Film Review: Wonder Woman
After years of countless DC and Marvel films Wonder Woman has finally become the first female superhero to get her own movie in the current filmic incarnations of the two competing comic book universes. It's been a long wait.
I've spent a week working on this review through a lot of thinking and reading that then resulted in much writing and rewriting - to the point that I have had enough and I just want it done. The reasons for this will become clear as you read the review but the crux of this is that I didn't react to this movie the way that the majority of audiences seem to have and because it's such an important film I needed more time than usual to process my thoughts.
I'll start with what's good because there was much about this movie to enjoy and applaud although, for me, it all sits in the first half. The movie is a flashback from the present day to offer a coming-of-age story leading from Diana's childhood on Themyscira to how she came to enter "the world of men" and came into her own as Wonder Woman.
Themyscira is the home of the Amazons, a group of warrior women tasked with protecting humankind from the corrupting influence of Ares, the god of war. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Zeus - the queen tells her that she formed her from clay and Zeus breathed life into her - so she is the only child on the island. General Antiope (Robin Wright) trains Diana, who is her niece, to become a warrior, against the wishes of the queen, as she senses that the peace the Amazons are experiencing will not continue indefinitely and Diana needs to be ready to face Ares when he rises again.
The scenes set in Themyscira are beautifully realised with lush, breathtaking scenery, classical architecture, and strong colours with an extremely heightened green in the colour grading, although it is on the blue spectrum, and is therefore still a cold colour, which fits with the DC Extended Universe's insistence on being dark but which misses the opportunity to add even more warmth to the scenes.
Themyscira really is paradise with fantastic characters and a multi-ethnic society that's founded on love and peace but with a warrior element that complements it. The action sequences, featuring archery, sword and spear fighting, and horse riding are fun to watch though they're hampered by choppy, fast-paced editing. It really does a disservice to the actors and stunt people and to the preparation they went through to train with the weapons and choreograph the fight scenes, which otherwise come off as well prepared and thought out.
Watching Diana grow up surrounded by these female role models who are both physically and emotionally strong is a highlight of the movie.
Of course the real world intervenes in 1918 in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and American spy working for the British, who crashes his plane in the sea off Themyscira while being pursued by the Germans and is rescued by Diana. The Germans soon follow and World War I officially reaches the shores of the island.
After the Amazons learn of the war Diana, convinced that Ares must be behind it, chooses to travel with Steve to "the land of men", against the wishes of her mother, to stop it and save humankind by killing Ares. She's armed only with the Amazons' ceremonial sword - the "Godkiller" - and armour, as well as her idealism and faith in humans.
Once Diana reaches England the palette retains its strong greens in places where they are suitable but more blue is added, along with a greyness and, in interior scenes, orange, which offers a change from the usual teal and orange problem and adds more pops of colour, although the overall effect is still heavy, dark, and oversaturated. The greyness and added cold is intentional to contrast the warmth and peace of Themyscira with the bleakness of the war and the pollution in Europe (both literally and metaphorically) but I found it very bleak and difficult to sit through for the remainder of the movie. To me it overwhelmed Gal Gadot's portrayal of Diana in the early scenes as naive, humourous, idealistic, and very black and white, which is one of the aspects of the movie that audiences seem to have responded to so positively.
Even the first few fish-out-of-water scenes, in which she is assisted by Steve's secretary, Etta Candy (a particularly delightful Lucy Davis, who deserved more screen time), to find appropriate attire, and then is treated as a second-class citizen by the men-only Imperial War Cabinet when she and Steve deliver the notebook he has stolen from the Germans' research scientist, Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), came across as muted to me because of the dreariness of the underlying tone of the story and the visual colour grading.
I also struggled with the scenes in which Diana is being told that she is a woman and should know her place, which are played for laughs but fell flat for me. Of course, she, rightly, has none of it, but I just found myself getting angrier and angrier because the world really hasn't changed that much. In many places, now, in 2017, this is still a woman's reality. Even those of us who live in more progressive countries have all been affected by sexism in myriad ways, including being silenced, being cat called, and being sexually assaulted (case in point: last week
as I was writing the first draft of this review a tennis player
sexually assaulted a TV reporter live on television - and he doesn't think he did anything wrong). Having "but it was worse back in the day" turned into a punchline (repeatedly) just wasn't funny to me.
