Among the finest traditional superhero films ever made, or so I’m told, Wonder Woman nonetheless provoked, for me, not out-of-body effervescence, nor rapturous wonder, nor thoughtful introspection, but merely mild contentedness. This year’s other critical-darling superhero flick, Logan, stuck a tripartite claw into certain regulations of the superhero genre. Although it merely dressed other genre-norms up in a thick coating of sinew and muscle, the film had moral meat on its Charcuterie board, all of it rare and bloody. Wonder Woman is a resolutely traditional film by way of comparison, and its minute-to-minute successes and failures have entirely to do with which of two particular traditions it settles into at any given moment.
The first and superior of the film’s two modes is a more classical, almost Old Hollywood disposition. The early passages of director Patty Jenkins’ film are a quiet delight, much slinkier and more pugnacious than your average battering-rum of a superhero film, and less sycophantic to the DC blockbuster gods attempting to play catch-up with Marvel. Rather than slowly killing itself the long way, through a million aesthetically-nullifying corporate decisions where every plot-beat exists only as one strand in a dense web of “DC Universe” call-backs, forward-flashes, and side-eyes to other films, Wonder Woman feels essentially self-contained. This gives the film not only breathing room but wobble room to don a small wardrobe’s worth of genre outfits It’s not exactly coloring outside the lines, but Jenkins finds way to experiment by scribbling ever so slightly within the margins allotted to her.
The first-half of the film – set during WWI – serpentines between various fish-out-of-water situations. First, young Diana (Gal Gadot as an adult), Princess of a secret island of Amazonian warriors deigned to protect the Earth if Ares ever returns, wants to join her whole community as a warrior, but her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) doesn’t want to hear it. After Diana convinces her mother to allow the Amazonian’s fiercest warrior – and Diana’s aunt – Antiope (Robin Wright) to train her, Allan Heinberg’s screenplay drops American-born British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) into their airspace, as well as a sudden awareness of humankind’s penchant for war. Trevor – a man in a coven of warrior women – is the obvious odd-man-out (quite literally in this case) but the script switches-up when the headstrong and fiercely independent Diana returns with Trevor to England with a book proving the whereabouts of a secret German toxin that can kill even through gasmasks. Naturally, DC needs the second half of a movie, and they spent all that money on fashionably distressed and dirty attire, so Trevor and Diana eventually head off to battle – with the approval of a British official played by David Thewlis – to defeat an evil German officer played with gravel-voiced aplomb by Danny Huston and his disfigured, mad scientist played by Elena Anaya.
But before the film throws its leading lady into the boy’s club of war, Wonder Woman is surprisingly playful, even brisk. A little antic comedy not out of touch with the screwball comedy tradition here, a dab of noir there – forgive me for hoping for a seventh-inning walk-on from Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, the best of all WWI films – are the ingredients that keep the film wriggling around tonally rather than slumping down a straight, prefigured path.
Spunky but with room to breathe, Wonder Woman is not tightly wound-up to the point of constipation by the constricting corset of DC’s normal aesthetic: a binding, masculine vision of apocalyptic grandeur and mythopoetic sadness, with just enough pouting, brooding, and metal industrial-gothic thrown in for flavor. Without the shackles of corporate synergy around its leg holding it back from ever taking its own path – without having to always check behind its back, policing its appearance to make sure it fits just right with its higher-ups’ demands – Wonder Woman sets to walking its own way, and it struts a pretty confident stride too.
