From the Superhero Universe of Brute Ego, Wonder Woman Arises, Unsullied
Seventy-five years ago Wonder Woman arose to show what a stagnating comic book medium could achieve; now she does it again, and in so doing, rescues the DC franchise from itself.
Wonder WomanDirector: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright
Studio: DC Entertainment
US Release date: 2017-06-02
Yes, I’m being snarky, but don’t let that obscure the important takeaway here: Wonder Woman is important. And I loved watching every second of it.
Loved it. With an asterisk.
Because in order to discuss what is deservedly praiseworthy about this film, you, unfortunately, have to acknowledge the pedestrian material that surrounds it. So to get this out of the way:
This is a film with a fairly workmanlike screenplay. At times characters blurt exposition at one another and the plotting is stiff. There appear to be character arcs and side narratives that, to me, were clearly either lost in editing, or left half devised during the drafting process. There are moments of levity amongst the characters, but you would be forgiven for thinking that these brief flashes were whipped together on the day of shooting rather than a tonal feature of the script. The bad guys are so disposable you often forget about them while they are still on screen.
Some of the action continues to bears the fingerprints of Zack Snyder’s obsession with empty, slow-motion plasticity. You can still hear echoes of the original studio pitch meeting that decreed this film should be a mash-up of Thor and Captain America (an observation I have seen others critics make). Indeed, it can be argued that the story this film seeks to tell was already presented, more successfully, in last year’s Moana.
The whole production is abuzz with reasons to sink away and be forgotten. Except for her.
Wonder Woman -- both Gal Gadot inhabiting her, and Patty Jenkins behind the camera -- proves just how shameful it is that it has taken this long to put this extraordinary hero on film. Because, as Wonder Woman shows, a great hero, portrayed with respect, rises above whatever dreck they might find themselves in.
Jenkins may have been hamstrung by a weak script, she may have been fending off interference by studio executives (I’ve not heard anything specific, but since Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, it certainly sounds like the DC films are lousy with intrusive meddling), and she may have had her aesthetic choices hampered by the established Syder-universe style of sepia funk, but she clearly respects her character, and recognises the significance of presenting her as an inspirational figure for generations of viewers to come.
This ability for a hero to rise above their narrative is nothing new. After all, it’s not just that Batman v Superman is awful; it’s that the Superman it presented was a psychotic emo twit and its Batman was a bro-sociopath Frank Miller wet dream. In contrast, the Richard Donner Superman film is ridiculous, straight up lame at points (why is Lois rhyme-singing?! Why the hell does turning the Earth the other way reverse time?!), but it treats Clark and Kal-El with deference, and allows Christopher Reeve to do that magic trick he perfected of playing both sides of the character with commitment. The Dark Knight Rises is likewise pretty silly, but it gets Batman’s self-sacrifice and struggle to defy the temptation of his own darkness right.
So when Jenkins show Diana as a child, a smile of ambition and defiance breaking on her lips, it lights up the screen -- even if the idyllic society in which she is both beloved and feared is so thinly sketched. When Wonder Woman rises out of the muck of war to cross No Man’s Land (a land where no man can go, as the script not-so-subtly insists), the moment her determined gaze and burnished armour rise above the trenches, the film too transcends its limitations -- even if the CGI matting washes everything out and the spatial relations of the characters are not always tracked.
Rather than treating her character as some myth to ‘deconstruct’ and debase (although in truth nothing in the DC movie universe so far actually constitutes an actual deconstruction of these characters, more a cynical revision), Jenkins valued what Diana, Princess of Themyscira represented enough to unapologetically embrace it.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Love. Hope. Compassion.
In the Snyder universe, these notions have so far been belittled and mocked as outdated. Its two most prominent ‘heroes’ have instead been motivated by self-interest and lost in their own narcissistic funks; Superman mopes around like Krypto the Dog just died and only seems to spring into action when either Lois or his mother are in danger; Batman has become a brutal fascist, literally trying to force the world to fit his view; and even when the two of them decide to stop posturing and work together, it’s because their mothers have the same name. Screw altruism, or idealism, or service to humankind; the greatest superpower in the universe is apparently ego.
But out of this affected, self-indulgence, Wonder Woman arises, unsullied. Embracing the incommunicable charisma of Gal Gadot’s performance -- a magnetism that stole and solely justified last year’s asinine funeral dirge Batman v Superman -- Jenkins allows the character’s radiance to operate as it should, like a sun around which everyone else orbits; from which everyone else draws light.
