Wonder Woman - Patty Jenkins
I know I’m being generous when I write the following, but the problem with the films in the DCEU lies in their abrupt emotional leaps. This problem reached its zenith with Batman v Superman’s infamous “Martha” scene, in which a fairly complex netting of thematic concerns and character decisions got badly tangled and lost somewhere in translation. It’s supposed to be the moment the scales fall away from Bruce Wayne’s eyes as his belief in Clark Kent as a hostile alien is shattered by the realization that Superman is capable of putting the life of a human before his own--and not just any human, but his adoptive mother. This is a kind of love Wayne has forgotten after twenty years branding, mutilating, and executing the scum of Gotham City, and the realization is thus twofold: he is faced with a choice to become the unfeeling murderer he thought Superman to be, or he can exercise mercy and reclaim his humanity.
There is an elegant way of communicating this without mounds of exposition, and you can see how the intent was to charge a single word with enough meaning to spark a change of heart of this magnitude, but too little time is devoted to Kent’s relationship with his mother, the dialogue is miserably prosaic, and the movie falls apart like dominos. It’s a wonder all on its own that DC Films was able to pull itself out of the ensuing avalanche of scorn to release the even more abysmal Suicide Squad, an almost post-modern example of how not to make a superhero film, and then, finally, Wonder Woman, DC’s first origin film since Man of Steel--another movie plagued, among other things, by a fundamental misunderstanding of how emotional beats are supposed to function.
But Wonder Woman marks a change. By now, it’s well-publicized as not only the female-directed, female-led, female-superhero movie that’s uniting audiences and critics in a collective shout of “Hey, this is pretty good!”, but also the female-directed, female-led, female-superhero movie that’s outperforming its now-playing competition to the tune of tens of millions, and closing in on some of the biggest-grossing films in the current comic-book explosion. The resounding message is that, for really the first time in movie history, a movie primarily by and for women is bankable. It is simultaneously not so different from comparable movies and radically new: it’s a simple fish-out-of-water meets coming-of-age plot with a period setting and big action setpieces, following Diana, Princess of Themyscira, as she (literally and figuratively!) enters the world of men.
Wonder Woman’s crowning success is its ability to frame Diana (Gal Gadot, like you didn’t already know) as a character with dimension and agency. Rather than having her grunt and scowl her way through a series of obstacles a la Superman in Man of Steel or keep her at a remote, goddesslike remove from the world of mortals a la Superman in Batman v Superman, they establish her as a character with ethics that are challenged at every turn. She is motivated by the sort of steadfast morality Superman should have had all this time, and by an idealism that is all her own. Her goal for most of the film is to find and defeat Ares, the god of war, who she plainly sees as the cause of World War I. Once Ares is defeated, Diana is confident that humankind will return to its natural state of compassion, empathy, and purity. You can imagine how that turns out, but the film does not patronize, reduce, or condescend, making certain that there are no clear resolutions to the challenges it presents her, and to the audience. The are only the choices she makes, and just as it is for anyone, it so happens that she can make the wrong ones.
The majority of these choices are expectedly obvious, but a sizable portion of Diana’s philosophical evolution occurs beneath the surface, in juxtaposition to the rest of the excellent cast. Robin Wright of House of Cards fame steps in for the role of Antiope, a hardened Amazon general who mentors and trains Diana from childhood to adulthood. She represents one of Diana’s potential futures and the one closest to what we see of her in Batman v Superman, balancing compassion and military grit in a brief window of time. Connie Nielsen, in the role of Diana’s mother Hippolyta, provides a sort of soft counterpoint to Antiope: she is as decisive and intelligent as she is temperate and even-handed, somewhat constrained by her role as queen but respectful of the burden of impartiality. Both are characters with agency and dimension, and one could imagine a different Wonder Woman paying more attention to their influence on Diana’s journey from girl to heroine. If the Doctor Poison role played by Elena Anaya, a Spanish actress some may recognize from The Skin I Live In and others from Habitación en Roma, feels a little underwritten, she is able to raise the character above its “villain” trappings with a tragic gravitas absent from the comparable role Svetlana Khodchenkova occupied in The Wolverine. She has a thematic purpose in Wonder Woman, but also a political one as a female villain in a movie with so many female heroines, and functions as a more defined counterpoint to Hippolyta and to Antiope. Doctor Poison is a glimpse at one of Diana’s options as a rightfully vengeful woman seeking the destruction of men at Ares’s side--but perhaps in soft counterpoint to her, Etta Candy enters the picture as a cheerfully domesticated woman, one who is either unaware of the accuracy of the parallel between her secretary position and slavery that Diana points out, or unwilling to do anything about it. She seems to awaken a bit in Diana’s presence, but all the same, represents an equally unsuitable alternative future.
