You can't just flip the gender. During certain moments of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which at last validates DC Comics’ burgeoning cinematic universe from a narrative and artistic perspective, I attempted to reenvision the scene with a male protagonist (we have a lot of precedent for that, of course…most directly and clearly in this character’s Marvel counterpart of Captain America). And you can't do it - or at least, you can't simply switch genders and have the same proceedings unfold. Wonder Woman resides at a different point on the spectrum of emotional intelligence and temperature: one aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in circumstance that result from its protagonist being a woman instead of a man (an Amazonian woman played by an Israeli-American actress, at that). There is a secret, deeper heart beating underneath the superficial proceedings at almost all times here.
Movie Review: Wonder Woman
By Ben Gruchow
July 4, 2017
That deeper heart infuses the movie with an agency that's unequivocally beneficial to its function; without it, there are enough storytelling and pacing issues in this 141-minute film to assert their presence more forcefully on one’s impression of the film’s quality - not nearly enough, it must be said, to drag it over the line from a positive one to a negative one. On its own merits, this is an earnest, layered, and energetic piece of work; it's the antithesis desperately needed to the respectively leaden and fractured natures of last year’s Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. In the context of its subgenre, it's the best in years; if last March’s Logan represented the best execution of the apocalyptic/dystopic comic-book adventure, Wonder Woman represents the apotheosis of the pragmatic and humanist adventure.
The movie’s period and setting is ideal for a challenge on that front, and it's the first clue that we have that there's an agency at work here very different from what's come before it in the DCEU lineup. The World Wars are an easy time to set a movie about American exceptionalism (or trading on its imagery, at least), with the curve heavily favoring the latter one: unlike any real-life global conflict since, it provided us with a binary choice between good guys and bad guys, with a figurehead known far more for what he represented and encouraged than for what he said or did. Wonder Woman is set during the First World War, and this is pivotal to setting up the clash between idealism and reality that the movie targets almost from the second scene.
That second scene is set on Themyscira, which is an island nation populated by the Amazons: warriors and citizens tasked with protecting the world. Their history and origin is told to Diana (played as a child by Lilly Aspell, and as an adult by Gal Gadot) in an animated segue that is, all by itself, more evocative in its mythic power than anything in this genre of film that I can recall. The Amazons are expecting the eventual return of Ares, the god of death; some of them, like Antiope (Robin Wright), more aggressively than others, like tribe Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).
Diana is introduced as she observes Antiope running her warriors through physical training, and it's an instructive moment for us in the audience: she does not simply watch or spectate, but follows along as only the child can who is seeing something that they dream of doing one day: excitedly punching and kicking the air, moving and dodging. It's a little startling, witnessing this scene, how little we see moments like this in movies (especially in high fantasy and sci-fi and especially with girls): there is joy in this moment that's anticipatory, and Hippolyta’s subsequent admonition that Diana is to experience no Amazon training does nothing to dispel that excitement for her or us in the audience.
That idealism and motivation also initiates and propels the movie’s primary conflict. Themyscira is mystically obscured from view to the outside world, but this does not prevent intrusion. When pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands off the coast of the island, we and the characters are alerted to the period and the circumstances: there is a war outside of Themyscira, it involves many countries and millions of innocent deaths. It's a mess, a battle fought on multiple fronts with no clear antagonist. It is the sort of event that Diana believes she has been preparing for with circumstances that are alien to her way of life. To her, the existence of the war is the result of Ares’ return; to end the war, all she must do is kill him. This sets up the origin-story framework of a quest to discover a new world with a new sense of identity, always literalized to some degree by the existence of a costume and/or a mystical resources. It also sets up the fish-out-of-water concept that has been familiar to just about all of the post-Batman Begins comic-book origin stories.
What's different about this iteration of the outlay - different to a deceptively significant degree - is that Diana is not an ingenue when it comes to her sense of right and wrong. In Begins, Bruce Wayne had his definition of ethics and morals reshaped by his travels in the Himalayas; in the MCU films, the central characters generally have an attitude about the world that undergoes some form of radical reinvention that's necessary for them to become the superhero. Once again, Steve Rogers, in the Captain America films, comes the closest to what we're seeing here: he has a fairly unimpeachable moral code that drives his every action and never really comes into challenge. Even that, though, is a little softer and more vague than the sense of character stakes that we get here.
“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves,” Diana says to Hippolyta as she prepares to leave the island for London; a sentiment echoed many times in the movies before, to be sure, but rarely with this degree of clarity and authenticity and relevance. As a cinematic moment, it takes the first really big step toward defining the arc of what we're about to see; as a pop-culture expression, it's as powerful as Gabriela’s closing statement to the title character in this spring’s Logan.
