So I Just Saw Wonder Woman

Let’s skip all the context today regarding Wonder Woman’s history and why it’s absurd that we had to wait until 2017 for her to star in a feature length live action movie, and let’s just get to the movie itself.  Wonder Woman is pretty good (in some ways I’d say it echoes the tone of Captain America: The First Avenger, but those comparisons are inevitable when you have a film that flashes back to one of the World Wars) all around, and it is a far less dour movie than what Warner and DC have been putting out in the last few years.  There’s certainly a heavy amount of pathos (this is, again, a movie about World War I, which traumatized an entire generation), but it feels earned given the subject matter.  The film’s weakest point is probably Gal Gadot herself, which is disappointing since she’s the only woman on screen for two thirds of the movie.  Beyond that, most of the plot is very by the numbers stuff, which is fine; action sequences are entertaining, and the few comic bits hold up well enough.  My general opinion is that if this were another male superhero movie, I’d say just catch it on streaming later, but because this is the first major woman-led, woman-directed superhero movie you should go see it in theaters if you can afford to; the movie business only pays attention to dollar signs, and what will determine whether they begin to realize they can make more woman-driven superhero movies is the box office take, not critical praise.

Wonder Woman Poster

Promotional poster for Wonder Woman. (Image credit: IMDb)

Alright, that’s the quick-and-dirty out of the way.  Moving forward I’ll be discussing spoilers for Wonder Woman, though most of the story beats aren’t surprising if you’re roughly familiar with Diana’s mythos and have seen your share of action and war movies.

Let’s start with Gal Gadot as Diana.  In action sequences, she works perfectly well.  She can do the poses and hit all the marks that communicate her superheroic awesomeness, but there’s just something off about her in any scene that isn’t about stopping bullets and jumping into buildings (seriously, Diana wrecks so many buildings just be crashing into them–intentionally).  Rachael described it as a lack of presence; Gadot carries herself like a woman accustomed to inhabiting a world filled with men, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a character who has never been forced to make herself smaller to accommodate others in her life.  Even after you forgive the fact that Gal Gadot looks like a runway model rather than an Amazonian warrior, you can’t overlook how her body language fails to convey this sense of owning her space when she’s around other people.

On the subject of the other Amazons, things are a little mixed.  Overall, they look the way you expect DC Amazons to look; the women are all big and imposing and have athletes’ bodies (Robin Wright particularly stands out as Diana’s aunt Antiope), and when they get their big battle scene they come across as total badasses.  It is kind of weird that they all have perfect makeup and impeccably coiffed hair (that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would be high on the priorities list for battle-ready warriors), but I’m going to chalk that up to Hollywood being Hollywood and the massively difficult lift that is completely subverting the male gaze.  Rachael and I agreed that after two more sequels with this continuity we want to see a gritty reboot where the Amazons are basically clones of Furiosa because she and the motorcycle grannies are the true Amazons that this world deserves.

Outside of Themyscira, the supporting cast is overwhelmingly male (like, seriously, besides Diana there are precisely two other major female characters off the island, and both of them are off screen for a vast majority of the film).  It’s a good cast as far as it goes, but it would be really nice if they had included more women in roles that didn’t consist of mother-clutching-her-baby-in-the-midst-of-abject-desolation on the Front.  Still, letting that go, DC’s version of Steve and his ragtag, multi-ethnic commandos is remarkably charming (it probably helps that this group is much smaller, so there’s time to actually develop everyone’s character beyond broad ethnic stereotypes).  The film does a neat trick where it uses the supporting cast to illustrate Diana’s gradual realization of how complex the world outside Themyscira is.  All of Steve’s buddies do morally questionable things, but time is given to explain how their roles in the war have been informed by the limitations imposed on them by outside factors.  Sameer wanted to be an actor, but when the war started he decided to be a soldier instead; because he’s not white the Allies wouldn’t let him.  Charlie is a sniper who prefers to kill his targets at a distance, which Diana thinks is the height of dishonor; we learn that Charlie’s desire for detachment from his victims stems from his PTSD (also, he never fires his rifle, let alone kills anyone in the course of the movie, effectively subverting his role as expert marksman).  The Chief (I really wish he’d been given an actual name) is a war profiteer who sells contraband to both sides, but this is the only way he can make a living after his tribe was cheated and murdered out of their land by the Americans in a previous war.  Even Dr. Maru gets an implied tragic backstory with her facial disfigurement that she hides under a ceramic mask (it’s the emotional climax of the film when Diana chooses not to kill Maru after realizing that she must be reacting to some trauma of her own).

The action sequences are a lot of fun to watch, but they rely heavily on the old Snyderian trick of shifting into slow motion to emphasize the moment just before an impact (it was cool when 300 did it, but you’d think we could get some variation in this visual language more than ten years on).  There’s also a weird sort of uncanny valley thing going on with the CG where anytime they slow-mo a moment that captures a character’s face, the actor’s scanned image just doesn’t mesh with what’s happening in the moment.  Too many times you have an Amazon doing something awesome, and her face is just a serene mask as she’s about to loose a bunch of arrows at once or cut down a swath of enemy soldiers.  It’s slightly unsettling in a “why didn’t they have the actors emote, like, at all for this stuff?” way.  Thankfully, this is really only a minor complaint.  The climax’s battle between Diana and Ares is particularly standout in my mind–before Ares gets mad and does his Ultimate Final Form ™.  I like the nonparallel imagery of Diana facing off against a frumpy English dude with telekinetic powers; something gets lost when he puts on the traditional Ares armor and it turns into more of a standard slugfest (though I am thankful that David Thewlis’s face is mostly obscured during this part of the fight; his head on Ares’s body would probably be too much to bear).  These are small nitpicks though; the action sequences are eminently watchable once you get over the uncanny valley bits.

One last minor observation relates to how DC seems to be developing a pattern of implementing messianic imagery with their superheroes.  Diana’s an effective conduit for this stuff since the movie continuity establishes that she is a literal god who was born specifically to save humanity from its worst impulses, but the Christian overtones feel a little forced to me.  I recall at least two instances towards the movie’s climax where Diana strikes a cruciform pose just before she does something impressive, and given that her character arc revolves around her learning to let love overcome the impulse towards punishing imperfect humans, you can’t help but feel like things are getting a little Jesus-y (I don’t personally have a problem with Christ parallels in pop culture, but given that Zack Snyder explicitly did the same thing with Superman in Man of Steel, I can’t help but wonder if part of it is a cynical grab for those evangelical movie dollars).  I get that Superman and Wonder Woman are very typical of the messianic archetype, and this sort of trope mapping is totally unextraordinary, but it feels like they could have been a little less on the nose about it.

So that’s Wonder Woman.  Go see it in theaters if you have the money, and enjoy it for being a perfectly solid superhero film with mostly the same flaws you’d see in any other typical superhero film of the last decade.

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