How Wondrous Was Wonder Woman?

It used to be a recurring joke that any comic book character would get a movie before Wonder Woman. At a 2013 NYCC afterparty hosted by The Mary Sue, one of the cocktail specials was called Wonder Woman Movie so guests could demand “Give me a Wonder Woman Movie!” This would’ve been effective more promptly if the bartenders were WB executives. (I slightly preferred the Strong Female Protagonist cocktail because it was green like She-Hulk.) A Wonder Woman movie has even been a recurring part of her comics mythos since the 1940’s, so it’s about time Hollywood caught up. Now it’s finally her turn!  I was concerned by all the positive press the movie was receiving because I feared I’d be the lone weirdo that didn’t love it. Fortunately it lived up to the hype, even incorporating some of my ranty demands!  That’ll teach Marvel Studios to cheap out on bribing me! I’m collaboreviewing Wonder Woman with The Wages of Cinema! (They’ve just done a podcast where they responded to my comments!) It’s a wonderful film!

Although she was still as wooden as the surrounding film, Gal Gadot was the best part of Batman v. Superman: Yawn Dawn of Justice because she was a cedar in a forest of larches. Here Ms. Gadot shows she can actually act! Her expressive face conveys childlike wonder at the world outside of Themyscira. She’s a DC protagonist allowed to smile without being a baddie! She’s violent without being dour! They convey her strength through compassion perfectly!

WW1

Americans offended by the lack of white stars on her skirt should take solace in WB nixing the red star on her tiara to alienate her Communist fans too.

Hereafter come the SPOILERS. If you’ve yet to purchase a ticket to see this film, please stop reading here & watch this Nerdist medley featuring Ciara “Hawkgirl” Renee!

Steve Trevor is a deceitful spy, which makes this the most interesting version of him. It sets up a great contrast to Wonder Woman being a paragon of honesty armed with the golden Lasso of Truth. Lies being used for good (as opposed to lies that needlessly alienate loved ones) isn’t seen enough in superhero fare. Chris Pine is has enough humorous chemistry with Gal Gadot that their conversations feel like throwbacks to classic screwball comedies. Their romantic pairing is refreshingly organic. He’s heroic & hypercompetent (without overshadowing her), so you can see he has attractive qualities rather than Diana just latching onto the first dude she meets regardless of personality. Not only is he quick to adapt to support Diana, he doesn’t need to learn a moral about respecting women.

The Themyscira prologue is somewhat of a Xena: Warrior Princess homage, which I am totally on-board with. Sadly we don’t get to know the assorted Amazons despite them being diversely cast. Thankfully the speculation that the Amazons would be Kryptonians remained baseless. Themyscira has an armadillo (perhaps visiting from Castle Dracula), but unfortunately its Amzons ride boring horses instead of kangaroos. There isn’t an explanation for why Steve Trevor & some Krauts were able to breach the island’s mystic wards. They also don’t commit to having any of the Amazons be explicitly lesbians or even engaging in loving submission. Their combat skills are tip-top though.

Steve Trevor has his own band of Howling Commandos. Since there’s fewer of them & they’re properly introduced, they’re better developed than Captain America’s. (This movie is a chimera of The First Avenger & Thor.) The underrated Ewen Bremner gets to emote as much as Gadot as a sniper who never conveniently recovers from shell shock. Saïd Taghmaoui is charming as a polyglot actor forced into a life of espionage due to racism. Lucy Davis’s non-Texan reinvention of Etta Candy is a delight, particularly when shes lampshade wearing glasses as a disguise.

poison_steve

She’s just not that into killing people with fire.

In addition to Elena Anaya as Golden Age foe Dr. Poison, there’s real life General Erich Luddendorff. Danny Huston plays him as a petulant warmonger with delusions of grandeur boosted by Dr. Poison’s custom meth, so he’s a convincing decoy for Ares. It’s been suggested he’s a stand-in for the Duke of Deception, except for the part where he’s not a duke. The actual general survived the Great War, so they could’ve just invented a fictional one rather than mislead viewers even more about history. This duo doesn’t get that much characterization, but they share a sadistic streak that contrasts starkly with the heroic couple. The woman Diana steals her blue dress from is billed as Fausta Grables, an even more obscure antagonist.

Wonder Woman keeps talking about her mission to kill Ares, but he’s not revealed until late in the film. (They even kept the trailers from spoiling him this time.) This leads her comrades to think she’s nuts. We know she isn’t, but they stretch the disbelief out long enough to make the ambiguity intriguing. When they see her in combat, however, the cynical mercenaries have faith in her mission. Meanwhile she becomes frustrated by how cruel the outside world is. This is another subtle way the film deals with shifting notions of belief rather than shouting empty aphorisms about truth & lies.

David Thewlis is best known for playing King Einon in Dragonheart & a figurative Wendigo in FX’s Fargo, so he’s inspired casting as Ares. His armor literally conjured from war machines doesn’t resemble the BAF from Mattel’s toy line, although his helmet is reminiscent of George Perez’s Ares. Fortunately this movie picked a better design than the otherwise great 2009 animated film. I loved how he casually disintegrated the “Godkiller” sword because a sword that can destroy Divinities is dumb. Unlike the bellicose Ares I was expecting, he’s more engaging for being sly. (Cunning stratagems are more of Athena’s domain.) A persuasive Ares makes for a worthier antagonist. Ares’s motivation makes him sound like Lucifer, but at least Hades avoided having Christianity grafted onto him for once. His magic may not have been the most creative (much reminded me of Magneto), but it was still spectacular to see a God wield a plethora of powers with such ease after Loki was limited to illusions. I think it was a big mistake to have Wonder Woman slay him & for him to have slain the other Olympians. Not only is killing an entire Pantheon blasphemous, Thewlis is such a compelling actor that it’s a waste not to keep him as a recurring archenemy.

