On idealism and pragmatism, superheroes coming of age, bad CGI, worse villains, and the rare relevance of Wonder Woman's hard-fought ideals
Wonder Woman Warner Bros.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenplay: Allan Heinberg, based on the character created by William Moulton Marston
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Connie Nielsen, David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui and Lucy Davis
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 21 minutes / 2.35:1
June 2, 2017
(out of four)
Just because you're a superhero doesn't mean you necessarily know how to be a superhero. At least, not right away. It's a learned skill like any other.
To their credit, the architects of DC's comic-book sagas have not taken that superheroism for granted. They've questioned it, attacked it, challenged it, forced its hand. Unlike their rival studio, DC has required its superheroes to wrestle with their place in a mortal world - to question if and how to use their power, and what their very existence means, and what it requires of them. This is not to praise the results - indeed, two of the series' first three entries were among the studio system's most inept pieces of storytelling in recent memory - but merely acknowledge a sincere attempt to interrogate how (and whether) these superpowered beings belong, instead of just casually accepting it. Personal odysseys instead of destinies already fulfilled. Works in progress instead of readymade icons.
Marvel has done the lip-service treatment on occasion, using an ideological divide over superheroes' legal accountability as the impetus for the eponymous war in Captain America: Civil War. But that was little more than a thematic MacGuffin, with barely even an attempt to dive into the implicit ideas. In their origin stories, Marvel superheroes have had only the most cursory of learning curves, and beyond that very little existential struggle to speak of. Meanwhile, DC reintroduced Superman by sending him on an extended pilgrimage, buoyed in part by his father's suggestion that maybe he had no responsibility to use his powers for a greater purpose after all. The subsequent Batman v Superman was premised on a philosophical clash entirely about the implications and ethics of godlike figures and self-appointed moral guardians. (Then again, that philosophical conflict was cravenly discarded in the end, which only further drew attention to what the film had attempted - and failed - to examine.)
Understanding the world in which such heroism is required is the most basic prerequisite, and it's at that embryonic stage of consciousness that Wonder Woman - the DCEU's fourth installment - exists. The Amazonian demigoddess Diana (Gal Gadot) was born and raised with the ideals of a superhero, but has been shielded from the realities in which those ideals can be tested. On an island hidden from the naked eye, she has been raised as a soldier by an army of Amazonian warriors - among them her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) - but surrounded by peace and tranquility. At least until The Great War - which to her sounds exactly like the sort of thing her culture's mythical history has spoken of and prepared her for - quite accidentally intrudes on Themyscira, pulling a more-than-willing Diana into the middle of it. The ingrained ideals she brings with her - the primitive yet noble belief in ultimate good conquering ultimate evil, and the responsibility to fight for it, to serve and protect - are the only way she understands the world (which is to say she doesn't understand the world) and unambiguously makes her a hero, before she has quite learned how to become one. Hers is a belief system rooted in storybooks - indeed, she believes World War I is entirely the doing of Ares, the god of war, and that all she has to do is kill him and all of Earth will be saved, evil wiped out entirely - and as such, Wonder Woman plays as a sort of coming-of-age tale, albeit with uniquely high stakes.
The tension between Diana's built-in, obstinate idealism and the practical realities of the world she's only just joined is the film's most important and most interesting thread. It, again, demonstrates a commitment to challenging the means and purposes of the superhero, rather than just giving her a monster to fight. That's part of the fun of it - that she believes it's exactly that simple (kill Ares!), unaware of the complexities and competing interests of a war that has tentacled across the globe - and the conflict pays off with a series of triumphs, reality checks, charming subversions and harsh dilemmas. The fight she has joined with such earnest enthusiasm is, of course, more complicated than she understands, but it both requires the politically aware, big-picture pragmatism of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) - Diana's British-spy sidekick and love interest - and benefits from her naïve unwillingness to compromise her righteous impulses. As Steve patiently but exasperatedly tries to get Diana to see the forest for the trees, she sees virtually no choice but to be the hero she was born to be at any opportunity, physically manifesting a kind of heroism the Steve Trevors of the world can barely fathom. This is best exemplified with an action setpiece set in no-man's-land somewhere on the Western front, in which she singlehandedly turns a stalemate in the Allied forces' favor, making her grand superhero entrance as divine apparition, benevolent conqueror and human shield.
The film as a whole lands in a lot of in-between spaces, not disposable but not necessarily successful, either. In comic-book terms, it's like a better version of Thor (displaced royal heir/deity discovering Earth and saving the world; fish-out-of-water comedy meets sci-fi epic) crossed with a worse version of Captain America: The First Avenger (naïve idealist in a World-War setting navigating the unexpected complexities and distractions inherent to fighting evil). Like many movies of its genre, this one relies on platitudes more than fleshed-out ideas (the idealism angle being the primary exception), and that's just one of the ways it's unfortunately in line with its fellow superhero films. Like so many before it, Wonder Woman has lousy, underdeveloped antagonists and a nightmare of a third act, whose sensory nonsense is weighted down even further by the cringeworthy dissemination of information and commentary by the film's monologuing Big Bad. For the bulk of the film, the talents of both Danny Huston (as power-hungry General Ludendorff) and Elena Anaya* (as Dr. Maru, a.k.a. Dr. Poison, a disfigured chemist experimenting with new chemical weapons, and the source of Ludendorff's periodic doses of performance enhancement) are largely wasted by underwritten, under-emphasized roles.