Diana and Steve, both intent on stopping the war but with different motivating factors, need to get to the front so Steve assembles a ragtag group clandestinely funded by one of his superiors, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), comprising a Moroccan actor turned conman and spy (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Scot sharpshooter suffering from PTSD (Ewen Bremner) and a Native American trader (Eugene Brave Rock) who's characterisation, casting, and representation has drawn praise
from the real life community he represents. Diana's intentions are to stop Ares, while Steve and the others, unconvinced that Ares exists, are out to stop the scientist, who is developing a deadlier form of mustard gas, and her superior, General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) in the hopes that that will stop the war and save countless lives.
Unfortunately the villains are stereotypes and cardboard cutouts - power-hungry German military officer and unhinged scientist. They are lazily written, with no depth, and although "Dr Poison", as Doctor Maru is also known, is a character from the comics here she is given a facial disfigurement that negatively, and unnecessarily, feeds into the "disfigured/ugly evil woman" trope.
At this point I was already having reservations about the movie but it was too soon to tell and I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, especially coming off the fantastic Themyscira scenes. I thought perhaps that it was just a dip in the tone of the storytelling before the action starts, although I was also starting to feel a bit wary as it seemed to me that that movie was trying to foist a parallel narrative of Steve The Hero upon us (and kept doing so throughout the rest of the movie), with the implication that Diana being a stand-alone hero isn't enough. (Others have interpreted this as equality among the characters, which is countered by arguments such as the back seat role similar characters such as Jane Foster or Lois Lane play in other movies.)
I now have to jump into spoilers (scene spoilers, not plot spoilers) to discuss the most important scene in the movie - the no man's land trench scene - because although my ambivalence towards the film had been building it solidified very much on the following moment in the movie, which seems to be the one that resonated most strongly with audiences.
Diana and the ragtag group make it to the front in Belgium, where the trench-warfare standoff is taking place, with a no man's land in the middle that no one is able to cross. All through this time the story has consistently tried to push two views: one is Diana's, that the war is being caused by Ares; find and destroy Ares and you stop the war because people are behaving badly due to his influence. The other is Steve's, that humans have caused the war and aren't as innocent and lovely as Diana seems to believe; humanity really is capable of terrible deeds. The movie wants it both ways, which weakens the storytelling for the audience. Do you believe Diana, because obviously she must be right because this is a superhero movie, or do you believe Steve, because life experience tells us that humanity really is quite dark and awful? This is muddied further due to dramatic irony - World War I was considered "the war to end all wars", a fact that the movie constantly reminds us of, but we know that World War II is still to come, as are hundreds of other 20th- and 21st-century conflicts, genocides, and terrorism incidents.
A village is besieged on the enemy's side of the front but the allies can't reach it due to the trench impasse. Diana feels it is her duty to save the innocent villagers and that means crossing the no man's land, which no one else is prepared to attempt. The result is one of the movie's best shot action sequences and the moment in which see Wonder Woman finally come into her own as she climbs out of the trench, revealing her full costume for the first time, and pushes forward across the zone using her bracelets to deflect bullets and her shield to create a protective barrier. As she draws all the machine gun fire the ragtag group, realising what's she's achieved, is able to cross, followed by the allies in the trenches. When they get to the other side they are able to kill the Germans and travel onwards to try and save the village.
That's the experience people have when watching this scene and why they have such an emotional reaction to it - specifically the part where Diana becomes Wonder Woman within herself, potentially sacrifices herself to save innocent lives and in the process realises her internal power and physical potential - but my interpretation was different while sitting in the theatre and it mitigated my experience for the rest of the movie. The World War I trench warfare was harrowing, lasted for years, and resulted in the deaths of thousands of men who basically lived in the trenches and then became war fodder. Inserting a superhero into that seems distasteful (in much the same way as Magneto destroying Auschwitz did in X-Men: Apocalypse
In 1914, which, admittedly, was four years before this movie is set but then the Germans all behave like World War II Germans so a little dramatic licence is possible, a most amazing event occurred that was replicated, with less success, in the next few years. That event was the Christmas truce
, in which, at multiple places along the front line, the soldiers from the opposing sides stopped fighting and met in the no man's land to exchange small gifts and, in at least one documented instance, play soccer. The war stopped in little pockets where this occurred while people on both sides, who didn't want to be there in the first place, set aside the conflict for a brief period of sanity and peace, though over the years their superiors increasingly prevented this from recurring each Christmas.