Among the many pleasures the film conjures with its newfound freedom is a riff on the Old Hollywood comedy of remarriage, with two principals chiding each other in feats of competitive camaraderie and verbal one-ups-man-ship. Pine obviously tries to rekindle a roguish Errol Flynn charm, and if you squint at the right time, he cuts a sufficiently heroic figure. But the real find is Gadot, whose arbitrary inclusion in Dawn of Justice hints not one bit at the stupendous layering she is able to achieve as a woman simultaneously ennobled by her superiority, diligent in her commitment to an abstract notion of purity, mortified at the idea that she might be wrong, vexed at the new world around her, and teasingly amused at her capacity to manipulate that world. More importantly, Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg know when to dawdle around, leisurely resting on conversations in order to consider the shifting beats of interpersonal communication rather than cutting scenes into tatters in a head-strong rush to the next plot-point. Jenkins is keenly aware that the simple pleasure of actually watching two people converse for once can outweigh the mightiest shield-slam sometimes.
Although hardly a paragon of aesthetic radicalism designed to upset the composure of the blockbuster machine, Wonder Woman also offers the pleasure of a superhero story not recuperable to DC’s self-branding as the Gothic Marvel variant. Wonder Woman’s simplicity and genuine good will toward humankind is also a godsend (pun intended) in the post-Nolan superhero swamp that many movies – from all corporate parties involved – have waded into and not yet escaped. Following Nolan’s films, most non-comic modern superhero films are besieged with problems of the self, rejiggering every superhero as a tragically flawed angel-demon punching their way out of parental issues or outsider status. This promises depth, but it also speaks to the neoliberal turn in American fiction that has accompanied the rise of psychoanalysis in the Western world, an obsession over the individual rather than social institutions.
Rather than making the myth a genuine human-being, as these scriptural gestures pretend to do, this tortured-psyche shibboleth gifts the superhero the privilege of simultaneity, of multiple selves to appeal to all audiences, to be all-encompassing, to be human and god at once. Superheroes – the cult of the supreme benefactors of society – have problems too, i.e., they are like you and I, supposedly rounded, identifiable individuals we know to be kindred spirits of ourselves. Because they are like us, we can be like them. It gives us permission to indulge the power-fantasy of laying waste to scores upon scores of enemies, to escape to our preternatural assumptions that success is defined in terms of valiant external heroism, toward conquering the baddies, toward domination of morality. Batman’s parents dying – and Superman’s, for that matter – are excuses, the legitimizing and justifying fire-and-brimstone of personal tragedy that proves they know what pain is like, they know humanity, and thus can transcend humanity, save humanity, fix humanity when humanity cannot fix itself. Their humanity aspires to complicate their character, but it is just as often merely a roundabout way to arrive at their essential superhero status. Because they are like us, the films stroke our egos and our clandestine fantasies in the name of “the greater good”, which of course, is a convenient excuse for us to legitimize committing acts of gross negligence and violence. Insofar as any of the Batman films wish to delve into the recesses of Bruce Wayne’s mind, they accept this only as a wrinkle or a delaying tactic, a necessary digression that eventually becomes a detour back to a path of the fist.
So it is an inescapable paradox for the reviewer that Wonder Woman happens to delve less into these wounded-warrior stereotypes. On one hand, the film’s relative extroverted-ness is a delightful curb to the dictum that superheroes must be soul-searchers. Contrarily, though, it is not easy to overlook the “coincidence” that the DC film that achieves this – finally – also happens to be the big-coming-out for their brand-name female heroine, which pretty much means the feminist issues percolating in the film are a complete wash. Absent introspection, the only variant of acceptable feminism in this film is the one where women aspire to masculine notions of success. This is not the multidimensional introspection that gives Kelly Reichardt’s female personas, affording them the personal doubts, anxieties, and bruises locked away from them for decades in media. It is the humanity of killing with a sword and doing a backflip, the militaristic brute-force humanity that is the underwear – and the overcoat – of the superhero tradition, at least in the cinemas, and the core of the American military ideology project that superheroes, and feminism, have been roped into enforcing. Introspection – rather than being valuable on its own – becomes merely a path to further violence. The inescapable paradox for Wonder Woman is that, had it granted Wonder Women an introspective arc of moral doubt befitting of her male counterparts, it would only serve to assimilate the character into their ways rather than strike out rebelliously on terms of its own, terms of her own.
