So… Wonder Woman is out. I volunteered to review it. Holy Heck, How do you review a film like Wonder Woman?
I’m an old hat at reviewing superhero movies. My litmus test for a good superhero flick is its ability to express the essence of its hero and the world found in the pages of their comics. Few heroes have as many pages to draw from as Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, aka Wonder Woman. Not the first superheroine but she’s been the First Lady of comics since 1941.
Throughout the ages, she’s been everything from a mortal martial arts master to a demi-goddess and for a short spell the Goddess of Truth. The character of Wonder Woman been a symbol of feminism, pacifism, Queer womanhood and controversy.
A GREAT Wonder Woman movie would convey all that she is while also being a well-crafted film. A good Wonder Woman film would, at the very least, portray her as an antithesis of toxic masculinity as her creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, intended. A terrible Wonder Woman movie would be based on anything Frank Miller wrote with her.
It seems so simple, but it took more time to come to terms with my opinion of 2017’s Wonder Woman than I expected. A fair review’s hard to form when expectations have been building since you were a toddler. Her fans have been yearning for a Wonder Woman movie for 76 years. When you’ve been told your entire life that Wonder Woman wasn’t worth her own film despite achieving global cultural importance you want to love all 141 minutes she’s on the big screen.
That burning desire for this to be THE moment for women-centered superhero films maybe why it pained me to admit that Wonder Woman was just “aight.” I’m not trying to Bell Hooks all up in your Lemonade, but nostalgia and reverence for the cultural importance of a character don’t erase obvious flaws in its movie adaptation. After a Thursday preview showing in Real 3D, Friday standard showing and a boozy Saturday matinee I gotta put on my big girl knickers and accept the Wonder Woman adaptation we’ve been waiting for is at best, okay.
It’s a disservice to say Wonder Woman is only a serviceable movie in comparison to the rest of the DC Extended Universe. Director Patty Jenkins’ eye for movement and bold dismissal of the male gaze fashions a visually and emotionally engaging movie. The charisma of the cast outshines the clunkiness of Allan Heinberg’s script, which manages to feel overstuffed with big ideas, yet thinly plotted at the same time.
The movie is at its strongest in the first act. Opening with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving an old photograph from her BFF Batfleck and transitions to her girlhood and coming of age on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Even my jaded nerd heart was a flutter to see this paradise island realized. It was intoxicatingly joyous to see a diverse collection of women on screen just being, with wrinkles, laugh lines and pores.
Diana’s origin — and I say Diana because no one calls her Wonder Woman — ventures more than a bit from the source material. The Pantheon of Greek Gods, save for the villainous Ares, are dead. Destroyed in a battle amongst themselves over the nature of mankind. Diana believes Ares corrupted humanity beings too innocent and weak to resist him and it the duty of the Amazons to liberate them.
Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) forbids Diana from learning the ways of war as a young girl. Diana’s rebellious spirit proves unkillable, and her mother discovers she’s been training with her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), general of the Amazonian army, in secret. After Antiope persuades Hippolyta to let her daughter choose her own way it’s decided that Diana will train to be the greatest warrior the Amazons ever produced.
Shortly after, man spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes off the shore of Themyscira pursued by Germans. While Diana saves him, the Amazons unleash hades on the German soldiers. Seriously, the Amazons make the Spartans of 300 look like the Tuesday night crowd at CURVES. If the movie were just about Amazons wailing on dudes with weapons a thousand years more advanced than theirs I would give the film every star in this galaxy and the next.
Sadly, Themyscira is absent after the first act as our hard-headed heroine exiles herself to eliminate war from the World of Man. My biggest gripes with Wonder Woman becomes painfully clear in the second act. The movie adaptation of the OG Feminist Social Justice Warrior didn’t see fit to center any other women. For the rest of the film, the only women who appear are mere vestigial pastiches of the source material’s supporting cast.
Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy — featured prominently in the trailers — is given nothing to do. Which is such a waste in the comic Etta was a groundbreaking figure. Etta was a smart, loyal companion to Wonder Woman who kicked Nazi ass while being an unapologetically fat bodied woman in the Golden age. She’s been an active character for most of her existence except during the Silver and Bronze age when she barely appeared. Here Etta shows up, shops, gives the minimum required amount of sass and disappears for the rest of the film.
The only other woman with more than one line in the last 2/3 of Wonder Woman is classic Wonder Woman antagonist Dr. Poison or Dr. Maru in her cinematic debut played by Elena Anaya. Dr. Maru is intriguing but is sidelined as second fiddle to the male villain Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), a fictionalization of historical figure Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff. Since its Ludendorff and not Dr. Maru who Diana suspects as being influenced be the god of war the two women have almost no interaction.
Confoundingly, once Trevor and Diana reach London, the film introduces three more men hired to help stop Dr. Maru from making a super mustard gas. The characters exist to help Diana expand her understanding of concepts like veteran neglect and racial inequality, which are completely alien to her. While I have no issue with the trio or the actors that brought them to life, why couldn’t they have been Etta and two Holliday Girls?
Disappointingly, despite a fun over the top final boss battle and feeling emotionally connected to the characters, the third act never really earns its denouement. I could forgive the underwhelming effects but not a poorly executed big “twist.” During my first viewing, it was met with audible groans and confused grunts. With no build up in the previous two acts, the “big reveal” is less…
It left me more annoyed at the time wasted on plot lines that went nowhere for characters that could have been better utilized.
Despite its flaws, it still manages to be a more light-hearted and hopeful action romp than its predecessors. Under Jenkins’ direction, Gadot and Pine are at their most charismatic. The odd couple chemistry between the two is so warm and natural. Gadot triumphs when tasked with something more challenging than sexily grimacing while gripping the steering wheel of a very expensive car. She is able to convey Diana’s tenacious optimism and integrity alongside the innocence of her idealism. Much to my surprise, Pine’s Trevor is believable, vulnerable and compelling. I’ve only seen Pine as Kirk in the Star Trek remakes, so my expectations of him were barely scant.
Wonder Woman is hopefully the turning point for the DC Extended Universe, with a predicted big opening weekend I also hope that a sequel will allow Wonder Woman to return with a stronger script and the bravado to let the character to return to her daring Golden Age roots.
Ultimately this is a fun film, but a pretty flawed one. The male-gaze-free first act alone makes it worth checking out. You’ll be entertained for the most part save for some clunky pacing in the third act. It’s the kinda movie you’re totally pumped while watching but by the time you’re in the parking lot, the awe will be already starting to wane.
As for my litmus test for superhero films, it’s a tough call. I was able to speak briefly with comic expert and author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky and ask him if he thought Wonder Woman made the cut. His response:
Wonder Woman has been around a long time, and I think different folks have different ideas about what’s essential. I think for a lot of people she’s about women being powerful and heroic, and I think it captured that. Marston’s original championing of female community, queerness, and love didn’t really come through for me, though.