, promising to always remember what Steve imparted her with.
That is the problem. There are two plots: one involving Wonder Woman’s fight against Ares, and two Steve ending the War to end all Wars. As an audience you connect more with Steve’s story. It is more grounded, more believable and has a satisfying conclusion that ties in nicely with Wonder Woman’s. However, this pulls the story’s focus away from her and makes her less powerful. She only learns love because of Steve? Really? She has lived for countless generations, but it took a man dying to teach her that love was important? Not the death of her aunt, jumping in front of a bullet for her at the start? Not the constant outpouring of love she got from all her sisters on the island? Was it such a foreign concept to her?
Wonder Woman is all about compassion and strength. Both require the same thing in the end: to love your enemies and friends, but also, to do what needs to be done. Diana always had that within her because she was an idealization in the same way that Superman or Batman are. They represent the pinnacle of American culture’s future and the trauma and strength of the individual, respectively.
Wonder Woman represents the feminist struggle and where women everywhere should be in society, not as sexual objects, not as servants, but as people.
Maybe I’m asking too much, or as a friend put it to me ‘you’re just a typical feminist who doesn’t love anything.’
Maybe the problem is I love too much.
What did you think of Wonder Woman? Leave comments in the section below! Also, be sure to check out the season finale of ATLANTIC SCREEN CONNECTION podcast here!