Tents pole movies always come with astronomical expectations. Fans are hoping for the most amazing film they have ever seen (until, at least, the next installment) while studio executives are hoping to be awash in cash. Critics, depending on how they stride the pop culture divide, are either sharpening their knives or readily willing to suspend disbelief. As box office attendance continues to decline, the stakes have only increased. The continuing lackluster performance of Aliens: Covenant has many analysts wondering who assumed there was any pent-up demand for a sixth helping of silver screen Xenomorphs. Into this contentious atmosphere Wonder Woman arrives with even weightier expectations. It is the first superhero film directed by a woman. It is the first solo female superhero film since the genre’s resurgence a decade ago, and not just any superheroine at that. Wonder Woman has been, from her inception, a feminist icon; how she would be portrayed on screen would be critiqued in circles far removed from fandom, especially in the current social environment. Meanwhile, back in their beach bungalows, the suits have their own concerns. After last year’s critical takedowns of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Warner Brothers desperately needs a little respectability for their superhero universe. Yes, both those films made a lot of money, while the latter somehow won an Oscar, but perception is important. In the cliché parlance of the day, they want a narrative reset for the DC Cinematic Universe. And so, Diana arrived in theaters on Friday with an unreasonable amount of baggage. The good news is that the movie easily proves itself more limber than anything else the DCCU has offered up so far. Despite its flaws, it is an entertaining experience.
The narrative opens with an unnecessary framing sequence set in the present, which seems to exist to remind viewers that, yes, Diana is still active in the 21st Century (in case you arrived late and missed the trailer for this fall’s Justice League film). Luckily this scene is brief. From there the movie settles into a linear course, beginning with Diana’s youth on the isle of Themyscira. Director Patty Jenkins effortlessly engages the viewer into the rhythms of Diana leaping about the terrain, eagerly watching the exploits of adult Amazons participating in combat training. This enthusiasm for war is discouraged by her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. At first Hippolyta’s protective nature seems to flow from Diana being not only her daughter, but the sole child on the island. One night, however, she relates a story to Diana which implies more specific concerns.
Over the decades, DC has revised the origin of the Amazons several times. Allen Heinberg’s screenplay (Heinberg shares a story credit with Zach Snyder and Jason Fuchs) adds another version to the collection. In Heinberg’s telling Zeus created humans “in his own image” only to see their good intentions poisoned by his son Ares. Ares is jealous of his father’s devotion to humanity and seeks to corrupt them through violence and hatred. Eventually there is a war in heaven which ends with Zeus casting Ares out of the celestial realm. Essentially, what Heinberg has done is reinvent Greek myth as Christian allegory. Jenkins mirrors this by lending Zeus imagery which recalls Michelangelo’s frescos for the Sistine Ceiling. Following the thread of this thinking casts Diana as a Christ figure for humanity, including possibly her own form of a virgin birth. (The story of Diana’s birth is related twice in the film, the second telling left vague enough that either the made of clay or offspring of Zeus version could be interpreted as the correct cinematic one). This reworking of the mythic aspect of the Amazons is intellectually interesting, while exposing some of the film’s thematic weaknesses which will be discussed more fully later.
Jenkins moves rather briskly through the exposition section of the movie, jumping from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, when a certain Steve Trevor’s areophane goes crashing into the ocean. At this point, the movie brings the Man’s World War literally to the Amazons’ doorstep. (The film is set during the final days of World War I). This initial battle sequence on the beach is thrilling. Jenkins immediately demonstrates an ability to convey rapid paced action without any loss of visual clarity. She is assisted in the set pieces by a relatively low dependence on CGI which often muddies superhero combat on screen. While some of Snyder’s directorial tics are in evidence, particularly his fondness for slow-motion, Jenkins employs them with surer flair than Snyder. For example, an image of the Amazon general Antiope soaring through the air, three arrows poised on her drawn bowstring, is one of the most striking of the film. This energetic pacing is maintained for most of the film, though, the finale falls victim to the overwrought busyness that often plagues this genre. Indeed, this early beach scene is the most powerful battlefield sequence of the movie, capturing both the large and small scale aspects of combat.
What also serves the movie well is Heinberg and Jenkins’ willingness to linger on the cost of warfare. While there are plenty of brave heroics and a noble sacrifice, the movie does not overly glamorize combat. From her inception, there has been an inherent tension in Wonder Woman’s character between her role as Ambassador of Peace and costumed adventurer who often resorts to her fists. Over the years, various creators have used different methods to address this issue. Heinberg and Jenkins’ solution is highlighting brutality of combat. This is present both on Themyscira beach and later as Diana witnesses the battlefields of World War I firsthand. At first she is overwhelmed by the suffering. From convoy horses stuck in the mud to amputee soldiers to fleeing refugees, Diana wishes to save everyone, only to learn the hard way that war involves choices, which often include deciding where to focus your attention. Loss of life can only be minimized, which is another reason to end Ares’ madness as rapidly as possible.
