I’m at a loss.
There’s a part of me that wants to be happy Wonder Woman exists at all and has been critically and commercially successful. This may come as an enormous shock to people, but female comic book characters have never been treated well. While Batman and Superman have been used to make dreck, they are still given chances to make an impact on our culture. Even the most obscure male comic characters get multiple adaptations. Steel, despite only existing so DC could pretend that they actually killed Superman in the early ’90s, got a Hollywood movie. Spawn got a movie and an HBO animated show. The Punisher has gotten three movies and is about to get a Netflix show. Never mind the fact that of those movies have been trash.
Female superheroes are barely given a chance. Even when a movie like Catwoman gets made, no one cares to make it good. They focus more on the voyeuristic elements of her skimpy costume and their psychology is never explored. Yet when people get offended and walk away, the studio heads will claim there is no market for female superhero movies and perpetuate the cycle.
So here comes Wonder Woman, a film about a character that has inspired generations of feminists. She should have headlined several movie franchises by now, but was never given a chance. This was an important moment to a lot of fans and it’s good that they’re not being let down.
To those people who are taking their daughters dressed up in Wonder Woman’s iconic costume – enjoy! This film would have been unthinkable even a decade ago and I am glad that you are going to have a good time.
But what about to the jaded cynics like me? Is Wonder Woman a film that breaks in increasingly rigid mold of comic book films? Is it the next example of a great superhero movie?
The film falls back on too many superhero film clichés. We HAVE to have a big villain showdown, we have to spend too much time on Wonder Woman’s origin, we have to get an entire act of exposition, and we don’t get enough time with some of the great side characters. Why do we have to shove this film back into the mold?
What makes this more odd is that, for an entire act, the film is as great as many claim. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, has been raised on an island literally populated with Amazons. Everyone there is thousands of years old, and Diana is their last child. In 1918, Diana believes her moment to defeat Ares, The God of War has come after an American spy accidentally crashes a stolen German plane near her home. This man, Steve (Chris Pine) talks to her about a war that has lasted for years and killed millions fighting in trenches.
It can only be the work of Ares, Diana decides. So off she goes to London with Steve so they can stop the German general Ludendorff (Danny Houston) who is humiliated seeing his country about to sign the Treaty of Versailles. He’s working on developing a gas with Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) that would dissolve gas masks.
This is the set up for a great, classic adventure film, and Wonder Woman delivers that in spades. There are great scenes of Wonder Woman storming into battle after the menfolk show themselves too scared out of their minds. The “crossing no man’s land” scene in particular is one that will go down in history as one of the all time great action scenes. But it’s not just the big action moments. Diana and Steve have great chemistry as Diana learns about our world – and how silly it seems compared to hers. The film’s funniest moment has Diana talking about how we should be proud of our achievements – when it comes to making ice cream.
The filmmakers respect Diana Prince. Gal Gadot gives the performance everything she has. Diana is strong, confident, and not anyone’s accessory. The film doesn’t fall for the temptation to focus on her sexuality or her looks. The only person with a nude scene is Pine, and when Diana sees him, she’s more bemused and disappointed than aroused. (“Are you an average member of your species?” she asks, eyebrows arched like a scientist looking into a microscope.) She’s so confident about her worldview that, when she arrives in London, her ideas sound sane while everyone else sounds foolish. One moment has Diana trying on “human” clothes. She tears through a dress as she tries to kick, asking how she’s supposed to fight in these outfits. As she looks around, the other women in the shop look back at her with an understanding. There’s never a moment where Diana is not in control of the scene.
While the second act of the film is fantastic, the first and third are really bad. The first act takes entirely on Themyscira as we focus on Diana’s childhood and her “destiny.” It’s told entirely in exposition and seems to hit all the Joseph Campbell-esque check boxes. Is Wonder Woman some sort of “chosen one?” Check. Are we introduced to “Chekov’s sword?” Check. Does her mother not want her “trained” in the way of the Amazons? Check? Is she trained anyway to fulfill her destiny? Check. Does she eventually discover a huge world beyond her tiny home? Check.
I shouldn’t be able to describe a film with a check list.
And then we get to the final “boss fight.” I will not mention names, but the next paragraph contains spoilers.
The entire film is about Wonder Woman’s search for Ares, and thinks she’s found him in General Ludendorff. Doing so will end the war. But after she kills him, no one stops fighting and the world is still in danger.
This is a pivotal moment for Wonder Woman. Are her beliefs wrong? Can she still save the world? How can she fight Ares when Ares is just an abstract concept that lives in everyone? Had the film continued with this line of questioning, it would have been a fantastic finale as Diana realizes there’s something in humankind she has to fight.
But no, it turns out Ares was another guy who had not been portrayed as evil or conniving in any way. We get the same sort of big CGI fight that had me looking for a Playstation 4 controller. There were no emotional stakes because we’d not been introduced to Ares before now.
Normally I would be more forgiving of all of this. But Wonder Woman comes at a time when we are not only saturated with superhero movies, but at a time when people are turning against them they stand out. Last year’s Batman V Superman would have been inconceivably popular, but was met with a shrug at best. People recognize the tropes that superhero movies keep using and are realizing how tired they are. Wonder Woman does nothing to address those tropes. There has to be an origin story and a third act “final battle” no matter how much those things harm the film’s themes.
What disappoints me the most is that I know how important this film is to a lot of people. This really did feel like an important monument for a generation of young women. For it to fall back on the superhero film mold felt like a cheat. I wanted a Wonder Woman who did what she’s been doing in comics for more than 75 years – smashing down boundaries. Having Diana Prince in what could be almost any superhero movie felt like a cheat.
So, I guess I have to split the difference. I am glad Wonder Woman exists and that the people involved care. But I also don’t understand those who, relieved just to see a woman superhero done well, are declaring this among the best comic book movies since the Dark Knight trilogy. It’s not. It’s a movie that’s held back by the superhero tropes it seemingly has to follow. There are some amazing scenes, the action is great, and the second act is a lot of fun. But I can’t get as enthusiastic about it as some other fans are.