The result spills out into every other aspect of the film, elevating even the DC universe’s most generic tropes. Here Diana’s supporting characters aren’t merely plot devices to be imperilled and spout emphatic one-liners for the trailer; we see them inspired by their time with Diana, and they are allowed moments of quietude in which to exhibit personality that can, in turn, help shape Diana’s world view.
Similarly, the slow motion CGI fights no longer overwhelm. Jenkins uses them more sparingly, with a less lascivious gaze than in the previous DC films. It's actually possible to follow the action, rather than descending into over-edited, incomprehensible mush. And even that awful oversaturated brown aesthetic Snyder favours is more pointedly utilised here. Jenkins employs it in the bulk of the second act, when Diana is traversing the murk of London and the front line of the war; both environments choked by male oppression. But this second act is preceded by the verdant paradise of Themyscira, and is later burned away by the reveal of Diana’s vibrant costume, which becomes something of a beacon shining through the gloom.
Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is: it shouldn’t have been this damned hard, DC. You finally made a movie that’s pretty good, with all the same ingredients as before, except that this time the hero was not afraid to stand for something, rather than dissolving into a puddle of half-baked pubescent nihilism.
But in hindsight, of course it would be Wonder Woman that showed the way. After all, Wonder Woman was created to answer a lack. In the fiction of her origin, she was fashioned from clay by a mother who longed for a child. In reality, she was designed as a response to a comics industry that was devoid of strong female characters.
Comic books in the late '30s were still a relatively new entertainment, and found themselves accused of being sensationalist, masculine garbage, filled only with violence and vice that must surely be corrupting its readers. Much of the criticism was hysterical, but it reflected a real absence, both of inspirational heroines, and of role models who solved the world’s problems with more than flamboyant kicks to the face.
William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist, saw the potential for comics to do more, to offer more. With the help of his wife Elizabeth, Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 to prove this potential true. She was strong, capable, intelligent and loving. As powerful as Superman, but seemingly more aware of the further role she could play as a symbol for change, she sought to better the lives of those around her, encouraging humankind to aspire for more. To fight for equality and truth (truth even literalised in her lasso), and to treat each other with compassion in the face of fear and division. (There were also some more themes of bondage and Sapphic love in the subtext, but that's for a more comprehensive discussion of Marston’s philosophy.)
And so, Wonder Woman stood up, and remade the comic medium. Not by breaking and reinventing the form, but by showing how that form could be better employed. And happily, history has repeated.
So far, the DC films have created a garbage pile of machismo, garbled pseudo-philosophy, and wilful stupidity. DC has (rightly) maligned for being so busy dithering about in its Juggalo redesigns and empty pretentiousness to offer even the most basic of heroic iconography. And once again, Wonder Woman stood up. She climbed out of the stagnating trench of the DC universe, sloughed off the baggage of the perpetual sequel / prequel franchise to which she is still beholden, and shone brighter than all the turgid, inward looking-posers around her.
Wonder Woman may not be the kind of film that reinvents the medium in terms of its script or its themes -- this is no The Dark Knight or Captain America: Winter Soldier -- but Wonder Woman the character, as presented here, is the kind of hero who has now remade our expectation of all future blockbuster films to come. Shamefully, for all of the success of the Marvel movie empire, the studio still has yet to place a female hero at the centre of a film (it's straight up insulting that at this point Black Widow has been the most dynamic thing in several of its films and yet never been the star). Despite pumping out several films in its entangled universe, DC has yet to actually present a hero. But Wonder Woman -- both the character and the film -- proves how pitifully reductive this thinking has been.
Robin Wright as Antiope
With this foundation now in place, there's finally a chance that things might truly change: that the cowardly, whining idiots on the internet who are fearful of women having superhero entertainment will be drowned out by the film’s success (please, please, please let this be true); that studios will finally shake up their tired formulas of using women as mere props and damsels. Perhaps, with a luminous presence like Gal Gadot inhabiting her, Patty Jenkins keen to do a sequel, Joss Whedon’s take on Batgirl in pre-production, and a deep bench of underutilised female characters waiting to get their moment to shine (where’s my Supergirl at?!), DC might actually be able to get out of its own way and remember that it has the opportunity to create diverse, dynamic entertainment that actually speaks, albeit in grand spectacle, to human truths.
It would be a fitting addition to the history a trailblazing cultural icon. Because despite appearances, Wonder Woman was always standing there. It just took until now for some to notice.