In her debut as Wonder Woman in Dawn of Justice, Gal Gadot’s interpretation lacked a charismatic flair fans were expecting from the character. This trait proves to be a benefit for her performance in the solo film, as viewers watch Diana gradually growing into her new role. In the early scenes in the Man’s World, Gadot displays an appealing mix of idealism and naiveté regarding how society operates outside of Paradise Island. As the narrative unfolds, though, and Diana journeys deeper into the frontlines, her courageous spirit grows more prominent, lending a natural believability to her heroic feats. She is still a little rough around the edges in her most emotional scenes, but it is a marked improvement over her previous outing. Being directed by Jenkins, who previously guided Charlize Theron to an Oscar, probably didn’t hurt.
Gadot does her most spirited work when balanced with the right acting partner. This is clearest in her scenes with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. The movie’s Steve is based more on the original Golden Age version than the generic grizzled military man which has mostly defined the character from post-Crisis to Rebirth. Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston saw Steve as a well-intentioned dope who spent most of his time swooning over Wonder Woman while being rescued by her. In essence, he was the hapless damsel in distress. It was a clever bit of gender role reversal which sadly remains as bold a choice today as it did in 1941. (For one recent reminder, simply review Snyder’s rather desultory treatment of Lois Lane in his Superman films).
Pine’s Steve is more resourceful than Marston’s while retaining the wide-eyed, bumbling aspect of his personality. Most memorably, Heinberg and Jenkins place Pine in a hot springs type scenario which submits his character to the type of gentle ripping traditionally reserved by Hollywood for “eye candy” actresses. Pine does a fantastic job balancing these facets of the character, lending humor, and humanity, to the film while never undercutting Steve’s bravery. At the same time, his romance with Diana is allowed to develop organically, which lends it a naturalness. Most importantly, though, their love only strengthens the characters instead of weakening them. In this respect, Heinberg pays tribute to Marston’s vision, reminding viewers that Diana’s ultimate message is one of mercy, not retribution. After all, many who perpetrate crimes were once victims of brutality themselves. This idea is implied with the villain Doctor Poison. Elena Anaya plays Poison as both driven and haunted, an intriguing combination, even if her limited screen time does not allow Anaya to explore fully the dynamic.
Another of Diana’s dramatic partners is Etta Candy. As with Steve Trevor, Etta Candy experienced several fallow decades in which she went from high-spirited, body positive role model to morose and self-conscious background figure. The film combines the facts of her post-Crisis existence (secretary to Steve) with her Golden Age personality. From the moment she appears on screen, Lucy Davis’ Etta displays a rambunctious, bantering manner. As with Pine, Davis’ performance greatly contributes to the lighter tone of movie, which successfully avoids the monolithic gloom of Snyder’s films. Unlike Pine, though, she does not follow Wonder Woman into battle as Marston originally envisioned. The company of Etta’s character is solely missed and not simply for the sake of her jovial nature.
One of the radical aspects of Marston’s work was not only the independence of his central heroine, but how he surrounded her with a strong female driven supporting cast. From Etta Candy to Diana’ fellow Amazons to reformed criminal Paula von Gunther, she was often assisted by smart capable women. In the film, however, this feature is glaringly absent. When Diana leaves Paradise Island, she also leaves female comradery. Her exploits on the front are spent entirely with men. Would it have been that hard for Heinberg to include one other female among Steve’s elite task force? Part of Marston’s message was that any woman could assist the war effort, she need not be an Amazon to defend her beliefs. That aspirational aspect, still so relevant in 2017, is missing from the movie.
Which leads back to the Heinberg’s take on Greek mythology. Conspicuously absent from Hippolyta’s history of the Amazons is any reference to female deities. One of the strongest constants in every major iteration of Wonder Woman has been an evocation of the Greek goddesses, yet, here they are all absent. Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Hera and so on have no role to play. Instead the celestial sphere is boiled down to a father/son grudge match. This choice directly effects the portrayal of the Amazons themselves. Neither Heinberg nor Jenkins give much thought to Amazon culture as a whole; the only aspects displayed are the martial ones. Again, this undercuts much of what their civilization could represent. There is no evidence of the advanced technology, medicine or learning often associated with Themyscira. In its place is drilling, drilling and more drilling. They are simply an army in waiting for the day Ares returns.
Alison Bechdel’s famous Bechdel Test entails two named female characters having a conversation longer than 30 seconds about some subject other than a man. As most of the Amazons’ dialogue revolves around Zeus, Ares and Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman does not pass this exam as easily as one would have assumed. Also curious is the one line reference to the contemporary suffragette movement. In his stories, Marston linked democracy to women’s rights, arguing that the fight against fascism was incomplete without gender equality on the home front. Rarely does the film address the suffering of women, instead spending most of its energy on the plight of male soldiers. One wonders if Warner Brothers was uneasy about the marketability of a heroine explicitly fighting for gender equality.
However, plenty of Wonder Woman’s aspirational message does successfully make it to theaters. She is the bold, driven character which fans dreamt of seeing on the big screen. She seizes her own agency early in the movie and never lets it falter. In addition, her idealistic message is not relayed in a heavy-handed manner or get in the way of the adventure. Jenkins capably balances the tones in such a way that the film is consistently entertaining. Could it have been fuller? Yes. With Wonder Woman, though, Jenkins has demonstrated that Warner Brothers can deliver a strong, if flawed, installment for their DCCU.
PS: Next visit to Themyscira can include some kangras, right?