In this sense, Wonder Woman’s tonal immunity from the false-depth of the modern comic book movie is largely assimilable to the larger status quo, marking Jenkins’ film as more of an easily quelled insurgent than a genuine revolutionary element in the superhero canon. It sacrifices the depth of Wonder Woman the character in the name of differentiating itself from the male-dominated films around her, and what does it say about our treatment of women in films that it is this bind they have been forced into? Either way, it stands as fact that the film’s ideas here and there about bondage – masculine arousal at the thought of being emasculated by a woman –are kitschy, kinky window-dressing, proton-sized pleasures that never accumulate into anything more than tiny particles of amusement. Tantalizing questions of emotional interaction – of how men and women might react to each other if unaccustomed the other, or at least unaccustomed to the other taking a dominant, no-nonsense attitude toward them – are glossed-over.
What does the back-half of the film offer in place of character depth? A more-is-more mythologizing that presumes wading into thickets of backstory and getting us lost there is synonymous with wracking our brains with genuine depth. Here especially, Wonder Woman’s breaches of melodrama do not break genre-film protocol: we are inundated with far too much material about Ares and whether he truly exists in the human world, a mythological feint toward Importance that wishes to up the stakes simply by throwing a god into the mix as if name-dropping a celebrity.
Even more damningly, Wonder Woman’s pronounced disinterest in – or at least obliviousness to – the DC house style collapses at the climax, which neutralizes the film’s cheery alterity. It only goes to show you that the corporate synergy train is always on time. The finale reverts to the de rigueur “is humanity good or evil or, as every film will eventually agree, both” ersatz moral conundrum smothering every superhero movie these days, as though the answer has any meaningful bearing on our intellectual and emotional understanding of the world or how to approach social change. The ending of Wonder Woman tries to play with the apocalyptic grandeur knobs that Zack Snyder’s films have always turned up to 11, and Jenkins’ attempts to make its punchy comedy and gender-bonding soluble with the needs of the DC canon fall uniformly flat here.
The climactic showdown is a wash, a two-ton heavy thing that mistakes girth for wonder and a thick slathering of steel-chrome-solemnity for genuine pathos. One can hear Snyder – or a phalanx of Warner Brothers executives – breathing down Jenkins’ throat, all together hiding the timidity of their moral and stylistic vision under-cover-of-literal-darkness (seriously, why all the grey clouds every time these climaxes roll around). Not to mention under a gigantic blanket of CG, showing up as if on cue, merely one more way in which Wonder Woman is hardly immolating the shackles of the superhero movie playbook.
Until the siren call of DC glum claims the film in that ill-fated climax though, Wonder Woman is delighted to look back to a much-forgotten blockbuster tradition of free-spirited pluckiness and earnest melodrama without all the tortured-soul hullabaloo. Don’t get me wrong: legitimate self-critique is the ideal, and Logan is, relatively speaking, proof positive that some juice can be wrung out of the typically exsanguinated superhero genre still. But, if given the option between the relatively fun-and-fancy-free likes of Wonder Woman and the ersatz drama of Dawn of Justice, I know which side I’m on. Yes, it is a cruel irony that Wonder Woman only provides light for the DC Universe – a possible glimmer, a path to chart – because it rejects the guiding principles of its own wheelhouse. But sometimes it’s the paradoxes like that that make the movies a magical conundrum again, rather than just a routine. Sometimes you don’t want to follow the North Star when a zig-zag will do.
Score: 6/10. Edited down from 7 after a re-watch. This film’s strengths increasingly seem like minor incisions into an essentially strained, stagnant blockbuster formula. A formula, in turn, artificially accentuated by the film’s partisans who are more eager to champion DC for a woman-led carbon-copy of dozens of other blockbusters rather than question or criticize the company for its adherence to that conservative formula in the first place. Why should the superhero be our standard for heroism at all?