Decisions, decisions. Dozens and dozens of thinkpieces by better thinkers and writers are being produced on the subject, so I’ll turn my attention back to the film itself to say that, of all its virtues, the one that stands out is Wonder Woman’s sense of humor. It soars above the stale puerility of Suicide Squad thanks to the chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine (playing Steven Trevor, an American spy), which is another one of its greatest strengths, handled respectfully and with restraint. Their relationship develops naturally from guarded curiosity to working partnership to romantic affection, playing the same game as Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger to similarly rewarding effect. The scenes of their initial meeting and the getting-to-know-each-other stuff are sweet without saccharinity, but most importantly, their kiss (not a spoiler, because come on) is treated like it is: a kiss, not a chance for Pine to grope Gadot while the camera watches. There’s remarkable restraint on the part of the camera in general, even for the action sequences, which have historically been moments of CGI overkill and subsonic soundbombing that bore and irritate when they should excite. Wonder Woman finally puts all that testosterone-heavy action to use by, whodathunk, spacing it out in gradually escalating chunks. This leaves room to include the things the DCEU has been sorely lacking: character development, thematic exploration, and dramatic stakes, so that when things do go into full-blown spectacle mode, there’s reason to squint through the noise and glare to follow what’s happening.
But I can’t lie: although it’s been all praise thus far, Wonder Woman doesn’t erase the problem with movies in the DCEU we discussed, as it’s very much present in the third act. After an incredible scene where Diana reaches a philosophical crossroads of a profundity the likes of which Batman v Superman couldn’t match with three hours of broody pontification, we’re treated to the same kind of CGI-cumshot-compilation filmmaking that destroyed what remained of that movie’s credibility after the “Martha” debacle, with the added insult of reducing Diana’s entire character journey to a line as banal as “I believe in love,” while--I shit you not--she walks out of a blazing inferno, deflecting projectiles with her bracelets. In response, Ares--I shit you not--lifts his arms, screams “Then I will destroy you!” and proceeds to hurl lightning at Wonder Woman, who captures it, wraps it around her bracelets, leaps into the sky, and I shit you not, Kamehamehas him into oblivion.
Alex leaned over to me shortly after the scene wrapped up to say “I didn’t know we were watching Dragonball Z.” Hence the reference, but I make it only half-jokingly, because the climax of this otherwise measured and mature superhero film, one that’s shattering records and preconceptions of what a movie like this is supposed to do, one-hundred percent plays like a test-run for a live-action Dragonball Z adaptation. On one hand, maybe that’s okay. Maybe it was intentional, a reminder that these comic-book movies will always come down to wish fulfillment: we just want to watch beautiful people with superpowers blow each other up in the name of good or evil. Maybe it’s a goofy send-up of the excess of previous DCEU films, or even comic-book movie action in general, meant to make us cringe and then reflect on how ridiculous this shit has gotten. On the other hand, maybe it’s evidence of yet more meddling on DC’s part. Maybe it’s a stipulation in the contracts of all directors who sign on for DC films: “Stupid fucking explosions (to be referred to as SFEs from here on) are the DC Films trademark; therefore, we require several at minimum in the finished product,” etc.
Am I being hard on this part of the movie? A little, but when you’re this close to perfection, the blemishes look a lot worse. Don’t let that detract from the fact that there were long stretches of the film where I was filled with the emotional opposite of what I felt during most of It Comes At Night: joy, as Diana strides through machine-gun fire, leading a charge of men to take over a German ditch; as she slices her way through building after building of armed men and then demolishes a church building by leaping into it; as she discovers love, and then the complexity of human nature, and grapples with the choice to turn away from or defend us; as she discovers who she is and realizes what she can be. It may succumb to its genre trappings in the eleventh hour, but at its best, Wonder Woman is a truly magnificent superhero movie, and like its final shot of Diana, it’s ultimately such a vast leap forward it might as well be soaring.
- Brian L.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.