The movie is content to let its expression of morals and ethics take a step back for much of the introductory sequences in London, although they never fade from visibility; instead, they serve to augment the superficial moments that make this film so pleasurable to witness: the action sequences, which are brief when they need to be and extensive when they need to be, and the comedy and social commentary. Most of this latter comes at the hands of Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), nominally introduced as Steve’s secretary and a delightfully observant and acerbic character creation. I have no idea if Etta originates from the comics or is new for the films, but the entire main arc of the film hinges to a degree on her involvement without breaking a sweat in doing so, and Davis is wonderful.
But Diana is here to fight the war against Ares, and this is where she takes us: first to one of the front lines, and then to the characters of Ludendorff and Dr. Maru, played by Danny Huston and Elena Ayana. He is a general in the German military; she is a brilliant chemist who uses her gifts to develop progressively more lethal and insidious forms of mustard gas, as a way to circumvent gas masks and kill whoever it comes in contact with. If Wonder Woman has a weak spot, its with the realization of its villains; there are dimensions hinted at to these characters here, and particularly with Dr. Maru, there is the sense that more texture and consequential development was originally part of the story. As it stands, the two are effective antagonists while also paling in comparison to the protagonist(s). This is not a bad problem to have, considering that protagonists in superhero films are usually much less interesting than the antagonists; as with every other element of the film, Diana owns the context of her plot conflict, too.
Since the first scenes where Diana realizes a conflict between the way things should be, as is envisioned by the society in Themyscira, and the way things end up transpiring, the movie is preparing for the moment where she takes on the mantle of the superhero. The development of the poison gas gives us the larger moment of catharsis, but the movie depicts the moment of transformation far sooner; it takes place in the trenches of the battlefield, with a No-Man’s-Land between the two opposing armies, and the moment is literalized in a way that almost never works as cinema and yet here provides a charge at the moment of revelation that sets our expectations quite high: instead of coming across as over-the-top or self-righteous, it gives us one of the first visceral indications that the movie is going to honor its implications.
These character implications and stakes keep escalating all the way to the end; I mentioned character catharsis before, and Wonder Woman delivers that element in a way that's revelatory. Consider the mythology the movie puts in place: Ares and Zeus and other figures of Greek mythology are known for their attributes and their powers, but not for self-exploration or self-realization. What you see is what you get. Without revealing the climactic plot twists and elements, I can say that it's unique to have a figure so intertwined with Greek mythology start out with an understanding of her essential nature, experience doubt and self-examination, experience catharsis, and arrive at a final realization of her essential nature without compromising either the heuristics of the mythology or the gravity of her conflict. It would have been so easy for this kind of ambitious tactic to stall out or backfire horrendously, and leave us with a movie with a reach that exceeds its grasp, like pretty much every DCEU film prior to this one, or to an MCU misfire like Avengers: Age of Ultron. But it does not stall, or backfire, and the movie’s final moments evince a dramatic power that most of its contemporaries cannot summon.
It also does something that I find frankly miraculous: it retroactively legitimizes a hefty chunk of the two major DCEU films prior to it, while announcing a thematic core to the entire universe so far that decisively threatens to outstrip the MCU in terms of storytelling potential. We're not there yet in terms of execution; it'll take more than one great summer film to account for the problems with Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel. But there's a shape to the overall narrative emerging throughout these three films (expressed in its most sophisticated form here but still present before), about the obligation to fit events in the world to idealism or ideology, and the line between asset and liability for people who commit heroic acts, that DC shows a willingness to plumb the depths of.
The core complaint I have with the MCU is how impermanent and superficial any major development turns out to be, because the omnipresence of the overall arc renders every “major” conflict in its component films into little more than a skirmish. The three DCEU films here have each established a willingness to commit controversial acts in their final narrative moments: not unilaterally successful narrative acts, perhaps, but credit given for being willing to move the goalposts. The respective act that takes place in the final act of Wonder Woman is certainly the most mild in terms of raw controversy, I guess, but it's bold for a superhero film to treat the existential question that this film poses during its climax with this degree of import - especially one that's part of a still-young connected universe.
There is yet much I have not covered that will have to wait for the inevitable sequel, but one final thing must be said: this is only the second film directed by Patty Jenkins, after the brutal Monster in 2003. That film was also one of the best of its year, and we can see some of the same thematic threads winding their way into this story, too: the impossible demand of conforming to a social expectation that the characters simply are not built for, the clash of the way one thinks the world is with the way they ultimately realize the world to be, and the questions of why and how. And there is also, of course, the additional layers of development and conflict posed around these questions when you factor in gender.
Setting that aside, this film marks an astonishing escalation in sheer craftsmanship and velocity: far from being a serviceable action film from an independent director (straight lines, proper exposure, and little risk-taking in framing or composition), Wonder Woman reveals Jenkins to be a visceral and dexterous action director; one need look no further than the first sustained fight sequence, in the midst of a bombed-out German village, to witness a visual fluidity and tactile eloquence that is absolutely beyond most of the film’s contemporaries. This is a striking and wholly involving piece of work, one that had myriad opportunities to lose focus and step wrong in its pursuit of building a narrative, and doesn't ever do so.
5 out of 5