* Anaya's Dr. Maru wears an opaque facial prosthetic on one side of her face that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the one she wore in Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, so I can't help but wonder if that film made some impact either on Anaya's casting or on the character design once she was cast. Either way, it makes for a pleasantly surprising callback.
Considering how much of the film is necessarily focused on Diana's personal evolution - and how effective her charmingly awkward, culture-clash romantic pairing with Steve is - I'm not sure how much use the movie really has for a contingent of sadistic villains anyway. It seems almost inevitable that they would be sidelined. That's to say nothing of the clumsy structure, which begins in present-day (to tie it directly to the DCEU), flashes back to Diana's childhood on the island, then quickly flashes back again to an ancient war that serves as the film's thematic through-line and our protagonist's moral motivation.
Despite all that I like about the picture - Gadot's performance, with legit star presence and comic timing in equal measure; the consistently strong chemistry between Gadot and Pine, built largely on uncertainties and misunderstandings and amusing discomfort with each other's bodies - there's simply too much sloppy filmmaking in Wonder Woman. You can see the corners being cut, particularly in its special effects. Characters are perpetually surrounded by that gross compositing blur; the glass flying through the air as Diana bursts through a window looks practically hand-drawn; there's one moment of Nielsen's character making a twisting leap through the air that has the same obvious rubbery look we saw in various moments of the rooftop fight sequence from The Matrix Reloaded (which earned rightful derision despite the scene's other merits). That movie and its effects were made 14 years ago, for the record.
Too much of Wonder Woman's CGI is glaringly bad - which is indefensible for a summer blockbuster tied to a gigantic superhero-franchise apparatus. That the film's action direction is not very good in general only emphasizes those technical defects. But beyond that, I can't help but note that the film - which is a period piece and an action spectacle, and mixes a wide variety of locations and eras - has a (reported) budget of $149 million, which seems low considering Suicide Squad was reported at $175 million, Man of Steel at $225 million and Batman v Superman at $250 million. Which brings us to the film's dominant surrounding narrative. After years of Marvel dodging questions about whether they would ever feature a female superhero, and studios industry-wide deflecting criticisms about the lack of female directors on their prized tentpole projects, DC went ahead and checked off both boxes, greenlighting Wonder Woman and hiring Monster's Patty Jenkins (after parting ways with original helmer Michelle MacLaren) to direct. These are both good things, with potentially significant consequences, and yet I'm of mixed minds about both the results and the impact - especially in light of what became a frenzied, conspiracy-laced cultural discussion.
Leaving aside that Wonder Woman seems like a much more recognizable and bankable character than a lot of superdudes who got their own movies years earlier (I've never encountered a single non-comic-book nerd who gives a crap about Green Lantern), the era of superhero movies as a real go-to in tentpole filmmaking (as opposed to semi-rare special occasions) dates only to Spider-Man in 2002. And the superhero-dominant era as we know it today - i.e. the MCU era - dates only to 2008. Any context in which firsts and breakthroughs are being discussed is really only a recent period of 9-15 years. And those "firsts" strangely ignore the likes of Lexi Alexander - who helmed 2008's Punisher: War Zone - as well as films like Elektra or the $100 million-budgeted Catwoman. What we're talking about is the first female superhero movie of the Marvel/DC extended universe era. Even so: it's about time. But secondarily, as terrific as Gadot is here, the character doesn't contend with the likes of, say, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Beatrix Kiddo or Furiosa - characters who are more memorably powerful forces than any Supermen, Batmen, Iron Men, Spider-Boys or any other superhero I've ever seen on a movie screen. It's no secret that action films, superheroes included, have been dominated by male stars and male stories; but even a symbolic triumph like this movie doesn't reach the heights various female action stars have reached already. Then again, if superheroes are, at their best, symbols of what we aspire to, I suppose this is just as well.
As a representative of those aspirations, Wonder Woman - and Gadot's personification of her - makes for a more potent and morally relevant figure than most other supernatural crimefighters filling our theatres, and certainly a more effective avatar for the complexities of superheroism (or supervillainism, for that matter) than any of DC's other offerings. She splendidly embodies the paradoxes of idealism - that believing in something greater is what makes that greater possibility possible; that asserting your own ideals can eventually mutate into tyranny. As a film, Wonder Woman is messy, flawed and frequently ugly; but the character is one of the rare movie superheroes who asks (and even wholly exemplifies) an existential question, and actually tries to work for an answer.