Having Wonder Woman charge through No Man’s Land felt very apropos. I didn’t mind the gratuitous slow-mo in the action scenes. Diana fighting with her Golden Lasso was the coolest part, aside from her taking off a whole church attic just by jumping at it. Her lifting up a tank just like the poster promised was great too. I’m just an easy mark for Wonder Woman kicking ass. The climax fight was too dark. Even though she can’t fly & her strength levels don’t seem consistently high enough, I was still pleased.

Originally I didn’t like the idea of making Wonder Woman a period piece. Unlike Captain America, her origin isn’t inherently tied to WWII just because she was invented then. I would’ve just had Wonder Woman debut in the present day, but the film makes a compelling case for introducing her during WWI. Not only does this distance her slightly from the obvious Captain America: The First Avenger (are we sure Thor wasn’t born before him?) parallels, it’s less worn out than WWII. The original World War was more morally ambiguous, at least in the popular consciousness. (Not that its sequel lacked moral grays, but you need to portray them as deftly as The Young Lions.) This chaotic reality of war contrasts well with Diana’s uncontested idealized view of noble warfare. Diana’s naive belief that killing one man she believes to be Ares will completely end the war is a neat inversion of the assassination that incited it.

The film continues the DC movieverse’s theme that humans are jerks but should be saved anyway. Because of the war backdrop & Diana being a complete outsider, this is actually the right vehicle to explore this. It didn’t work in Zack Snyder’s films because nearly all the civilians were so terrible that Superman & Batman felt burdened having to save them for dubious existential rewards. (Lois Lane was okay, but I don’t know if she alone justifies the survival of Homo sapiens.) Here Princess Diana is delighted to engage with people that aren’t brooding, sociopaths, or both. While she is disillusioned from her moral imperative by harsh reality, her choice to continue being heroic feels earned because she has formed meaningful connections. Steve Trevor’s sacrifice has weight given that we know he won’t survive like Steve Rogers. (Chris Pine could return, however, as Steve’s great-grandson from a prior relationship, conveniently also named Steve Trevor.) Because her optimism is restored, this DC movie doesn’t leave me yearning for a fun Marvel Studios palate cleanser. It has just the right amount of darkness to keep it from being fluff without being a chore to watch. In picking a former comic book author to type its screenplay, this time WB made the right choice to go with Alan Heinberg instead of David S. Goyer, a man who seems to disdain superheroes despite co-writing JSA.

The major change that I objected to was going the New 52 route of  making Wonder Woman yet another of Zeus’s shamebabies. Diana should’ve been a remained a clay baby! The characters bring up her claby (henceforth all clay babies shall be known as such) origin so effortlessly that there’s no reason to ditch it. While it is another wrinkle in the lie vs. truth throughline, there’s no reason Queen Hippolyta would conceal Diana’s true nature from her since the movie Amazons were on great terms with Zeus. William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway, & Olive Byrne (the wives get snubbed in the credits) conceived Wonder Woman as such an ultra-feminist icon that she literally has no father! Even the Olympians that  borught the claby to life & empowered her were specifically all Goddesses! Giving Wonder Woman a father is akin to revealing Krypton never exploded. Instead of giving her a unique mythos, normalizing Wonder Woman’s birth turns her into a generic Chosen One who’s a distaff copy of legendary Greek heroes.

Wonder Woman’s bracelets are often depicted as Divine accoutrements that Diana takes with her along with the Honesty Lasso. In the movie, not only are these vambraces typical Themysciran fashion, Diana has been wearing them since she was a youngling. When Diana discovers she can make shockwaves by crossing her wrists, it’s unclear whether her bracelets are unique or if it’s just something Demi-Goddesses do. During the climax, she uses the same maneuver to deflect Ares’s lethal energy back at him. Since Ares apparently killed all the Olympians offscreen, it’s not clear why rookie Diana could survive this if her bracelets aren’t magic.

Patty Jenkins is the first woman director of comic book movie after Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone, Deborah Kaplan’s (& Harry Elfont’s) Josie & the Pussycats, & Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, three films that deserve more love. She’s also the first female director of a big budget superhero film, notable in comparison to how many novice male directors land these gigs. She would’ve gotten there sooner if her deal to direct Thor: The Dark World hadn’t fallen through. Jenkins was a wonderful choice to direct this.

BvS:DoJ’s depiction of Wonder Woman sitting on the sidelines for a century doesn’t even jibe with her personality here, let alone in other media. It ends on a note suggesting that Wonder Woman was willing to fight for humanity even before Doomsday was unleashed. I don’t really want a depressing movie that shows the moment she quit stopping global conflicts. Rather than set all the Wonder Woman sequels in the past to directly connect the dots, show us Wonder Woman is a relevant superheroine in modern times even without the Justice League.

I’d say this is the best of DC’s mega-franchise movies, but I don’t want to damn it with faint praise. It’s a legitimutantly good movie in its own right. You might even enjoy it more if you hadn’t seen any of those DC movies yet. Can you imagine how different the public consensus on modern DC films would be if they’d started with this one? I know Justice League won’t be as good, but I’m really eager to get another superheroine fix of Gal Gadot from it. Hopefully Wonder Woman is a monstrous success, although I fear Hollywood will still deem it & The Hunger Games series as flukes the next time a female led action film underperforms. It only took Wonder Woman seventy-five years to get her own movie, so who’ll replace her as the comic book character most overdue for a cinematic adaptation?

Gotham’s season three finale review is coming up soon! I suspect it may be guano mad.

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