So I went to see the Wonder Woman movie. And it was good.
Well, that was easy! Guess I’ll knock off early and go read some funnybooks!
Or… Maybe not.
Seriously, Wonder Woman really is good. Damn fine super hero storytelling. It hits all the right notes and accentuates the things that make the character unique. It’s fun, but takes itself seriously enough to wrestle with big ideas. It’s got a charismatic lead who’s good enough to take on an iconic role and make it her own. It’s just really well-done. And there’s no “but” to follow that. It’s just… good.
The problem I face as a reviewer, then, is in finding something to say. There’s a lot I want to comment on, but it’s all sufficiently competent that I don’t have much to say about any of it. But let’s see what I can do…
Gal Gadot really does own this film. She masters the physicality of the role, but her Diana also has a sort of fierce innocence about her, a warrior compassion that’s a perfect fit for the character. It’s not an incredibly deep performance, but it does have more than one layer to it, and that’s nice to see in a super hero flick. It’s good, in other words. And… That’s all I got on that subject.
Chris Pine is likewise good. He finds a careful balance for Steve Trevor, who he plays as a sort of world-weary idealist. A man out to make the best of a world that he recognizes is bad. He comes off not as a male damsel in distress (often a problem with the character), but rather as an able assistant. Not Diana’s equal by any means, but a very competent guide with skills that she lacks.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the sexual politics inherent to the character. This potential minefield is handled with the same aplomb as everything else, tackling both sexism and sex with a good-natured frankness that never feels heavy-handed. Or not incredibly heavy-handed, anyway; we are talking about super hero fiction here, and that’s not a genre known for its subtlety. But the film makes clear without going too far out of its way that sexism is blind stupidity.
And sex… Well. The Amazon credo on that subject is that “men are needed for procreation, but not for pleasure.” Though Diana’s willing to give it shot, just to see.
Not that the film is graphic on that subject. Diana’s battlefield romance with Trevor is implied more than shown. There’s a kiss, and a closed bedroom door, and that’s about all we see. Her creator’s bondage fetish isn’t touched on, either. So people aren’t getting hogtied left and right, and the romance is more that of emotional equals than the more female-dominated relationship of the Golden Age (the real reason Diana and Steve never truly got together back then was that they were both tops).
Those omissions are probably for the best. William Moulton Marston‘s fetishes and social crusades might be a bit much for a modern mainstream movie audience. This is a film designed to appeal to everyone: straights, dorks, parents, and kids alike. And that’s as it should be. That’s why I’m especially glad that the film spends so much time on Diana’s upbringing on Themyscira. It lets us see the hero being built from the ground-up, so the little girls in the audience have an easier time identifying with her, and her later fish-out-water innocence is more understandable for the adults.
It also gives us a good feel for the Amazon culture. Not that the film goes super in-depth on that, but when we get to a battle on the beach between the Amazon army and some German invaders…
…it gets the blood flowing a little better than it might if we hadn’t spent so much time getting to know them.
That fight is ridiculously awesome, by the way. Very Zack Snyder, but also the sort of fantasy violence that appeals to aging dorks like myself. And speaking of things that appeal to aging dorks…
That (if the GIF loaded correctly) is a scene of Diana deflecting a mortar shell with her shield, and it is totally bad ass. It’s from a battlefield sequence that’s among the best super hero fights I’ve seen on film. But before we get too deep into that…
If the scenery hadn’t already tipped you off, Wonder Woman is set in World War I, rather than World War II (the conflict that actually spawned the character). I’ve read various reasons for the change of venue, but I don’t really care why they did it. Because it works. If you’re writing a warrior whose ultimate goal is to put an end to war, what better conflict to land her in than “The War to End All Wars”?
And if you’re also dealing with that character’s eventual disillusionment (as established in Batman vs Superman), you couldn’t pick a much better war than that one. World War One was an ugly conflict between imperial powers that no one wanted, but that everyone participated in nonetheless. It was a mess. A meat grinder of a war defined by mustard gas and trenches. Sixteen million people died in the fighting, almost half of them civilians. If you want a war that could break somebody, that’s it.
So when Diana, hearing of an enslaved village on the other side of the front, decides to climb up out of the trenches and march across No Man’s Land (nice touch on the name)… It really means something. It’s also the first moment she really opens up with the super powers. Her allies are dumbfounded, but rally to her side once they realize that she hasn’t marched to her death. It’s awe-inspiring, and a little terrifying, to see the impact a person of her power could have on a normal human conflict. Even when she crouches behind her shield, drawing the fire of a German machine gun nest…
…she becomes a portrait of strength. A rallying point that turns the tide of battle. She’s an inspiration, in other words, which is what she was always meant to be.
It’s a great scene, and the film is never quite able to match it later. Diana goes on to greater displays of power in the closing fight scene, at one point even picking up a tank. But it’s not as impressive, somehow, as that earlier assault. By that point, the action has ramped up well beyond a normal human level, and that robs it of its earlier effectiveness. If I have a complaint about the film, in fact, it’s that: the more like a super hero film it gets, the less interesting it becomes. That’s especially a problem in the final battle, when Diana’s war against war becomes personified in the form of Ares, God of War.
Ares lurks in the background for most of the film, never seen, the extent of his influence over the war an open question. And even when he’s finally revealed, he’s still slippery, the nature of his powers as a god presented in a mysterious, inventive manner. He’s a queasy, disturbing presence at first, and I really liked that approach. But then he turns into a bog-standard CGI movie villain…
…and all that cool mystique burns away. The final battle becomes just another super-fight. It lacks the immediacy, the human connection, that the earlier war scenes have, and just falls kinda flat. Diana does transcend while fighting Ares, becoming something more than she was before. But she’s far more inspirational in the trenches.
This doesn’t sink the film, mind you. Its themes are still resolved, and there’s still some explanation for Diana’s later disillusionment. But the movie still peaks early, and that’s disappointing.
Which, I suppose, brings me to my final judgment on Wonder Woman: It’s good. Very good. But it’s not great. It’s a super hero story told well, with engaging characters, exciting action, and affecting drama. It’s a lot of fun, and has the guts to deal seriously with serious matters. It’s just not perfect. Which is why it gets four stars rather than five. But that’s still pretty damn good.