In the movie they are literally in Belgium in winter at the front line where the trench warfare stalemate is occurring. Instead of Diana's presence, and seeming immortality, causing the enemy fire to stop as she pushes slowly forward and they realise they can't beat her, resulting in a localised truce developing, which would have been a lovely way to strengthen her argument that the war is being caused by Ares (one would assume her demigod status, plus the fact that she's the half sister of Ares, would have a mitigating affect on that), she not only holds off all the firepower to allow the allies to cross the no man's land but then actively kills enemy combatants when she reaches the other side.
It's not that I don't want to see her kicking ass, it's just that I can't reconcile her faith in the goodness of humanity and the movie's general preachiness about love (it becomes unbearable in the third act) with the complete lack of self reflection in her willingness to kill enemy combatants even though she maintains the only reason conflict - and by extension "the enemy" - exists is because Ares is manipulating people into war and with his death will come humanity's release from this grip and a return to peace.
I understand the intention behind this scene and it's importance to both the storytelling arc of the movie as well to people watching the film who feel they're finally being represented well and, as a piece of visual filmmaking I really did love it - it's a beautifully shot and executed action sequence - but as a storytelling vehicle it broke three things for me and I couldn't come back from that. First, the disrespect that I feel inserting a superhero shows to the victims and survivors of the trench warfare; second, if you must do it, the wasted opportunity to turn an amazing moment that did
occur in real life into a respectful fictionalised version using a superhero whose moral compass so suits the circumstances; and third, Diana's choice to kill people when she reaches the other side of the trench, even though they are the enemy, when her entire argument is that humanity is being influenced by Ares.
Because of the way this crucial scene played out the movie lost me and the rest of it washed over me, especially since the third act is awful - bar a moment when the truth about humans hits Diana - and is filled with the usual superhero fight junk. Instead all I started seeing were the dalliances with tropes, including "fridging" and "born sexy yesterday", and the attempts to subvert them, which I don't think were as successful as the film-makers think. I feel that I actually need to watch it again to catch more of the potential trope nuances but I can't bring myself to because I was so bored.
I became bored because it started to feel like almost every other superhero movie and the story stopped being interesting. For me it doesn't come back after the trench scene and while there are occasional moments of delight centred around Gal Gadot's portrayal of Diana as being essentially a beacon of light and happiness, just with a grave mission, and a few more action scenes that are lovely to watch (Diana gets to use her lasso in combat, for example), overall I just found the rest to be dreary.
Let me be clear here. I'm not faulting the direction, the acting, the production design, the costume design, or the cinematography (bar the post-production colour grading that is too cold and unnecessarily oversaturated), it's the story that is rubbish. At the core it's the same nonsense, with the same beats, that's played out over and over again in so many superhero movies. This one just gets increasingly laboured and preachy as it goes on, with a final battle that's particularly painful to have to sit through.
On the plus side the violence, though well staged (well, the rest of it), is very PG, with very little blood, so girls - and hopefully boys too - are going to be able to watch this and they will be inspired, which is very important. That generation will finally have its hero. Diana is fitting for this purpose - the movie has built an interesting character with an internal lightness who is a positive role model - and in this way Wonder Woman fulfils an important cultural role... but I'm older and I want an engaging story to go with my hero. I didn't find that here, although I'm glad for the people who have had a positive experience and found something emotionally compelling within the movie. Unfortunately watching the Themyscira parts on repeat won't be enough to mitigate the wasted opportunities and boring storytelling that, for me, comprise the rest of the movie.
Wonder Woman was written by Allan Heinberg (screenplay) and Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs (story), was directed by Patty Jenkins, and stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, and Elena Anaya.
The press screening was courtesy of Times Media Films.
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These videos do not contain spoilers. (In fact, all the Wonder Woman
trailers and TV spots are reasonably safe to watch.)
[ YouTube link
[ YouTube link